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Matchmaking session gives miners, NGOs chance to team up for projects, but not everyone is happy about the process

MONTREAL - Somewhere inside the vast Palais des Congrès, a strange sort of “speed dating” session will be held this weekend to match some unlikely bedfellows.

These are not lonely hearts looking for love, however, but mining companies hoping to hook up with bleeding hearts — the social and environmental groups working to improve living conditions near Canadian mines abroad.

Held on the margin of the World Mining Congress, which will see some 1,500 delegates gathered to discuss everything from rock mechanics to mine closings, the controversial matchmaking session has attracted a lot of interest from both companies and non-governmental organizations hoping to “connect and build relationships,” said Jean Vavrek, the executive director of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, which is sponsoring the event.

The idea, said Vavrek, is to bring these two solitudes together to increase the positive impact of a given mining project, whether in Latin America or West Africa.

“How do we work more systematically, and up front, so the (impacts) are more positive and companies leave a strong legacy and act as an engine for other activities?” Vavrek said, citing the homegrown examples of Val d’Or, Sudbury and Sept-Îles, where mining has spurred the development of small and medium-sized local businesses. “A lot of companies and executives have done a lot of giving. But there are limits to doing that to try to alleviate poverty and improve development.”

The concept is not entirely new, building on the experience of pilot projects in Peru, where World Vision (in 2012) and Care Canada (in 2013) have teamed up with Toronto-based Barrick Gold to foster economic development in communities adjacent to Barrick mines.

For the $1-million World Vision project, Barrick put up 50 per cent of the funding, while the Canadian government (through the agency formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency) put up the other half. With Care Canada, Barrick put in $460,000, while CIDA put in $1 million.

This new model of development is clearly favoured by the Harper government. Julian Fantino, who was minister of international cooperation until July, has repeatedly spoken about how aid should also serve Canadian interests — particularly in the mining sector.

Since 2009, it has pledged at least $38 million for “community development in the extractives sector” in Latin America alone, some of which was part of $28.36 million earmarked in 2011-2012 to Peru.

Then, in June, CIDA officially became part of the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. There is now a special email address for private corporations to bid for government funding of international development.

It is not clear whether any partnerships formed this weekend at the Palais des Congrès will receive funding. But a spokesperson for DFATD Canada said the government was “broadening and deepening its engagement with the private sector” and referred to the new Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development, set up at the University of British Columbia with $25 million from DFATD.

“It is important to note that DFATD does not directly fund mining companies,” wrote Nicolas Doire in an email. “DFATD funds NGOs, some of whom have co-financing from the private sector, including, in some cases, from mining companies.”

But the trend toward public-private partnerships in development has been controversial, and so, too, is this latest format.

Jennifer Moore of Mining Watch Canada, which has been critical of Canadian operations abroad and the conflicts they engender (according to Peru’s Ombudsman’s office, there were 120 active conflicts in the country in February, 70 per cent of which were related to mining), said this matchmaking is emblematic of how NGOs are being asked to “cozy up” with the mining companies.

“This is one of the worst and most blatant examples we have of how NGOs are being encouraged to get into bed with the mining industry,” said Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator for Mining Watch Canada. “Both the Canadian mining industry and Canadian government are really pressuring NGOs to cozy up to industry as part of a strategy to bolster their public relations in the face of growing opposition and conflict over their operations,” Moore said, “and to further detract from what we really need, which are mandatory mechanisms to hold companies to account for the abuses that are taking place.”

Moore said it’s difficult to argue with funding education or health care or job training for those who need it. But she said people should be able to demand these of their own governments, and not have to rely on the short-term and conditional interest of mining companies who are “buying their silence.”

Goldcorp, for example, whose Marlin mine in Guatemala has repeatedly been cited for alleged environmental and human rights abuses, has made a number of donations through its foundation — but according to Moore they are tied to the community’s acceptance of the project. Meanwhile, the company has so far pledged only $1 million for the cleanup of the mine, which could cost $50 million, Moore said.

Moore and others also question why the Canadian government — and hence taxpayers — should be subsidizing profitable mining corporations’ corporate responsibility programs through development grants.

“We fully recognize that the private sector has a role to play,” said Oxfam executive director Robert Fox. “But it’s not clear that some of these corporations, among the most profitable corporations on the planet, need or merit funding from the Canadian government in order for them to ensure that conditions in the communities from which they’re profiting are healthy and reasonable.”

The companies are very conscious of their public image and they are looking to improve it through these partnerships with agreeable NGOs, Fox added. “I think it’s most important they improve it through better performance.”

As for the NGOs who choose to form partnerships with mining companies, both Moore and Fox believed these NGOs were putting their reputations as independent actors and community allies on the line, but perhaps had little choice.

Public funding has been progressively cut, especially to groups critical of government policies, Moore said. And what is left will probably be increasingly channelled into partnerships with the private sector, which won’t necessarily address the real issues communities are facing.

“It’s coercive,” Moore said. “In order to maintain funding from government they have to toe the line on this kind of approach and policy.”

Fox noted that “if you don’t pursue these partnerships you may find yourself without any funding.”

The jury is still out on how the pilot projects have fared so far, and whether the communities targeted by these partnerships are truly benefiting.

World Vision’s director of policym, Wendy Therrien, believes the NGO’s partnership with Barrick in Peru has been fruitful, especially in terms of bringing Barrick to the same table as teachers’ unions, community representatives and local government. The parties may discuss economic development, but may also voice other concerns related to the mine.

That has empowered locals to feel they can hold companies accountable, Therrien said, adding that the NGO also has education and health programs that are funded by private donors.

“That’s the sustainable development that will last beyond the three years of this project,” Therrien said, “for people to see themselves as agents of change and not feel afraid to get into negotiations.”

Therrien says that World Vision, despite receiving funding from Barrick, was nevertheless able to speak out in favour of a (failed) responsible mining bill to which Barrick and other Canadian companies all opposed.

World Vision works in 50 countries where mining has significant impacts on communities that can’t be ignored, Therrien said.

“If we were to ignore it, we would be ignoring a major component of what’s impacting the ability of kids we are hoping to help in developing the kind of future they deserve. So we think it’s important to wrestle with this question and then within that what is the best pathway forward in order to promote economic development for the community. Our primary interest is not what works best for the mining company or the Canadian government, it’s what’s in the best interests of the people, the families, and the communities we serve ...

This is a pilot project for us. It’s a different way of working together and we’re learning what’s working about it and what’s not working about it, and if and how we would do it in the future.”