Mining companies and many governments have pushed to categorise mining as an essential service during the pandemic, enabling operations to continue despite substantial risk.
The mining industry has received little scrutiny during the Covid-19 pandemic, while fossil fuels, aviation and other dirty industries have found themselves in the spotlight.
But this doesn't mean mining companies globally have not been seeking to profit from a crisis that affects us all.
More than 300 organisations from around the world today released an open-statement condemning the ways that the mining industry and numerous governments are taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to manufacture new mining opportunities and enhance their damaged reputations.
The statement, based on a global analysis of over 500 sources, identifies four major trends in how the mining industry has abused the pandemic to turn a profit and advance their interests, putting land and water protectors at greater risk of harm.
These trends are explored in-depth in an accompanying report, entitled Voices from the Ground: How the Global Mining Industry is Profiting from the COVID-19 Pandemic, and in this article.
Mining companies and many governments have pushed to categorise mining as an essential service during the pandemic, enabling operations to continue despite substantial risk. In doing so, they have become key vectors for the spread of the virus and are putting communities, rural and urban populations, and their workforces, at great risk.
In Panama, on 20 March, government authorities exempted the Cobre Panama mine, operated by Canadian company First Quantum Minerals, from lockdown measures imposed on the population. The company announced that several members of its contract-workforce had contracted the virus on 24 March. Despite this, it continued operating.
The first worker died from the virus on 4 April, but the company still continued operations. A day later, the Panamanian Minister of Health ordered First Quantum to temporarily suspend its activities.
By this time, however, the virus had ripped through the workforce. The company evacuated 800 workers from the mine site on 19 April, and by 30 April, 106 workers had tested positive with 850 in quarantine. To date, five workers have reportedly died from the virus.
In many cases, Indigenous and rural communities already face acute risk from the virus, especially communities whose health has been impacted by contamination generated by mining extractivism. They are struggling to protect themselves from potential outbreaks.
In the southern Ecuadorian Amazon, the Assembly of the Shuar Arutam People (PSHA) alerted the public of a possible Covid-19 outbreak in the isolated Shuar Arutam communities in connection with community members who attended the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) upon invitation from Canadian mining company Solaris Resources.
Only a week before the global pandemic was declared and despite warnings, PDAC or the “Coronavirus convention” as journalists reported, went ahead in downtown Toronto. Several attendees subsequently tested positive. Upon return home to Shuar Arutam territory in southern Ecuador, two close relatives of PDAC attendees died from Covid-like symptoms and at least eight others showed symptoms.
More than 100 organisations condemned the company’s actions as putting the communities at grave risk. The PHSA also denounced Solaris Resources for organising the delegation to Toronto, which took place without duly elected leaders of their representative organisation and without respect for their expressed opposition to mining in their territory.
The Assembly of the Shuar Arutam People wrote: “Mining Companies are taking advantage of the pandemic to continue trying to impose their activities in our territories. They do not respect the State of Emergency and are continuing to infiltrate our communities. This puts us at greater risk."
Free of public oversight and scrutiny, governments have imposed restrictions on people’s freedom of association and movement to protect public health. But these severe and even militarised measures compromise people’s ability to defend their territories and their lives.
Land defenders face greater risk of targeted violence and some remain unjustly imprisoned, posing additional risks of infection. Governments have also deployed state forces (military and police) to repress legitimate, safe protests, especially in instances where there is long standing opposition to a company’s activities.
In some instances, this has included the implementation of regulations or obstacles to access the justice system which entrench impunity, as well as heightened military and police presence in these territories. Meanwhile, mining companies are permitted to continue operating in these same territories or do so, despite restrictions.
These and other actions cynically and unjustly benefit the corporate mining sector.
In early April, long-standing peaceful protest encampments around OceanaGold’s Didipio mine in the Philippines were violently evicted by state police on grounds that they contravened the Covid-19 lockdown. While the Indigenous Ifugao protestors were practicing social distancing measures, the police's forceful dispersal of protestors led to physical contact.
Over two hundred local and international solidarity groups condemned the violent dispersal of the Didipio encampments and called on the Office of the President to definitively cancel OceanaGold’s permit renewal application.
A recent report by United Nations experts said: “The use of force by the police was unnecessary and disproportionate,” urging the government to not use the pandemic to discriminate against Indigenous peoples.
In Turkey, people camping out in protest against Canadian company Alamos Gold’s Kirazli mine were violently evicted by the authorities who cited Covid-19 as the reason for their forced removal.
Activists condemned the act, noting that the company still had security officials and personnel on-site. The activists were subsequently fined over US$ 7,000, with the authorities citing disobedience of Covid-19 sanitary measures.
Covering up dirt, buying favour
Companies have boasted about the millions of privately sourced test kits they have provided to affected communities and workers, at a time when entire countries are struggling to access the test kits necessary to address the Covid pandemic.
