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Practise what you Preach

Maritime groups' efforts key to United Church pension divestment from Goldcorp

by Jackie McVicar

Goldcorp's Marlin Mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Guatemala. [Photo: Jackie McVicar]
Goldcorp's Marlin Mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, Guatemala. [Photo: Jackie McVicar]
Kathryn Anderson and Wilf Bean, members of Mining the Connections, at an information table at the General Council in Corner Brook, NL. [Photo: Ann Russell]
Kathryn Anderson and Wilf Bean, members of Mining the Connections, at an information table at the General Council in Corner Brook, NL. [Photo: Ann Russell]

Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia -- Sitting in her living room overlooking Tatamagouche Bay, Kathryn Anderson recalls a recent United Church of Canada (UCC) decision to divestment from Goldcorp. “In August in Corner Brook Newfoundland the General Council met with about 360 voting representatives of the United Church from across Canada,” says Anderson.

Seventy eight per cent voted in favour of a motion that indicates that it is the will of the church to divest from Goldcorp Inc.

One of the world’s largest gold mining companies, Canadian-based Goldcorp has been plagued with allegations of human rights abuses since it started operating the Marlin mine in Guatemala. Anderson has been part of a working group of the Maritimes Conference of the United Church of Canada called 'Mining the Connections', that has been working for six years to get the UCC to publically divest from one of the world’s largest extractive companies.

Flashback: Questions About Canadian Mining & Investment Emerge

In March 2004, members of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Solidarity Network embarked on a two week educational delegation in Guatemala. Anderson, a founding member of the network, helped lead the delegation much like she had for over a decade. In a chance meeting, a well known Guatemalan environmental activist and political cartoonist told the group about Marlin, a gold mine that was being built in the northern highland region of the country. Though Anderson had spent a significant amount of time in Guatemala accompanying communities who were impacted by the bloody internal armed conflict of the 1980s and 1990s, she had no idea that the latest threat for indigenous populations was gold mining.

Returning to Canada, the group - made up of university professors, students, a teacher and stay-at-home mom amongst others - started investigating Glamis Gold, the company that was building the Marlin mine. Marlin was in part funded by the IFC/World Bank. Its open pit and tailings pond would sit between 19 indigenous Maya communities in the municipalities of San Miguel Ixtahuacan and Sipacapa, in the department of San Marcos.

Marlin was Guatemala's first mega mine and when the land for the mine was bought up in the late 1990s - a controversial process since the land is actually registered as communal in the municipal office - most residents had no idea what kind of questions to ask or even what a mine was. On top of that, local communities were lied to and told that the land was going to be used for an orchid nursery. There seemed little reason to oppose.

That started to change around 2004, just when the Maritimes delegation was in Guatemala. The tailings pond was built and the mine installations were being set up. Community resistance grew and Sipakapa, one the municipalities directly affected, started organizing a community consultation, or plebiscite, to educate locals about the possible impacts of the mine.

Though Guatemala had signed and ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and later supported the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which includes the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), compliance was difficult to enforce and the push for foreign investment was on. 36 years of violence and hundreds of thousands of extrajudicial murders and disappearances had become bad for business in Guatemala. The economic elite and event its military allies pushed hard for the negotiations and signed the 1996 Peace Accords, an opportunity to make Guatemala open for business. The Marlin project was a significant part of the international investment that started flooding into the country.

Back in the Maritimes, Andersson who is also a member of the United Church and others who had traveled to Guatemala through Breaking the Silence, got together to form Mining the Connections. A working group of the Maritimes Conference of the United Church of Canada Church in Action Committee, they started educating members of the church and the general public about mining in Colombia, where New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Power purchase coal, and Guatemala. They organized a two-day forum on ethics and investment, where over 80 participants from “churches, unions, Aboriginal groups, environmental groups, local mining-affected community groups, students, and Amnesty International members focused on local and global issues.”

In 2006, Goldcorp Inc. acquired Glamis Gold for $8.5 billion and opposition to the Marlin mine continued to grow. There were local complaints about water contamination and health impacts, houses being cracked by the dynamite the mine used and social conflict that was driving an otherwise united community apart. Shareholders started to take note and in 2008, at the request of some of the more socially inclined Goldcorp Investors, the company agreed to an independent Human Rights Impact Assessment. Groups like Breaking the Silence started working on shareholder activism at corporate AGMs to draft resolutions to make the company more accountable for its actions. Anderson personally became a Goldcorp shareholder in order to have a voice at these meetings, and Guatemalan partners were brought to Toronto and Vancouver to speak.

