In the rural highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), a Canadian gold mine operates amongst the Ipili people, who were one of the last major ethnic groups to be contacted by the Australian colonial administration of New Guinea, or “white man”, in 1939. Since that date, Porgera was known for its rich gold deposits and eventually became the site of one of the largest gold mines in the world. Today, Porgera is a site of controversy, as it riches are overshadowed by stories of gang rapes and killings of the Ipili people at the hands of Barrick security and police.
Last week, a remediation program proposed by Barrick Gold was criticized by Mining Watch Canada and other human rights organizations for forcing victims of gang rape to sign away their rights to sue the company in exchange for redress. Barrick’s offer came two years after a 2011 Human Rights Watch report exposed a “pattern of violent abuses, including horrifying acts of gang rape”. Mining Watch’s report also criticized the fact that Barrick was offering no compensation to women who were gang raped by PNG Police, despite the fact that the police were housed, supplied and fed by Barrick during their time in Porgera.
The Globe and Mail was quick to react, releasing an editorial entitled “Barrick has done its best to improve human rights at mine in Papua New Guinea.” The article praised Barrick while insisting that it seemed “fair” that women receiving remediation could no longer sue the company. Meanwhile, it chastised Mining Watch for failing to acknowledge Barrick’s change for the better.
While the Globe acknowledged that is was “regrettable” that Barrick had not acted on the allegations of gang rape before the Human Rights Watch report was released, it failed to acknowledge that Mining Watch was one of the many organizations that had brought allegations of gang rape to the company years before Human Rights Watch was on the case, only to have these allegations repeatedly denied by the company.
This isn’t the first time the Globe and Mail has gone to bat for Barrick with fawning editorials immediately following accusations of human rights abuses. In 2011, months after the release of the Human Rights Watch report and just two weeks after 7 people were killed by security at Barrick’s North Mara Mine in Tanzania, Barrick announced that it would investigate allegations of rape at their North Mara mine. Apparently, a review of a separate human rights issue at that mine had turned up 10 women who had credible and similar stories of being threatened and coerced into sex by security guards and police near the mine. Surprisingly, after explaining some of the voluntary measures that Barrick and other companies had signed onto, the Globe and Mail concluded that “Barrick and other Canadian miners now deserve praise for their efforts (perhaps overdue) to raise industry standards.” Really? So soon?
The Globe editorial went so far as to claim that Canada’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Councillor, Marketa Evans (coincidentally the founding director of the Munk* Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto), monitored the behaviour of Canadian mining companies overseas. However, a review of publicly-available government documents reveals that the Office of the CSR Counsellor had only investigated 3 cases since the creation of its post in 2009. In 2 of those 3 cases, no dialogue process took place because the companies refused to cooperate and the cases were subsequently closed.
Another blind spot in the Globe’s friendly characterization of Barrick is the fact that Barrick Gold has repeatedly been singled out by NGOs and Embassy magazine as a major lobbying force against regulatory oversight of the Canada’s international mining industry. According to Mining Watch Canada, Barrick Gold registered seven lobbyists to lobby on Bill C-300, the “responsible mining bill”, and Barrick’s lobbyists met with at least 22 Members of Parliament and 3 Senators. In October, 2010, bill C-300 lost by a mere 6 votes.
To be fair, the Globe did carry out an investigative feature by African Bureau chief Geoffrey York in 2011 that detailed and gave context to the regular killings at Barrick’s North Mara mine. However, this feature also departed from journalistic ethics to paint a picture of Barrick as ahead of the pack. Specifically, it misquoted protestbarrick.net editor Sakura Saunders as saying that Barrick “has become ‘more transparent’ than most other miners.”
According to Saunders, nothing could have been farther from the truth. “I spoke with York for almost an hour, and if I had to characterize the theme of that conversation, it was that Barrick couldn’t be trusted: they lie, they engage in elaborate cover-ups, and they use CSR as a smokescreen to avoid accountability.” Saunders insists that she even sent York three follow-up e-mails, providing links to stories about Barrick being caught lying in Tanzanian Parliament, using lawyers to threaten activists, and detailing the tactics that Barrick used to cover up a massacre at their Bulyanhulu mine in Tanzania. The Globe and Mail refused Saunders a retraction and even refused her a letter to the editor. It wasn’t until Saunders presented the Globe with a Notice of Action pursuant of the Libel and Slander Act that they finally allowed her a letter to the editor to clear her name.
One can only guess why the Globe insists on praising Barrick in times that should be dedicated to somber reflection on an industry rife with abuse. But, in light of this clearly biased reporting, it should raise eyebrows that the Globe and Mail announced a partnership with the Munk School of Global Affairs* late last year. The Munk Fellowship in Global Journalism is turning the typical model for training journalists “on its head” by taking experts in various subject areas and giving them hands on journalism training. These students, which unsurprisingly include experts in aid and corporate social responsibility, will be the freelance journalists of the future. As the Munk School has long been criticized for the overseeing role that it grants Peter Munk’s foundation – including annual meetings with the School’s director to review the School’s program areas – one would be naive not to suspect that these trainees will promote Munk’s worldview, which favours foreign investment over aid and corporate self-regulation over mandatory standards of accountability. Additionally, this partnership – which likely includes some financial arrangement with the Globe – hints at a possible conflict of interest when the Globe releases favorable editorials about Munk’s company.
Meanwhile, gang rapes continue to be just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abuses that stem from the militarization of Barrick’s Porgera and North Mara mines. In both places, people are killed and arbitrarily detained regularly by the police and security. In the Porgera valley, mine waste is dumped directly into the rivers, poisoning hundreds of kilometres of waterways in one instance and turning a valley into a marsh of quicksand in another. The quicksand valley is swallowing up schools and houses to landslides, forcing people to move further and further up the mountainside to live. In North Mara, 40,000 small scale miners were economically displaced for the creation of the mine, left to scavenge for survival in the waste dumps of Barrick’s mega-mine. In other words, these mines present human rights crises in themselves, that aren’t going to be resolved with a nicely worded human rights policy or a limiting remediation package.
The logic behind the Globe’s reasoning is that these mines must operate, and Barrick is doing the best that they can. While many would question if Barrick is actually doing their best, the underlying assumption here is also off. As Geoffrey York concluded his investigative feature of the North Mara mine, “As long as Tanzanians are forced to choose between dying for a living and the potential wealth that they can gain by invading Barrick’s gold mine, the bloodshed at North Mara is likely to continue. Weapons and walls are a poor solution.” Will the Globe ever acknowledge that there are some places that should be no-go areas for mining? Areas within which human rights abuses are inevitable? Areas where environmentally responsible mining practices are impossible? (as Barrick will say, the rocky terrain makes it impossible in Porgera to maintain a tailings pond, thus they dump the waste in the river).
It seems that rather than publicly scolding Mining Watch for detailing criticism against Barrick’s CSR programs, the Globe would do well to invest some resources and visit Porgera themselves. As Geoffrey York’s experience in Tanzania suggests, even a biased observer can recognize a crisis zone when they see one. Until these mine sites are understood in the context of unavoidable conflict we will not be able to soberly analyze the situation. Zooming out, society itself would do well to ask what sacrifices it is willing to make for what amounts to a luxury item with few practical uses.
*Peter Munk is the acting chairman and founder of Barrick Gold. photo by Damien Baker