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Federally Backed Mine Accused of Human Rights Abuses

Mine watchdog says Brazilian citizens were forced from their land by a Toronto company supported by Ottawa.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 12 Dec 2017 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee’s reader-funded Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

A Canadian mine industry watchdog is calling on the Brazilian government to suspend the activities of an Ottawa-backed mine in Brazil until it rectifies alleged human rights abuses. The organization also wants Ottawa to suspend financial dealings with the company.

Above Ground is a Canadian NGO monitoring overseas activities of Canadian companies with federal government backing. The organization teamed up with Justica, a Brazil-based human rights watchdog, to author the report Swept Aside, focusing on the alleged abuses in Brazil.

Released Monday, the report said a subsidiary of Kinross Gold, headquartered in Toronto, has forced nearby residents at the Morro do Ouro mine near Paracuta off their land. Kinross owns Brazil-based Kinross Brasil Mineração, which operates the mine.

“The story of Morro do Ouro provides a compelling illustration of the governance gap that often surrounds the overseas operations of Canadian multinational companies,” reads the report. “It follows a pattern widely seen throughout the world, in which host-state governments fail to protect people’s rights in the context of large-scale resource development projects.”

Kinross has benefited from $850 million in federal government financing from Export Development Canada and a further $42 million in equity is held by the Canada Pension Plan, down from $60 million earlier this year.

The organizations conducted interviews, sifted through court documents and did other research from 2011 to 2017 to compile the report and say it showcases common issues with Canadian firms abroad.

The gold mine, the largest in Brazil, opened in the late 1980s, and Kinross Gold first acquired an interest in it in 2003. It has expanded since then.

Among the allegations in the 57-page report, the expansion has come at a cost to residents in the area who are part of the Quilombola community, decedents of slaves freed more than 100 years ago.

The paper alleges they have been displaced to accommodate the mine's expansion and suffered adverse health effects due to environmental degradation and the proximity of the mine to their homes.

Machadinho, one of the communities the report says has been affected, has lost 40 per cent of its land to a new tailings facility made for the mine.

The report cites the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária, a government authority in Brazil, accusing Kinross Gold of using intimidation tactics to push the communities off the land. It said negotiations for the land did not involve the transfer of legal title, just the abandonment of the land.

Karyn Keenan, the director of Above Ground, said Ottawa's backing of such projects through Export Development Canada is troubling because allegations of rights abuses are often publicly known.

“We see companies being financed for whom there is a great deal of information in the public domain... credible allegations of human rights abuse, environmental damage and those companies get financed,” Keenan said.

The company insists it acquired the land legally. In a statement to The Tyee, Kinross rejected the allegations and called the report “out of date,” arguing it uses selective information.

“Kinross strongly denies the allegations of human rights abuses related to its Morro do Ouro operation in Brazil, as described in a report published today,” said the company spokesman Louie Diaz in an email. He added the company makes a “positive” contribution to the area.

Windsor-Tecumseh NDP MP Cheryl Hardcastle, the vice chair of the Parliamentary Subcommittee on International Human Rights, said policies for Canadian companies via the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor meant to address human rights abroad have “no teeth.”

“The framework doesn't have any legally binding regulations right now,” she said.

The framework is meant to promote more responsible corporate behaviour rather than actually impose legally binding regulations, she said.

Ottawa is expected to introduce an ombudsperson to investigate claims of human rights abuses by Canadian firms abroad, but Hardcastle cautions any efforts need to have the backing of Canadian law.

“We have to make sure it's not just smoke and mirrors,” Hardcastle said, adding, “There is room for optimism.”

Above Ground also recommends Canada strengthen legislation governing overseas operations by Canadian firms. Suggestions include creating a mechanism to investigate the activities of Canadian companies abroad and develop a way for those affected by such actions to seek legal justice.

Keenan said the organization wants the Liberals to make good on an election promise to create an ombudsperson to monitor the industry and has spoken with the government about it.

“We've been encouraging them to fulfill that promise ever since they formed government,” Keenan said. “In those conversations, it's our understanding they're going to do it.”

But the organization wants the government itself to act responsibly.

“Canada also lacks measures to ensure that government agencies that support Canadian companies operate in a manner consistent with the state duty to protect human rights,” reads the report. It chides Export Development Canada for having no such mandate.

Above Ground suggests Canada suspend any further financial involvement with Kinross Gold.  [Tyee]

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