Closer than they appear: African mines, Canadian responsibility & global transparency

This guest blog is from Sam Burton, advocacy manager at Engineers Without Borders Canada. It was originally published here.


Photo credit: zowchow.com

I’m in a café in downtown Toronto. The air is bright with the harmonies of The Supremes and the sunbeams dappling my keyboard. Mines—particularly mines in African countries—seem very far way. They aren’t, though. 

The MacBook I’m typing on is cased in aluminum. Mozambique is the second largest aluminum producer in Africa. Its average citizen makes an annual income of USD$900. Pieces of this sleek silver computer could have come from the sandy-clay soils of a country where most earn less in a whole year than this one machine costs.

The coltan in my cellphone may have been mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 15 years of violent struggle for control of the country’s vast resource wealth has killed millions, displaced many more and continue this very minute.

I don’t have a car, but the tires on my bike contain oil. So do my contact lenses, my socks, my umbrella and the band-aid on my index finger. This oil may have travelled from South Sudan or LibyaNigeria or Equatorial Guinea. In each of these countries, oil accounts for ~70-90% of government income. Yet the vast majority of their citizens remain in poverty.

Many of the most poverty-stricken regions of the world are rich in natural resources.

Buried in the layers of earth that these cities and countries are built upon are keys to prosperity and sustainability for the people who live there. But those keys are most often held in the hands of a privileged few. Rarely do most citizens have the chance to grasp them, let alone see first-hand the potential that they could unlock.

This is the “resource curse”: when having a wealth of minerals, oil or gas does not improve lives and livelihoods within a country, but instead does more to foster poverty, inequity, violence and corruption.

I’m personally entangled in the global extractive system. So are you. So is Canada.

When it comes to mining, oil and gas, Canada is kind of a big deal:

60% of the world’s mining companies and 35% of the world’s oil and gas companies are listed on Canadian stock exchanges.

– In 2012, 70% of the total global equity capital for mining was raised on Toronto stock exchanges.

– Between 2005 and 2011, Canadian mining investment in Africa leapt from $6 billion to $31.6 billion.

Canada is already a business leader in the extractive sector. You and I–and all Canadians–are already irrevocably intertwined in this system. This gives us a unique opportunity and vital responsibility to lead the sector towards greater justice as well.

For this reason,Engineers Without Borders Canada(EWB) has joined the Publish What You Pay Canada coalition, and is launching a new initiative today:

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Greater transparency and accountability in mining, oil and gas are necessary to end the resource curse. 

A vital first step is to make it possible for people around the world–from Maputo to Toronto, Washington to Juba–to know how much money extractive companies are paying to governments. This information is vital part of the toolkit citizens need to hold governments and companies accountable for managing the funds exchanging hands for the minerals, oil and gas their communities supply to the world.

Canada can lead this charge.

Citizens, civil society, industry and government see this and are calling for Canada to step up:

- Industry and civil society have come together not just to support, but to design a clear path toward requiring greater transparency in the extractive sector. Canada’s two largest mining industry associations—the Mining Association of Canada and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada—joined civil society organizations Publish What You Pay Canada and Revenue Watch Institute in a working group that drafted a set of recommendations outlining what a mandatory reporting mechanism for Canada should look like.

- This summer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed to establishing new mandatory reporting standards for the extractive industry. The Federal Government is now working with Canadian provinces and territories to make this vision a reality.

In practice, the power to make greater transparency in the extractive sector mandatory is held in the hands of Canadian provinces. This is because it makes most sense for this requirement to be included in existing securities regulations, which each Canadian province and territory controls independently.

Over the next three weeks, the TRACE Campaign will give Canadians from coast-to-coast chances to learn about the often invisible but binding ways that we’re entwined with the global extractive sector, and to speak out about Canada’s opportunity and responsibility to help transform it into a more transparent, accountable and just industry.

I hope you’ll join us, by following the #traceit hashtag, attending EWB events across the country and reading rest of the 8-part blog series that kicks off with this post.