Mining is an extremely high stakes game for public policy, finance markets and most importantly communities and ecosystems. While the industry emphasises its ability to generate wealth and its engineering prowess, its accountability for the massive accumulation of risks, costs and liabilities has not been addressed. The industry's domination of the public policy arena has prevented a serious challenge to the unsustainable status quo.
The very real legacy of mining includes an estimated twenty-seven thousand abandoned mines across Canada, billions of dollars of remediation liability for acid mine drainage contamination, extensive disruption of critical habitat areas, profound social impacts in many mining communities, and the boom and bust upheaval of local economies. The cost of Canadian mining operations in other parts of the world has been no less dramatic.
Over the last several years regional and national environmental, community and aboriginal organisations have been engaged in localised mining conflicts and campaigns arising from the detrimental impacts of mineral development. Despite some notable challenges and victories, these disparate efforts have clearly not been enough to make real progress in addressing the ecological, economic and social impacts of the modern mining industry or to significantly change the inadequate regulatory regime for mining in Canada.
Despite considerable corporate and government PR, the sustainability promises of 'multistakeholder' agreements such as the Whitehorse Mining Initiative have not materialised for the public interest. The results across the country are industry-dominated policy regimes, dwindling regulatory enforcement, ongoing ecological impacts, and continued political pressure for communities to expose themselves to these risks without adequate information, safeguards or compensation.
Communities, particularly in remote areas such as the northern regions of Canada, are often faced with the dilemma of weighing promises and short-term benefits against the potential for long-term, high-cost impacts. Without adequate support for local communities, this dilemma plays to the advantage of the transient interests of the mining industry, not to community sustainability.
Within Canada there are many high profile examples of long term ecological, economic and social deficits left by mining for communities:
Innu and Inuit lands overrun by the mineral staking rush in Labrador;
the loss of critical salmon habitat and fisheries to acid mine drainage in British Columbia;
the deep social and political divisions created in communities faced by the uncertain costs and benefits of mining riches;
the negative cumulative effect of the NWT diamond boom on caribou habitat and long term water quality;
the industry's interference with sustainable land use planning and protected areas establishment in the Yukon and NWT;
the clean-up costs of thousands of toxic abandoned and bankrupt mines like the Faro Mine in Yukon, or Kamkotia in northern Ontario
plans for a massive coal mine project in prime habitat areas immediately adjacent to Jasper National Park;
environmental de-regulation federally and provincially led by mining industry associations.
Nowhere are the problems more clearly illustrated than in the failure of the environmental assessment processes across Canada adequately to assess the risks and manage the impacts from mining. Recent high profile cases of flawed processes and projects include the BHP diamond project and the Diavik Comprehensive study in the NWT, the South Kemess and Tulsequah Chief mines in BC, the massive expansion of uranium mining in Saskatchewan, and the Cheviot mine in Alberta. The promise of environmental responsibility has not been met.
During this time, the political voice of the industry and its proponents within Canada has grown. Well-funded and multi-faceted industry public relations campaigns range from elementary school programs (eg. Rock On Yukon) to a national parliamentary lobby effort that is virtually unrivalled in its intensity and persistence.
At the same time, the global reach of Canadian capital in the mining sector has meant that communities in many parts of the globe are becoming familiar with Canadian companies, often supported by Canadian diplomats, politicians, and government funds. Local organisations are asking what can be done to monitor and control the actions – and influence – of these corporations.
Exploiting leverage around global investment competition, the mining industry has successfully campaigned for significant reductions and restrictions in regulatory and taxation requirements in Canada and abroad. The structural changes and political leverage generated by industry through these campaigns are recognised by many environmental, Aboriginal and labour organisations as being contrary to community and worker demands for essential cultural, environmental and human health safeguards. The result is reduced corporate accountability and liability, and an ever-diminishing range of opportunities for real public participation in decision-making processes.
The ability of most communities and organisations to respond effectively to mining pressures and threats has been limited. The difficult technical aspects of mine design and operations, the lack of independent expertise combined with the massive political pressure associated with the multi-million dollar promises that accompany mine developments create overwhelming demands on conservation groups and aboriginal and local governments. Interventions and negotiations are costly and often divisive, with limited likelihood of satisfaction for local interests.
In response to these daunting political forces NGOs and Aboriginal organisations from a broad range of sectors and regions have worked towards the establishment of a national organisation to work solely on mining reform with a mandate to establish an aggressive public presence with public and private sector decision-makers in Ottawa and beyond. Strategically targeted research, education and advocacy are needed to affect both the practices of mining companies and the public policy to offer safeguards for individuals, communities and ecosystems.
MiningWatch draws upon the lessons learned at the local level in order to move beyond just fighting fires community-by-community or mine-by-mine. We make possible a systematic challenge based on better knowledge of decision-makers and informed analysis of options for mineral policy reform. MiningWatch seeks ways to create and nurture strategic alliances between groups seeking to promote sustainable mineral policies.