Teresa Munoz is one of thousands of Central Americans searching for a better life in the United States. She’s not stuck in a cramped, unsanitary detention centre, but her immigration claim is mired in the Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum-seekers.
She’s from Guatemala, one of Central America’s “Northern Triangle" countries, along with Honduras and El Salvador. That’s where the majority of people apprehended at the Mexico-U.S. border are coming from. There are many complicated reasons they’re all leaving, including the violent aftershocks of decades-long civil wars and farmland droughts that are being worsened by climate change.
The situation can seem tragic but also impenetrable, a political tangle of causes and effects happening far away. But among the many miserable migration tales, Ms. Munoz’s story hits close to home: She says she fled because of threats and attacks following her activism against a mine owned by a Canadian company.
In June, Ms. Munoz was profiled by The Intercept, a publication launched by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill in 2014. She is from southeastern Guatemala, near the location of the silver mine Escobal, which was owned by the British Columbia-based company Tahoe Resources until earlier this year, when a takeover by Vancouver’s Pan American Silver was finalized.
Ms. Munoz is Indigenous, specifically Xinka. Since the Guatemalan government recognized some Indigenous rights in 1996, ancestral land claims have become a pressing political issue. In 2012, Tahoe told shareholders that, to the best of its knowledge, no Indigenous people were left in the area around Escobal. But the Xinka disagree, and have protested the mine for years. Ms. Munoz isn’t the only one to allege that tensions have led to violence.
Escobal is one of two Canadian-owned mines in Guatemala at the centre of human-rights cases being heard in Canadian courts. Judges here agreed to hear the cases after the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that fair trials are impossible in Guatemala, which has long suffered under corrupt governments.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of British Columbia allowed a civil case against Tahoe to proceed, one brought by a group of Guatemalan men alleging they were seriously injured during an anti-Escobal protest in 2013.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice had already agreed, in 2012, to hear civil lawsuits concerning alleged killings and other violence during a 2007 eviction around the nickel mine Fenix in eastern Guatemala. Among the plaintiffs are 11 women who say they were subject to brutal gang sexual assaults that allegedly caused one miscarriage and left another woman unable to bear children. They’re accusing security personnel they say were hired by the mine’s owner at the time, Skye Resources, since acquired by Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals, which subsequently sold the mine.
Both Tahoe and Hudbay vehemently deny the accusations against them.
Crucially, none of the alleged offenders were hired directly by the Canadian companies, but instead their subsidiaries or partners. A finding for any of the plaintiffs could set an important precedent around the responsibilities of companies that harvest riches in foreign lands, regardless of how long their arms are.
These two cases helped spur an announcement in January, 2018, by the federal government about a new Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, in charge of overseeing companies working in the mining, oil and gas, and garment industries. Then, it was hinted that the position would come with the ability to request internal documents and have executives testify under oath. But when lawyer Sheri Meyerhoffer was finally appointed to the job this past spring, those powers weren’t in her job description. As of this week, a pending legal analysis about whether that might change was still incomplete.
With the influence of the ombud currently questionable, and the court cases dragging on, the last site of ethical pressure faced by mining companies is the marketplace. Hudbay, for its part, has seen occasional losses because of Indigenous protests and labour disputes at the Peruvian copper mine Constancia.
Tahoe was pummelled financially by Escobal: Foreign pension funds divested even before 2017, when a Guatemalan court closed the mine pending Indigenous consultations. That set the stage for the selloff to Pan American, which still hasn’t settled with the Xinka.
Suppliers are also hearing from auto and tech companies worried about how the use of minerals extracted from conflict zones might hurt their reputations. Imagine if consumers realized that there’s also silver in their deodorant, and nickel on their bathroom taps, and began to wonder if even an ounce of it might be why people such as Ms. Munoz are finding their homelands unlivable.
Migration is a human trait – people move, and should be able to do so safely and with dignity – but choosing to leave home is different than being forced out. Somewhere in the knot of reasons for Central American displacement, there seems to be a Canadian thread.
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