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Member Brazil’s Iawá community says Ottawa has not fulfilled its obligations to ensure Indigenous rights are respected and the environment protected with oversight of Canadian mining and extraction companies abroad

As Canada vies for a seat on the United Nations human rights council, Indigenous leaders and environmental advocates have launched a co-ordinated campaign drawing attention to Canadian companies operating in the Amazon region and raising questions about their environmental and human rights track record.

Seizing on Canada’s efforts to land a seat on the 47-member council, a vote that will take place in 2027, the group has called on the federal government to take greater responsibility for how it monitors the resource companies in the country’s large and influential extractive industry.

In August, ahead of a UN human rights review of Canada, a delegation of Indigenous leaders, lawyers, community representatives and advocates from Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Peru travelled to Geneva, Switzerland to deliver a message to the international community.

Lorena Curuaia, a member of the delegation and part of the Iawá community in northern Brazil, said in an interview that Canada is not fulfilling its obligations to ensure Indigenous rights are respected and the environment protected when it comes to oversight of Canadian companies abroad.

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Ms. Curuaia participates in a global environmental consultation meeting in September in Geneva, Switzerland.Anastasia Rodopoulou/The Globe and Mail

“In Canada, the government must be responsible. They must hold these companies accountable for what they’re causing in our territories, in everyone’s lives,” she said in a video call from Altamira, in Pará state.

A joint submission to the United Nations from 33 non-governmental organizations and advocacy groups, including California-based Amazon Watch, said Canada’s failure to take adequate measures to regulate the conduct of Canadian companies abroad “has contributed to the systematic violation of human and environmental rights in the Amazon.” Canadian mining and oil companies, according to a 2021 study by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, had a larger share of foreign ownership in the rain forest than any other country.

Some in the industry, however, are pushing back against the opposition to their projects, calling some of the allegations misinformation. They also say their projects will provide much-needed jobs and opportunities in the areas in which they do business.

Although the submission targets 11 Canadian-led projects in countries including Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, Ms. Curuaia’s complaints centre on one Toronto-based company and its plans to build a large open-pit gold mine in Brazil.

Licensing for Belo Sun Mining Corp.’s Volta Grande project has hit roadblocks by Brazilian authorities. It was suspended in 2013 in response to a civil lawsuit by the federal public prosecutor’s office, over what the judge said was a lack of prior analysis of impacts on Indigenous people. Courts have upheld suspensions, in 2017 and 2022, amid concerns over environmental impacts and a lack of sufficient consultation with local Indigenous communities.

Ms. Curuaia says her village has not had been consulted on the project. “What we are calling for here is to basically be respected and to stop violating our rights,” said Ms. Curuaia, a leader of the community.

Belo Sun Chief Executive Officer Peter Tagliamonte said in an e-mail the company has been the target of “unfounded allegations that ignore the facts” and that it is committed to responsible mining, protecting the environment and respecting the rights of local Indigenous communities. He said consultations with local and Indigenous communities were fully compliant with Brazilian law and International Labour Organization principles.

In response to questions about the campaign, Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Pierre Cuguen said in an e-mailed statement that the government expects Canadian companies operating abroad to “develop constructive mutually beneficial relationships with Indigenous peoples, informed by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) principles of equality, partnership, good faith and mutual respect,” and in line with international responsible business conduct standards.

But Ms. Curuaia said the activities of some of its oil and mining companies are tarnishing Canada’s image – as a beautiful, clean country that promotes sustainability and responsibility. “We know that it’s not. We are there, as a community directly impacted, to say this is happening in our territory. And that’s not right.”

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A red flag in the Huayuri creek, within the Achuar territory of Peru’s Amazon, marks a site impacted by an oil spill. Indigenous officials say their communities should be consulted on work to clean up contamination and aging infrastructurePatrick Murayari/The Globe and Mail

The Amazon rain forest in South America is one of the Earth’s greatest biological treasures. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet, hosting more than a tenth of the world’s known species. These include sloths, poison dart frogs, spider monkeys, leafcutter ants and pink river dolphins. It is also home to about 1.5 million Indigenous people in eight countries, representing more than 350 ethnic groups.

Known as the “lungs of the planet,” it plays a key role in mitigating climate change, with its ecosystem storing billions of tonnes of carbon in its trees and soil.

The region is under severe threat. Record wildfires and drought have hit Brazil’s rain forest this year, driven by deforestation and climate change. The Amazon is approaching a tipping point, scientists say, after which the rainforest’s degradation to dry ecosystems becomes permanent.

In the Amazon rain forest, where Canadian mining companies are developing “industrial-scale operations alongside tributary watersheds, their activities are not only threatening the Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities who rely on the forests and rivers for their survival, but the Amazon” as a whole, said Kirsten Francescone, assistant professor in international development studies at Trent University and former Latin America co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, an advocacy group.

The companies cited in the UN submission include Frontera Energy Corp. in northern Peru, which, The Globe has reported, incurred 33 environmental fines related to oil spills in the time it operated there. In response to questions, Frontera said it is honouring its contractual commitments and will continue to comply with its outstanding social and environmental obligations.

Brazilian projects are also central to the UN submission. In addition to the complaints about Belo Sun’s Volta Grande project, the submission targets, among other companies, Brazil Potash Corp, which is planning a large fertilizer mine in the Amazon and has been accused of intimidating Mura Indigenous residents.