A 2008 Goldcorp shareholder resolution submitted to the Annual Meeting of Goldcorp asked the company to “halt any plans to expand the mine and/or acquire new land without the free, prior, and informed consent of affected communities.” Goldcorp rejected the resolution, stating, “The Corporation’s view is that the proposed resolution appears clearly not to relate in a significant way to the business or affairs of the Corporation.” As a result, Jantzi (now Sustainalytics), a sustainable investment advisory company, removed Goldcorp from their list of socially responsible investments.

United Church of Canada Direct Investments in Goldcorp Inc.

Anderson started wondering about other investments, especially pension funds that she had through the United Church of Canada Pension Plan (UCCPP) as a diaconal minister. When she asked specifically about UCCPP investment in Guatemala, she was told that they followed the Jantzi recommendations. She didn’t press, knowing that Jantzi had removed Goldcorp from their list. A year later, she found out that the UCCPP was in fact investing in Goldcorp and had received special permission to do so.

Mining the Connections worked quickly when they found out about the United Church investment. They had been working to raise awareness about what was happening in Guatemala without knowing that they were directly investing in Goldcorp.

“In 2009, the United Church voted to say that it should find a legal way for the Pension Board to divest, and divest," says Anderson. "They (the Pension Board) came back and said it would be legal to divest and were not going to. We were never given much of an explanation we were just told ‘we aren’t going to’. It was as blunt as that.”

In 2010, the Organization of American State’s (OAS) Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Guatemalan State to suspend operations at Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine as a preventative measure. A couple of weeks later, the HRIA was presented and outlined some of the company’s controversial tactics of acquiring land and expanding operations in Guatemala. (Though the State did not comply with the IACHR recommendations and the precautionary measures were later changed - and subsequently not implemented - in 2014, the IACHR admitted the petition about collective and indigenous rights surrounding the Marlin Mine.)

In 2012, Mining the Connections tried again, bringing another motion to the General Council.

“The motion was to ... direct the pension board to divest. That motion was declared invalid without any opportunity to proper input from our committee and others who were deeply concerned about this within the church,” says Anderson. This included partners from Guatemala and El Salvador, who Mining the Connections had been consulting with throughout the process.

Anderson writes, “After the (2012) vote General Council guest Miguel Tomas Castro, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in San Salvador, stated at an Open Space gathering that open-pit gold mining is a matter of life and death. He was disturbed to see the issue of Christians profiting from Goldcorp transformed into an institutional debate around fiduciary duty. We take his words seriously. We will continue to support our partners.”

Around the same time, Cathy Gerrior, an indigenous Elder and Ceremony Keeper whose spirit name is white turtle woman, was invited to Guatemala by Breaking the Silence, and in part paid for by the United Church of Canada, to participate in the July 2012 international health tribunal. She visited communities affected by Canadian mining companies including Hudbay and Goldcorp. Reflecting on her experience in an open letter, she writes, “Please educate yourself.  Then do something.  It is all very devastatingly familiar.‘ Do what you know to be right.’"

After hearing that that the most recent motion to divest was not passed, Gerrior penned a second letter: To the People of the United Church.

She writes:

“It has been partly through the reconciliation work of the United Church that I have reconnected with my own heritage and culture.  I recently learned, however, that the United Church's pension plan is invested in Goldcorp.  I feel confused and betrayed.  My teachings are that an apology is not sincere when the one who apologizes continues to do the same thing that was harmful... I was devastated by the news that the United Church; who i have considered groundbreakers, has chosen to allow the United Church Pension Plan to remain invested with Goldcorp.  Goldcorp is a mining company in Guatemala that is accused of being responsible for many atrocities perpetrated against the Mayan's, their culture, and Mother Earth.”

In public venues, Gerrior has repeatedly said that she stands in solidarity with the indigenous peoples of Guatemala because if more people had stood in solidarity with her people, perhaps she would have a different history.

Leading up to the August, 2015, meeting in Corner Brook, Anderson and the members of Mining the Connections turned a Maritimes movement to a Canada-wide call within the United Church to reconsider its investment.

“We did all those organizational things that in the end, led to significant change," says Anderson. "Because it’s one thing to get a vote, it’s another thing, and another one of our purposes, even if we had’ve lost I think, Canadians have to become aware of what our Canadian companies are doing around the world. So part of our task was education and organizing. And that’s what people are doing around the world now around fossil fuel divestment.”

The motion stated that the will of the church be that the United Church divest publically from Goldcorp. As of June 2015, the UCCPB held 66,700 shares worth $1,352,000. At the same meeting in Corner Brook, the United Church also voted to divest from fossil fuels.

