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Meeting Crashers: Anti-mining activists confront shareholders at AGM

by Veronica Islas
July 14th, 2008

It was the first time that Mexican Congressman Armando Barreiro, historian Juan Carlos Ruiz Guadalajara and hydraulic engineer Mario Martinez visited Toronto, but this trip was not a vacation.

They came to the city to denounce the activities of Metallica Resources, a Canadian mining company running an open-pit mine in Cerro de San Pedro, Mexico.

After negotiating with Metallica Resources, the corporation granted Barreiro, Guadalajara and Martinez access to the mining corporation's annual general investors' meeting, but told them they had to follow the rules: They were not allowed to make statements and could only ask questions during the question period.

On the eve of the AGM, the Mexican delegation hardly slept, thinking of ways to transmit their message to shareholders through questions. "We have to word our questions carefully to tell them everything we want, and that the legal and social situation jeopardizes their investment," said Martinez that night.

The next day, the Mexican delegates arrived at the Sutton Hotel in Toronto's business area, where the AGM would occur. They were equipped with three key questions about the legal challenges to the mining project, the widespread social unrest and the opposition that the mining project is facing.

As they entered the meeting, they received a pamphlet stating that Metallica's mining projects were in "mining-friendly jurisdictions."

When question period came, the delegates calmly asked their questions.

"Have you told your investors that right now the Mexican Congress is in an extraordinary session, that 156 Congress people and 57 Senators are working to pass a law project to stop the mine from working under such irregularities and that retribution for the environmental damage to the area will likely be imposed?" asked Barreiro.

"Thanks for your information," replied the mediator.

Exasperated by the condescending tone, Ruiz Guadalajara raised his voice, demanding the company get out of Mexico and stop creating environmental chaos.

This gave the corporation the opportunity it had been waiting for. Hotel security moved swiftly to demand that Ruiz Guadalajara leave the premises. He started backing up towards the door while continuing to tell investors to divest from Metallica Resources.

Suddenly, the door swung open and Ruiz Guadalajara was pulled back and grabbed by police. He tried to get loose, not realizing it was the police. They moved quickly: three officers dragged Ruiz Guadalajara into the main lobby amidst the hotel guests, while Barreiro was pushed and pulled around, even after identifying himself as a Mexican Congressman.

The police did not press charges due to the non-violent approach of the delegation, but demanded that the delegates leave the hotel.

Outside the hotel, a demonstration against the mining company was in full swing. Alternative press members were waiting to learn what had happened during the meeting.

"They were able to hear exactly what we wanted them to hear," said Barreiro. "Now they know that their actions will have legal implications."

Despite the encounter with the police, Enrique Rivera, a member of FAO Montreal (Broad Opposition Front against the mine in Cerro de San Pedro), thinks Ruiz Guadalajara's outburst was appropriate and necessary.

"People in Cerro de San Pedro are angry and exasperated. This kind of outburst represents the frustration that people in San Pedro live day by day because their concerns are ignored by their own government and the company while their town is destroyed," says Rivera, who is seeking refugee status in Canada because of his opposition to the mine.

Guadalajara also believes the outburst was necessary. "We wanted them to really listen to us,� he says. �We wanted to disrupt their meeting if they didn't listen to what we had to say. Their meeting was pretty much ruined after the police came in."

This was the first time FAO Montreal and the visiting Mexican delegation used this strategy -- targeting the investors of the Canadian companies through shareholder activism -- to showcase their frustration and their environmental and social concerns. It is a strategy that is gaining momentum amongst anti-mining activists in Canada.

"Community representatives and human rights advocates from around the world come to Toronto because Canada is home to 60 per cent of the world's mining corporations," says Paul York, member of the Toronto Mining Support Group, a group that gives logistical support to groups who come to Toronto to oppose mining projects on their land.

"Gold prices have soared, leading to the opening of new mines, so this is a bad time for hundreds of Indigenous and campesino communities whose misfortune it is to live near -- or on top of -- gold deposits," says York.

Earlier this May, Barrick Gold was similarly "honoured" with the presence of unexpected guests during their annual investors' meeting. Delegations of indigenous leaders from Papua New Guinea, Australia and the United States travelled to Toronto to make statements at the AGM about the deleterious impact of the company's mining operations in their communities.

The delegation informed the shareholders about the destruction of spiritual sites in the US and Australia and about the killing, rape and illegal detention of local opposition villagers by Barrick's security in Papua New Guinea.

"A broad-based movement, pursuing a 'shotgun' approach of multiple tactics is needed," says York.