This is poor cover for the long-term health impacts that regularly result from mining activities and the often-underhanded ways in which these same firms operate. It also represents an affront to the greater public good and the collective efforts of many states and communities to secure public access to tests, highlighting the glaring asymmetries of power between multinational corporations, states in the Global South and local communities.
In some cases, companies are giving out food and goods directly to people and charitable organisations, creating social division and undermining peaceful resistance while people are unable to mobilise in the context of the pandemic.
In Northern Ireland, community activists have called out Dalradian Resources over a £50,000 donation made by the company to cancer-support charity Marie Curie on 4 May. The private Canadian company, which faces staunch and widespread opposition to its planned Curraginhault project in the Sperrin Mountains, has also donated 150 litres of hand sanitiser to the charity.
Local citizens organisation Save Our Sperrins has written to Marie Curie pointing out the conflict of interest involved in a charity working to uphold human health accepting a donation from a company involved in gold mining - a major cause of ill-health in many parts of the world.
Fidelma O'Kane of Save Our Sperrins said the the group "condemns Dalradian Gold’s cynical exploitation of the current pandemic for cheap publicity for its flagging project.
"At a time when over 35,000 people have submitted objections to Dalradian’s planning application for a goldmine and processing plant, it is obvious that this Canadian mining company is now desperate.
"It is sad and disappointing that even a charity such as Marie Curie has been targeted, used and trapped by Dalradian’s propaganda machine because of their urgent need for money and PPE at this time."
Some mining companies have also set up assistance funds or made sizeable donations to state ministries. These direct cash ‘donations’ are not only far from commensurate with the real impacts of their activities. They also represent a corruption risk, which is already evident as we see governments willing to weaken emergency measures, fail to enforce those in place, or exclude the mining industry from them entirely.
Canadian company, Barrick Gold has made several large donations to various African countries in early April to combat the Covid-19 epidemic.
In Senegal, in the presence of the minister of mines, the company presented nearly a million dollars to the finance ministry. In the DRC, Barrick donated US$1.5 million dollars to an emergency Covid-19 fund set-up by the central government.
In Tanzania, amid allegations of severe human rights violations at its North Mara mine, the company donated US$1.3 million to various levels of government. Most worrisome was the sizeable donation of US$1.3 million made directly to the Ministry of Mines in Côte d’Ivoire.
It is curious that none of this money was given directly to the respective ministries of health, given its expressed purpose.
These donations raise concerns about who will ensure that this money is not used to bind countries' hands into keeping the mining industry open during the pandemic or providing it with certain privileges during the recovery period to follow.
While they frame mining as essential now and for global Covid-19 economic recovery, mining companies are lobbying to expedite administrative decisions and weaken the already-limited measures which do exist to address the social, cultural, environmental, and economic impacts of their activities that are almost always borne by affected communities with complete impunity.
Whether explicitly, by suspending the little environmental oversight and enforcement there was, or implicitly, by making it more challenging for affected communities to get information and intervene in permitting processes, governments are making deep concessions to the mining industry – and companies are now lobbying governments to make such deregulation permanent.
In Indonesia, a contested mining law was passed in the midst of the pandemic. This law had been slated for a parliamentary vote last year, but was not passed due to mass public protest.
This year, with no public participation, the Indonesian parliament passed the law, which does not address the urgent environmental and human rights issues faced by mining-impacted communities. Instead, it allows for automatic contract renewal by private companies and removes the previous limit on the size of concessions.
In Australia, parliament has been adjourned until August and replaced with the advisory National Covid Coordination Commission, stacked with members from mining, gas and energy backgrounds and headed by ex-Fortescue CEO Nev Power, despite concerns about conflict of interest, lack of transparency, governance and accountability.
Policy changes and requests agreed to by the government since the beginning of March include “14 requests to slash important environmental or corporate regulations, 11 requests for tax cuts and financial concessions, and 12 requests to fast-track project assessment”.
The Global Solidarity Statement released yesterday condemns the responses of companies and governments to the pandemic as aggressions which exacerbate the multiple pandemics – health, economic, violence, militarization and corporate capture - that Indigenous peoples, affected communities and workers face on a daily basis.
The statement declares these companies and governments to be pandemic profiteers, engaging in unjust, undemocratic disaster capitalism.
In the context of an intersecting global health, economic, ecological and climate crisis, the authors assert that healthy communities, Indigenous peoples, workers, and social movements – not the profits of predatory mining corporations – are essential during the pandemic and must be at the centre of plans moving forward.
Hannibal Rhoades is head of communications at The Gaia Foundation.
This article was prepared based on materials drawn from the work of London Mining Network, War on Want, Mining Watch Canada, Earthworks, Institute for Policy Studies - Global Economic Programme, TerraJusta and Yes to Life, No to Mining.