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Barrick Gold the face of corporate evil? Nonsense. Its founder does Canada proud (Fred Lum)
Barrick Gold the face of corporate evil? Nonsense. Its founder does Canada proud (Fred Lum)

Margaret Wente

Our world needs more Peter Munks Add to ...

Some parts of the world are nastier than Canada. Peter Munk should know. He came from one.

Mr. Munk is the founder and chairman of Barrick Gold Corp., the world's largest gold miner. From the day he landed in Toronto from war-torn Europe, he has loved this country with a passion. "I arrived in this place not speaking the language, not knowing a dog," he says. He was 18 - an alien, a foreigner, a Jew in a funny-looking suit. In Europe, people were living in the ruins, like rats.

The young refugee presented himself at Lawrence Park Collegiate, where nobody had seen a foreigner before. He expected to be shunned. Instead, the principal took him to a sun-filled classroom, where, unbelievably, boys and girls studied together. At lunchtime, everybody streamed into the cafeteria, where a trestle table groaned with meat, bread and milk. "The amount of food in that place could have fed any city in Europe for a whole day," he recalls. Kids began asking him home, where their parents invited him to raid the fridge.

For Mr. Munk, this generosity became a metaphor for Canada. "People here don't ask about your origins," he says, "only about your destiny."

Today, the company that he founded is embroiled in controversy, and Mr. Munk himself has come under vicious attack. Billionaires and mining giants will never be exempt from criticism, nor should they be. But these attacks are so toxic, they demand a response.

Barrick Gold has two dozen operating mines and projects on five continents, and employs more than 20,000 people. Some of the places in which it operates are nastier than others. The company acquired some sites as part of an expansion drive, and acquired their problems, too. These places are known as "challenging environments," which is to say their governments are corrupt, the police are corrupt, and the Western version of human rights scarcely exists. Unemployment and desperate poverty are endemic.

The North Mara gold mine, in a remote part of Tanzania, is one of these. It's operated by African Barrick Gold, which is 74 per cent owned by Barrick. Last month, local security forces fired on intruders scavenging for gold-laced rocks and killed several of them. Another problem site is in Papua New Guinea; last year, Human Rights Watch reported that some mining personnel were routinely raping local women.

No one is condoning these problems. Barrick has committed itself to best practices, and regularly opens itself to independent scrutiny. The days are long gone when any large, publicly traded mining company can escape such scrutiny. Specialists in corporate social responsibility often rank Barrick at or near the top of the heap.

Yet, a small but noisy contingent of activists insists that Barrick is the face of corporate evil. "Barrick Gold kills Africans," they insist. According to them, Barrick is directly responsible for murder, rape and the poisoning of water supplies. It has destroyed communities and wrecked the livelihoods of small "artisanal" miners. Peter Munk himself is guilty of environmental crimes and crimes against humanity.

The question of whether mineral resources help or hurt developing countries - the "resource curse" − has been argued since the 1950s. But today, the evidence is overwhelmingly positive, especially when highly sophisticated companies are involved. Barrick is among the single biggest taxpayers in Tanzania. The money earned from gold makes up half the country's export income, and that figure will only increase in the next few years. Gold mining creates thousands of jobs, at above-average wages, and thousands more jobs for suppliers. Barrick's employees can afford hospital care and schools (some of them built by Barrick). Thanks to Barrick, many people now have access to electricity and banking. Last year, Barrick says, it contributed $9.7-billion in economic benefits to the countries in which it operates.

What Barrick can't do is ensure that the money it forks over to governments makes its way to the people. And, ironically, its First World code of conduct, which requires security forces to apprehend intruders but not shoot them, ensures that thieves who target Barrick know they'll be relatively safe. Sadly, at North Mara, the local security forces were not immune from bribery, corruption and double-dealing.

As for the accusation that Barrick has destroyed "artisanal" mining, the truth is that the rewards from crude surface mining with a pickaxe have long since been exhausted. These days, "artisanal" mining often takes the form of dangling a six-year-old kid down a hole with a rope.

For some people, Barrick's operations will never be ethical enough. To them, its very existence is illegitimate. They believe that Barrick's sole objective is to exploit the downtrodden of the Earth, and that its ill-gotten gains are inherently tainted.

In fact, Mr. Munk does Canada proud. Our greatest national asset is our ability to welcome refugees and make them feel at home. At 83, Mr. Munk has entered the legacy stage of his life, and is giving away large parts of his fortune as creatively and effectively as possible. He deserves our thanks for that. As for those who live in nastier parts of the world, they should only hope that someone like him is in their future.

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