Barrick founder and chairman Peter Munk has felt the pressure of the shotgun approach before, from anti-mining groups such as Protest Barrick. As he was being interviewed for Vanity Fair at Indigo Books in June, a protester got up and confronted him with questions regarding the human rights violations that Barrick has incurred.

Protest Barrick members also crashed the African Medical Research and Education Foundation gala in Toronto, for which Barrick was a "Gold" sponsor. Activists passed out flyers talking about human rights violations in Barrick's mining sites to gala participants until they were escorted out by security.

Ultimately, these tactics attempt to create awareness about the human rights abuses and environmental degradation by shaming those involved.

Delegations comprised of indigenous and campesino leaders from Guatemala, Honduras and Chile also visited Toronto in May for Goldcorp's annual investors' meeting.

The leaders went into the shareholders' meeting and explained to investors how their communities have been affected. As the leaders spoke inside Toronto's Prince Edward Hotel, protesters held a demonstration and an information session outside to warn Canadians of the negative environmental impact Goldcorp mines have on the global South.

York says opposition groups go to investors' meetings in the hopes that socially and environmentally responsible investors will divest (i.e. sell their shares). While some investors do not know about these issues, others do not care or are satisfied with the Corporate Social Responsibility reports from the company.

"A few care enough to divest or make a fuss... These are the ones we hope to reach," he says. In fact, due to criticism regarding the environmental and human rights impacts of its mining operations in Guatemala and Honduras, Goldcorp agreed this past April to conduct an independent Human Rights Impact Assessment at the request of its Canadian and Swedish shareholders. Jantzi Research, an independent investment research firm that evaluates and monitors the social and environmental performance of securities, recommended that Goldcorp be considered ineligible for socially responsible investment (SRI) portfolios that seek to avoid companies with relatively poor records in the areas of community and aboriginal relations and environment.

Anti-open-pit mining activists like York believe most investors will keep their shares as long as they increase in value, and "many of these individuals hold no sway over the company." Thus, the media attention gained from shareholder activism and other actions is used to embarrass the companies, deter further investment and have them "de-listed" as ethical investments.

Shareholder activism has also brought together anti-mining groups from around the world. As those opposing mines come to Canadian cities to denounce human rights and environmental abuses, they realize other communities are facing similar challenges.

"[Shareholder activism] has helped the creation of an international movement of people who oppose open-pit mining. Still, the reforms they have hoped for from the companies have not yet taken place," says York.

According to a 2005 Parliamentary Standing Committee Report, "Canada does not yet have laws to ensure that the activities of Canadian mining companies in developing countries conform to human rights standards, including the rights of workers and of indigenous people."

Even if reforms have not materialized, certain Canadian MPs are listening to what these activists have to say.

Several attempts have been made in Parliament to change legislation in Canada to avoid environmental and human rights abuses by Canadian mining companies. NDP's Alexa McDonough has spearheaded the movement in the Canadian Parliament to enact legislation and ensure Canadian transnationals behave ethically and obey the law when operating abroad.

The National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and the Canadian Extractive Industry Operating in Developing Countries, which wrapped up in late 2006, were an effort to do something similar. The Roundtables process represents the only recommendation of the aforementioned 2005 Standing Committee Report that was acted upon by the Canadian Government. After large meetings across the country with participation from industry, civil society, academics and the government, a consensus report written by all participating sectors was released in March of 2007. The federal government has yet to respond to the Roundtables report and its recommendations.

York does not believe lobbying for legislative changes is an effective tactic. He says changes in legislation -- if achieved -- will make little difference to those affected by the mines; if anything, such a move might further legitimize the extractive industries.

"Liberal reforms are not needed as much as shutting down open-pit mines altogether,� says York. �All open-pit mines violate human rights and environmental integrity and should be disallowed as fundamentally unjust and environmentally irredeemable. There are so many cases of unhappy communities - aboriginal and campensino - destroyed by open-pit mines�we need a broad-based social movement, global in scale, to advocate against such mines."

Tonantzin Mendoza, who lives in the Cerro de San Pedro community affected by Metallica Resources, could not agree more.

"This mine has effectively destroyed our community. I am not only talking about the plant and animal species that have disappeared, but about the people of Cerro de San Pedro. We used to be a tight community, now the mine has hired some within the community as guards and they bully and beat up those who disagree with the project," she says.

It is because of this kind of community erosion that anti-open-pit mine groups are willing to try any new strategy to stop mining projects in their communities; their communities and livelihoods depend on the result of this struggle.


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