To mark World Environment Day – 5 June – the Columbans are highlighting a new report on the mining industry that shows how it has taken advantage of the pandemic to boost profits. Columbans work in countries impacted by extractive industries and see first-hand the human and environmental abuses associated with mining. Columbans also work in countries – such as England – where mining corporations are headquartered and trade agreements are negotiated. Columbans are members of the London Mining Network which helped produce this report.
Since March, the mining industry has been declared ‘essential’ in many countries worldwide, enabling it to operate amid government lockdowns with devastating results, according to a new report. The analysis draws from field reports and a review of nearly 500 media, company and civil society statements, 180 of which are directly related to community and/or workers’ concerns.
As a result of the industry’s behaviour in the midst of the pandemic, mining sites worldwide are emerging as hot spots of coronavirus infection, putting workers and nearby indigenous and rural communities, many of whom already suffer mining-related health impacts, at grave risk. Nearly 4,000 mineworkers in 18 countries have reported outbreaks at their mines, leading to fear that the virus will spread among local populations with pre-existing mine-related illnesses that make them particularly vulnerable.
Massive outbreaks at the Cobre Panama (Panama), Olimpiada (Russia), Lac des Iles (Canada) and Antamina (Peru) mines were not tackled as hundreds of workers tested positive. Nonetheless, the report reveals, companies continued to operate. Lack of testing in many places and limited oversight mean actual numbers could be far higher, the report says.
Under lockdown, land and water protectors are at heightened risk. Reports from the field suggest companies and governments are using the pandemic to stifle or repress long-standing community protests, such as in the Philippines, Honduras, Turkey, and Ecuador. Individual defenders also are being threatened and killed with greater intensity in countries such as Colombia and Mexico. In some cases, new legislation is being implemented that could further criminalise social protest or enable greater repression.
In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s government is using the pandemic to continue his attack on human rights and land defenders. In April, demonstrators at peaceful encampments protesting Oceana Gold’s Didipio mine were violently evicted by police forces. Civil-society organisations there have also condemned the assassination of anti-mining activists and intimidation of others. “Even under the COVID-19 pandemic, extrajudicial killings and other forms of human rights violations persist under the despotic rule of President Rodrigo Duterte,” reports the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment.
In Honduras, the administration of Juan Orlando Hernández has imposed a 24-hour curfew and suspended basic rights, including freedom of expression and assembly, using the military and police to enforce measures. Meanwhile, authorities opened an online window to make it even easier for companies to obtain environmental permits, all of which happens in secret. Pedro Landa of the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team, Honduras, reports: “This is just like 1998, when the mining law was passed in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, one of the biggest disasters to hit Honduras that took the lives of 20,000 people and left three million others homeless, with an economic impact that set us back 40 years. Today, in the midst of a global humanitarian emergency due to COVID-19, the illegitimate government of Juan Orlando Hernández is taking advantage of the crisis to put in place corrupt measures to favour mining”.
Elsewhere, companies are also securing regulatory changes to benefit them now and in the future, according to the analysis. In Brazil, a video released by the country’s Supreme Court revealed the Environment Minister stating that the pandemic is an “opportunity to deregulate environmental policy.” In the last two months, the Bolsonaro government has fired top environmental enforcement officers for controlling illegal mining in the Amazon, while giving out hundreds of concessions’ rights and moving to approve legislation to further open up indigenous territories to mining activities.
Nara Baré, coordinator of the Indigenous Organisations from the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) reports: “Since Jair Bolsonaro took office, our indigenous lands are increasingly affected by predatory economic activities that threaten the integrity of our ancestral territories and the natural resources essential for our survival. With the COVID-19 crisis, the illegal activities of miners, loggers, drug traffickers, and other invaders, pose an even greater threat, because they can bring the virus to our territories and communities. For this reason, we demand that any economic activity in our territories be stopped immediately, to guarantee the protection of our children, women, men, youth, wise elders, and relatives in voluntary isolation”.
Overall, the stories captured in this report reveal that mining-affected people face multiple pandemics – health, economic, violence, militarisation, and corporate capture. They are all getting worse as the Covid-19 pandemic intersects with the predatory mining industry which they continue to battle to defend their land, water, health and livelihoods.
Kirsten Francescone of MiningWatch Canada, the lead producer of the report, says:
“Envisioning a way forward that will ensure good food, clean air and water, healthy communities and planetary survival cannot rely on mining corporations and their backers, who are driven by their ruthless pursuit of profits. However, the health-centred struggles and collective approaches of mining-affected communities and Indigenous peoples can help us to refocus on what is truly essential toward a healthier future for all”.The report, “Voices From the Ground: How the Global Mining Industry is Profiting from the COVID-19 Pandemic”, is available here.