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How Canada’s growing presence in Latin America is hurting the environment

  • Canada is up for a periodic U.N. review of its environmental and human rights record in Latin America, and activist groups want to make sure the country is held accountable for lacking regulations and oversight.
  • The country is a leader in mining and oil investment in the region but doesn’t do enough to protect against deforestation, pollution and human rights violations against local communities, according to a series of reports published by activist organizations.
  • The organizations said Canada should implement new regulations to protect environmental defenders and sign onto ILO Convention 169.

MEXICO CITY — Canada has become a major force in Latin America. It’s spent the last 30 years beefing up its portfolio with investments in mining, oil and natural gas. It’s established free trade agreements and foreign investment protections with dozens of countries, and is in the process of negotiating more. As a result, the region has seen increased economic growth. But there are unwanted side effects, too. Weak regulations and a lack of proper oversight of Canadian projects often lead to deforestation, pollution and human rights violations, most notably in and around protected areas and Indigenous communities.

Advocacy groups have had a lot to say about it this year. Canada is up for a periodic U.N. review of its environmental and human rights record in Latin America, and they want to make sure the country holds their companies accountable. Ahead of the review, which will take place in November, over fifty civil society organizations submitted a series of reports to the U.N. highlighting dozens of instances of corporate abuse in the region.

“Despite Canada’s ‘climate forward’ public image, it acts as a safe haven for extractive industries and companies operating in Latin America, including regions of climatic significance,” Amazon Watch, one of the groups that published the reports, said in a statement.

Other groups sponsoring the reports include Oxfam, Society for Threatened Peoples, Earthworks, MiningWatch Canada and the London Mining Network, among others from across Latin America.

Much of their concern lies in local people’s ability to speak out against mining and oil projects causing environmental damage. One instance is Maranhão, Brazil, where people were fined for protesting water shortages after a dam broke at a mine run by Equinox Gold, a company with corporate headquarters in Vancouver. Another saw drinking water in Puebla, Mexico poisoned by the Ixtaca mining project run by Almaden Minerals, whose headquarters are also in Vancouver. Residents there faced threats and violence, as well.

Neither company responded to a request for comment.

More than half of all mining activity in Latin America is connected to a private Canadian entity, according to the reports. The private sector is attracted to Canada in part because of the many financial incentives it offers, among them a 15% tax credit for extractive activity conducted abroad. Companies can also seek reimbursement for expenses that go into exploring new mine sites and opportunities.

The Aurizona gold mine in Maranhão, Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Equinox Gold)

The Canadian government has a legal obligation to ensure companies meet the environmental and human rights standards set by the numerous international treaties it’s a part of. That means preventing and investigating abuses, and holding businesses accountable. In 2014, facing backlash about its lax approach to these issues, the country updated its “corporate responsibility strategy.” But critics say it’s hard to track the impact.

“Canadian companies currently or potentially violate human rights, disrespect the rule of law, and threaten the environment in the region with the world’s highest biodiversity, which is critical for humanity’s ability to contain the climate crisis,” one of the reports said.

Oil and natural gas projects have been a problem, as well. In Peru, an oil concession known as oil block 192 caused over 105 spills between 2015 and 2021. Energy del Perú, a subsidiary of Frontera Energy, which has corporate headquarters in Calgary, allegedly failed to address the impact of the spills on the surrounding forest ecosystem. Another operation in Putumayo, Colombia run by Gran Tierra Energy, also with headquarters in Calgary, oversaw construction of oil extraction infrastructure on wetlands that the Indigenous Inga people rely on for traditional medicines.

Frontera Energy Perú told Mongabay it’s committed to conducting business safely and in a socially, environmentally and ethically responsible manner. Gran Tierra Energy didn’t respond to a request for comment.

No where are these issues more prominent than the Amazon rainforest. One of the reports submitted to the U.N. counted 11 extractive projects in the biome — seven mining and four oil — that lacked prior consultation for local communities, threatened peoples’ rights to a healthy environment and suppressed local activists speaking out about environmental harms. “Canadian companies’ modus operandi in the Amazon is linked to and encouraged by the Canadian state’s lack of proper regulation, oversight and accountability,” it said.

The organizations sponsoring the reports recommended that Canada implement new regulations to protect environmental defenders. It wants Canada to sign onto ILO Convention 169, which requires companies to carry out a prior consultation process in which local and Indigenous communities have a say in the development of new projects impacting their lives and the environment.

It also wants Canadian companies to demonstrate that their gold was sourced legally. Financial institutions should also cut ties with companies involved in extraction and fossil fuels.

“Canada still consistently fails to protect and respect human rights and the environment. Instead of regulating its companies’ operations abroad, Canada argues that it promotes responsible business conduct.”

Banner image: The Los Filos gold mine in Guerrero, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Equinox Gold)

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