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Canadian miners abroad learn wider responsibility

The Canadian mining industry is no longer just about extraction. The 1,800 companies operating around the globe must also live up to public expectations that they protect human rights and the environment in their overseas operations. Failure to do so invites public-relations disaster, as Barrick Gold Corp.'s recent experiences in Tanzania and Papua New Guinea show.

Last week, Barrick announced it was investigating allegations that its own private security guards, as well as Tanzanian police, had sexually assaulted 10 women over the past several years at their North Mara mine. This comes just two weeks after seven people were killed at the site, following an incursion of locals scavenging for gold-laced rocks. At another Barrick property, in Papua New Guinea, a Human Rights Watch report released this year said the mine's private security force was implicated in a "pattern of violent abuses, including horrifying acts of gang rape."

These allegations harm the reputation of the world's largest gold company, and force it into crisis mode, as it promises to investigate the crimes, and to implement better security and human-rights training for its staff.

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There have been many efforts, by the Canadian government, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and industry associations, to improve human-rights and environmental practices in the extractive industries. Through Canada's recently appointed Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor, the behaviour of Canadian companies overseas is monitored, and complaints are reviewed.

The system is voluntary. The industry has long argued against more regulatory oversight, preferring to self-police. In recent years, Barrick, Teck Resources Ltd., Goldcorp Inc. and many of Canada's other major mining companies, have developed detailed corporate social responsibility policies, pledging to carry out their activities in an environmentally, socially and economically sustainable manner, and hiring experts and staff to make sure this happens. Last year, Barrick became the first Canadian mining company to sign a global agreement called the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which obliges it to investigate and report human-rights abuses at its work sites.

In spite of this sea change in attitude, companies operating in resource-rich but underdeveloped parts of world still face severe challenges. In the case of the Tanzanian and Papua New Guinea mines, the complaints of sexual assault were long-standing. This shows the importance of constant monitoring - especially in countries with conflict zones, or weak governance - and the need for swift action when incidents of abuse do arise. "Canada is a world leader in mining. The industry is part of our national identity and pride. Companies are standard-bearers for Canadian values," says Paul Klein, founder of the Toronto firm Impakt, which specializes in corporate global responsibility.

Companies realize that, in the long run, it makes better financial sense to deal transparently with social and environmental problems, rather than risk the fallout from explosive charges. These incidents not only damage a company's reputation, but the credibility of the entire industry.

Barrick and other Canadian miners now deserve praise for their efforts (perhaps overdue) to raise industry standards.

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