In an interview, Brazil Potash CEO Matt Simpson disputed the allegations in the submission, which he said contain inaccuracies. The company has followed UN protocols concerning consultations with Indigenous communities, he said.

“There are a number of NGOs out there that are just completely anti-development and aren’t taking a comprehensive, balanced view. In our case, it’s quite frustrating,” Mr. Simpson said.

Allegations of intimidation are “not factual. It’s fear-mongering,” he said.

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The Big Bend of the Xingu River with the Vila de Ressaca in the foreground, site of the proposed Belo Sun mining project in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará, on Oct. 8, 2021. The Volta Grande project is proposed as a large open-pit gold mine in Brazil.Andrew Christian Johnson/The Globe and Mail

A court suspended Brazil Potash’s permit last month, marking the third time it has ruled against the company. The last two times, this was overturned by a higher court, Mr. Simpson said. “We expect this time it’ll also get overturned.”

As for the proposed Volta Grande project, Ms. Curuaia’s community, made up of members of the Xipaya and Kuruaya peoples, is situated on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon River, downstream from Belo Sun’s proposed project.

She and others who live nearby are concerned that heavy metals from mining could pollute the rain forest and its waterways – and affect the health of the people who subsist in the area, something she says has already happened from other projects in other parts of Brazil.

“We know that mercury, arsenic, cyanides, all these toxic metals that comes with mining, all of these are very detrimental to our health,” Ms. Curuaia said. Her community has seen how other Indigenous people in Brazil have been affected, and “we don’t want to suffer the same that they are suffering.”

Mr. Tagliamonte of Belo Sun described the design of its tailings dam as “the safest type of dam in the industry,” and said that currently, as there is no operating mine at the site, it is not responsible for any of the mercury contamination in the region. “Illegal miners have been operating in the area for more than thirty years and these illegal unregulated operations have been and continue to be the source of mercury pollution,” he said in an e-mail.

Belo Sun, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, is developing what it says is the largest undeveloped gold project in Brazil, with proven and probable reserves of 3.8 million ounces of gold.

Another concern is that the gold mine could compound harms in what is already a severely degraded environment. Volta Grande is close to the Belo Monte plant, the world’s third-largest hydroelectric dam, which displaced thousands of people and has already reduced the river’s flow, hurt the fish population and spurred deforestation.

One 2020 study, by geophysicist and global mining consultant Steven Emerman, conducted at the request of Amazon Watch, said the risk of a failure of the proposed tailings dam is “unacceptably high” and that Brazilian authorities should reject the project. Another analysis, by researchers in Brazil, said the project will exacerbate biodiversity losses.

The company has been the target of lawsuits, from prosecutors in Brazil, some of which call for the project to be suspended.

In an e-mailed response to The Globe’s questions, Belo Sun’s Mr. Tagliamonte said the company operates in full compliance with Brazilian law and regulations. The company “believes that well-regulated, responsible mining operations can make a positive contribution, improve the quality of life and create new opportunities for people in its host region.”

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The Belo Monte hydroelectric dam stands in the Xingu River in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, on Sept. 6, 2019.Andre Penner/The Globe and Mail

Criticism of Canada’s performance when it comes to policing its companies’ conduct abroad is coming from other corners, and not just protesters as part of the UN campaign. In fact, it’s also coming from the UN itself.

This year alone, three United Nations special rapporteurs – one covering human rights, another monitoring slavery and a third concerned with Indigenous peoples – have urged Canada to beef up its oversight of its companies’ operations.

In September, Tomoya Obokata, the rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, said Canada should strengthen the mandate of an office created specifically to address these issues: the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). The federal government announced the creation of the CORE in 2018 as a solution to the oversight issue.

A Globe and Mail investigation this year showed that the office has yet to complete a single probe, and that it was never given the powers to compel testimony and documents for thorough investigations, despite a federal government pledge to do so.

To date, Canada has introduced mostly voluntary measures related to corporate conduct, through adherence to guidelines and standards. That approach has sparked criticism from international human rights experts, among them, the UN special rapporteur on human-rights defenders Mary Lawlor. She said Canada should consider stronger legislation.

Non-binding guidance and self-regulation “have proven insufficient to bring around real change for people in communities affected by industries such as mining,” she told The Globe in an e-mail. “If governments are serious about promoting respect for human rights, they must ensure business activities do not infringe upon them, undermine or threaten them.”

Global Affairs said the government has put in place a “comprehensive framework” to protect international human rights. It said the CORE has the resources and mandate needed to “effectively promote responsible business conduct by Canadian companies active abroad.”

In the area of business and human rights, “I would have expected Canada to have a stronger leading role in this field,” considering how many extractive companies are based in Canada, said Salvador Herencia-Carrasco, human rights clinic director at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre. “Unfortunately, we have not really seen this.”

A draft of the universal periodic review report on Canada, issued by a UN working group last month, made more than half a dozen recommendations on business and human rights – among them, that the CORE be strengthened, and that the federal government ensure access to remedies for victims of human rights abuses committed abroad by Canadian corporations.

Mr. Herencia-Carrasco said Canada has the potential to be a world leader in this regard. “This is a field that, without sacrificing a lot of legal and policy elements, could actually make a difference. Give the CORE the proper powers to investigate, adopt legislation that makes sense, and we could actually make a difference.”

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