Divestment Matters

Divestment takes a lot of energy. Even small amounts of divestment are important, but Anderson doesn’t underestimate the importance of large divestments, and the potential there is for unions and universities to divest. “Pension funds matter a lot and have much more impact," says Anderson. "Individuals should divest for their own ethical reason but pension funds and organizational divestment does have an impact often on the reputation of the company. So investors and other large investors start to question. And that can be useful.”

The Canadian Pension Plan Pension Board (CPPPB) continues to invest in Goldcorp and many other companies accused of human rights abuses overseas, including Goldcorp spin-off company Tahoe Resources. CPPPB, which represents the investments of 18 million Canadians, invests about $217 million in Goldcorp Inc directly.

Despite divestment campaigns, there is reluctance of Pension Boards to divest for fear of losing money. For Anderson and others, this argument holds little weight. Examples in the extractives industry, where Canadian mining companies like Hudbay Resources are being sued in Canada for over $12 million for allegations of human rights violations including murder and gang rape in Guatemala, or in fossil fuels, where the Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that community in Ecuador can proceed with a legal claim to help them collect US $9.5 billion against Chevron Corp in Canada, the risks are high and come with a cost.

“We do believe that it is time for pension boards to stop working out of old paradigms which most of them have been trained for in their MBAs," says Anderson. "Most pension boards and investment companies are working out of a paradigm that just does not serve the planet, or indigenous people, or marginalized people, or the earth at this time. And it’s time for a change. Surely people who are in unions, that were socially driven in their creation, just like universities that were created to serve the common good, begin to look at the common good as part of their fiduciary duty.”

Anderson believes that while pensioners want a good return on their investment, they don’t necessarily want that to come at the cost of the destruction of human life and the planet.

Aniseto Lopez, the Maya Mam coordinator of the Front in Defense of San Miguel Ixtahuacan (FREDEMI) where Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine operates was glad to hear about the United Church divestment from Goldcorp. “This information makes us very happy, an example for all of those people who invest in metal mining," says Lopez. "Although in San Miguel Ixtahuacan the damage is already done, this serves as an example to show that they are a bad company for society. We will share the news publically.”

Lopez and others have long been part of the struggle to make Canadian companies accountable in Guatemala. With almost nowhere left to turn, in 2009, Lopez and members of FREDEMI presented a complaint to Canada’s National Contact Point (NCP) for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, one of the only mechanisms that exist in Canada to denounce human rights violations committed by Canadian companies, including lack of adequate consultation and consent to the project.

Instead of investigating the allegations that FREDEMI put forward, the communities were asked to participate in non-binding dialogue that would ultimately pave the way for the company to continue working in the area. The NCP recommended that: “the parties participate in a constructive dialogue in good faith with a view to addressing the issues raised.”

In 2011, Breaking the Silence helped draft a resolution to bring Goldcorp into compliance with international law. According to MiningWatch, only 6% of Goldcorp shareholders voted in favour.

Breaking the Silence is the only Maritimes-based organization that is member of the Canadian Network of Corporate Accountability, a national network that advocates for federal legislation to establish mandatory corporate accountability standards for Canadian extractive companies operating abroad. Their initiative, called Open for Justice, is key for Anderson. “The most fundamental thing to have happen is to have laws and certainly laws that make it possible to bring companies to account with the Canadian judicial system is important.”

For Anderson, extractives industry investments must be questioned. In terms of gold mining, though there may be cultural value of the metal, she notes that there are stockpiles of gold bars and plenty that could be recycled. Enough gold has been mined, she says, for medical and technical use. In terms of fossil fuels, Anderson notes that it’s time that pensions consider the ethical and economic interests of their investors.

“There are new opportunities for economic development," says Anderson. "Investing in infrastructure, investing in renewable resources. Pension boards have been very reluctant. To put it at its best, they do not want to lose money for their pensioners. And that we support. We are not against that, although there are times, quite frankly, when you do have to say we are not going to make money on that.”

Eyes are now on the United Church of Canada Pension Board who will have to make a decision: listen to the will of the church and publically divest from Goldcorp or keep investing in a company that they say have made strides in terms of human rights, thanks to shareholder engagement.

The United Church will also have to consider how to implement a motion that was passed to “take active steps to sell their holdings in the 200 largest fossil fuel companies” and reinvest $8.7 million in renewable energy. Old paradigms and accepting the conventional is no longer an option in a world where people and the planet are at stake.

Jackie McVicar works as co-coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Soldarity Network. She was once told by Canadian embassy staff in Guatemala, “We cut down trees and mine. We’re Canadians. That’s what we do.” She would like to see that change.

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