Anxious to avoid a public relations disaster, Canadian mining companies are quietly engaged in talks with Tibetan activists to seek agreements that might prevent protests against their projects in China.
The mining companies are hoping to escape the fate of Bombardier Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp., which have been repeatedly targeted by protesters for their involvement in a high-altitude Chinese railway to Tibet.
For months now, Bombardier and Nortel have faced a wave of demonstrations, petitions, pickets, faxes, phone calls and questions at their annual meetings because of their role in the railway.
Activists say the railway will jeopardize Tibet's culture and environment by bringing in a flood of Chinese migrants, making it easier for Beijing to exercise repressive control of the region.
At least three Canadian companies are exploring for gold in Tibetan regions of China. They know the risk of controversy is high. An Australian company, Sino Gold Ltd., was the target of angry protests by Tibetan activists in 2003 when it attempted to develop a mine in a Tibetan region.
The Canada Tibet Committee, the leading Tibetan activist group in Canada with about 4,000 members, has quietly begun talks with the Canadian mining firms to try to reach deals that would provide jobs and other benefits for Tibetans.
One of the companies, Continental Minerals Corp. of Vancouver, confirmed that the talks are happening. "If you're not prepared to do this, you're going to have problems," company president Ronald Thiessen said. "Life would be difficult on many fronts."
Continental, which is exploring a gold and copper property about 240 kilometres southwest of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, hopes the activists will refrain from public protests when they see the jobs and community benefits that the mine would provide for Tibetans.
"If we can get it right for the local community, then international organizations like the Canada Tibet Committee will see that we're doing it right, and I believe they'll be on side," Mr. Thiessen said.
"We're open to dialogue . . . their primary concern is the Tibetan people."
Inter-Citic Minerals Inc., a Toronto-based company that is spending $5.5-million to explore for gold in a Tibetan region of northwestern China, confirmed that it is in regular talks with the Canada Tibet Committee.
Company president James Moore criticized Bombardier for failing to listen to the activists. "You're far better off to engage the NGOs," he said. "If there are tangible benefits for Tibetans, they are open to seeing companies invest there. The dialogue right now is constructive."
Last January, the Tibetan government-in-exile said it was "deeply concerned" that the Continental and Inter-Citic mining projects could have "worrisome and threatening" effects on the Tibetan environment. It urged the companies to reconsider their activities. But more recently, the Canada Tibet Committee has decided to talk to the mining companies, rather than flatly oppose their activities.
"We're trying to be innovative," said Tenzin Dargyal, the committee's national co-ordinator. "We're really trying to think outside the box, to make a positive difference for Tibetans on the ground. The senior managers of these mining companies are much more accommodating than the senior management of Bombardier and Nortel. It's possible to walk away with a win-win situation."
Because of a lack of awareness, some of the mining companies have hired Han Chinese workers, rather than trying to recruit Tibetans, he said. "They walked into Tibet a bit blindly. They were so focused on gold that they didn't do a proper analysis of what it means to do business in Tibet. We're a watchdog of sorts."
Mr. Moore said his company finds it hard to hire Tibetans because the locals are nomadic herdsmen, but it has hired one family to provide security at the exploration site. Mr. Thiessen said Continental has hired about a dozen Tibetans for unskilled jobs at its site.
The third Canadian mining company in the Tibetan regions is Eldorado Gold Corp. of Vancouver. In June, it struck a deal with Afcan Mining Corp., which Eldorado later acquired, to buy the Tanjianshan gold project in northwestern China. It hopes to begin production at Tanjianshan by next October, which would make it the first North American company to develop a producing mine in China.
Eldorado's chief executive officer, Paul Wright, said he is aware that talks were being held between Afcan and Tibetan activists before Eldorado acquired the project. "I would welcome dialogue with any group," he said.