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Romina Picolotti, former Secretary of the Environment of Argentina

by Romina PicolottiStanding Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development testimony
November 24th, 2009

Thank you, Mr. Chair and thank you, Members of Parliament. I am honored to have the opportunity to speak before the committee on a matter that greatly affects both Canada and Argentina. Of particular importance is the enormous leverage, both positive and negative, that large Canadian mining projects can have in developing countries and what you, the lawmakers of Canada, might do about it. I speak before you today in two capacities: first, as the former Secretary of the Environment of Argentina, serving under the previous and present administrations, and secondly, as the President of the Center for Human Rights and the Environment, a globally prized organization over which I now preside, based in Córdoba, Argentina. The Center acts globally to promote equitable and sustainable development and greater harmony between the environment and people. My position as Environment Secretary of Argentina was equivalent to a Ministerial position in Canada. Put simply, I was the Minister of the Environment for Argentina.


I have spent the better part of the last decade both as a global advocate and as Environment Secretary of my country, working with communities and individuals adversely affected by non-sustainable development in Argentina and around the world. It is not unknown to you that irresponsible mining activities are one of the most controversial types of industrial investments. This controversy is why the sorts of debates you are having today, about Canadian companies operating abroad, are so important to promoting more responsible investments worldwide. I commend you, your country’s Parliamentarians, for taking on this extremely serious and very difficult debate.


As Environment Secretary from 2006-2008, I focused Argentina on deepening our efforts at environmental protection after decades, even centuries, of mostly environmental indifference. Among the many tasks and achievements to note during this period, I might mention having made substantial headway in forestry protection, corporate compliance of environmental codes, particularly in key contaminated water basins, and the passage of key national forestry and environment education laws, the creation of a federal environmental prosecutorial institution, regulation of environmental insurance, and the design and launch of a new federal environmental task force which promoted corporate compliance and enforcement of environmental and social norms. Also of note was the creation of a national program to introduce realistic environmental agendas, projects, and institutions, for local government. Internationally, my Secretariat was extremely active in spearheading more balanced and equitable positions on climate change negotiations including proposing, right here in Canada, at the prior Montréal Protocol meeting, critical commitments that were approved, to phase out ozone depleting substances with high global warming potential. I am happy to say that we were able to advance environmental protection during this time on a multiplicity of fronts.


Despite this good news for Argentina, I am sorry to say, that one of the areas where we had the most difficulties, and in which progress was indeed practically impossible, was in the mining sector. I knew from the very first day I took office, and from discussions I had with my President in making the decision to accept the post of Environment Secretary, that progress towards more sustainable mining would likely be the most difficult challenge during my tenure. In fact, I was sure from the beginning that confronting the entrenched mining lobby and pushing for more sustainable mining in Argentina, even with strong Presidential support, would probably be an insurmountable challenge. I was not wrong. Despite our many watershed advancements on many environmental issues, which made very significant and permanent institutional and policy changes in favor of environmental protection and sustainability, I was unable to alter the strong and inequitable power imbalances, and the entrenched mining lobby that permeates the key political decision-making processes in Argentina.
You are obviously aware of the very large mining ventures run by the Canadian company Barrick Gold in Argentina and Chile. Perhaps you know that Barrick’s Argentina gold mining venture is one of the largest mining projects in the world. Unfortunately, I must say, that far from being the beacon and model of sustainable mining that we would hope for in the 21st century, Barrick Gold is a modern example of how powerful economic giants can unscrupulously manipulate local politics and skirt environmental and social controls to maximize profit, minimize investment risk, and ignore local culture and communities to the detriment of greater global objectives of sustainable development.


You have probably heard many accusations about Barrick Gold and its operations in Argentina and around the world; about how Barrick throws its economic weight around. I am driven to share with you the case of Argentina, where as Environment Secretary, I have seen the influence trafficked by Barrick within the Argentine political apparatus. I have seen just how influential this company is in swaying provincial and national politics, ensuring the curtailment of environmental controls, dodging environmental responsibilities from environmental institutions, dictating executive policy, and even determining the content and passage or blockage of key legislation to ensure their maximum economic benefit and minimize their social and environmental responsibilities.


As Environment Secretary, as I did in other sectors, I made a concerted effort to gain more control over mining projects, like that of Barrick. Yet, I found, over and over again, that foreign mining interests in Argentina were extremely adept at leveraging their interests within the local political institutions, many times co-opting government officials or ministries to get their way on sensitive environmental and social issues that typically arise from large-scale mining investments. I can personally attest to Barrick’s tactics of obstruction to the control and compliance power of the state. I have seen Barrick’s use of forceful propaganda and traffic of influence on public officials and its intense marketing and PR gimmicks promoting social outreach to convince communities that their investments bring development and progress when in fact communities and local or historical land owners are physically and formerly excluded from the many benefits such investments bring. As my time is short, and my accusations very serious, I will provide the committee with an overview of some of the specific incidents I mention and can answer any questions you may have afterward.


I approached Barrick in 2007 as Environment Secretary, to exercise my jurisdictional authority over the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve (a UNESCO site), a national park in the Province of San Juan, where Barrick’s Veladero mine is located, with the objective of installing contamination measuring units throughout the area. Barrick refused to give my teams access to the lands in their mining territory and stalled all subsequent efforts to facilitate such entry, until weather conditions changed so drastically (in the early winter months) that my team’s work in the area was no longer physically possible.
I had engaged with provincial and national authorities to attempt to reform the mining code and place the monitoring and control of impacts of mining activities within the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Environment. Barrick opposed such participation of Argentina’s environment institutions and lobbied provincial and national governments strongly to obstruct such an effort, maintaining jurisdiction of mining operations (and their impacts) solely within mining agencies.


In 2008, Congress unanimously passed a Glacier Protection Law. The new glacier law would have prohibited mining on, under, or in glacier perimeters, something that probably sounds quite reasonable to Canadians as you come from one of the most glacier-rich regions of the world. So do we. Well, Barrick did not want a glacier protection law to limit their mining prospects, and subsequently pressured the President into vetoing the law. If the President would not veto the law, Barrick would work to block other financial bills that were critical to stabilizing the Argentine economy during the global financial crisis. The President capitulated to Barrick’s pressure and vetoed the bill, which has euphemistically become known as “the Barrick veto.” This was not the only time Barrick was successful in reversing progressive environmental laws and policy within Argentina.


Barrick has pushed forward with several controversial mining projects in Argentina and in the region, and time and time again shows that the company acts in bad faith with respect to social and environmental community concerns that such large mining interests entail. One of Barrick’s gold mining ventures called Pascua Lama (a bi-national project within Chilean and Argentine territories) occurs right on top of five glaciers. Unbelievably, Barrick had conveniently failed to mention this fact in its original EIAs to either Argentine or Chilean environmental authorities. It was only after communities protested this site choice, and pointed out the presence of glaciers, that Barrick admitted that indeed, its mining venture was taking place on at least five glaciers. However, by then, and only from prospecting impacts, much of the glaciers had already been severely impacted by Barrick’s exploration. Barrick’s Pascua Lama project is one of the most controversial and opposed projects in the region. There is strong resistance from local indigenous and farming communities, greatly concerned with water management and availability, contamination, and impacts to natural habitat and reserves.


My friends, let me be clear, I am not against mining. Many mining projects are key to our evolution as modern societies. There are many metals right here in this room that we cannot live without and that are a product of very needed and responsible mining investments. However, my goal as Secretary of the Environment of Argentina and as a lifetime global advocate of sustainable development was, and is, to promote fairness, equity, rationality, responsibility and accountability in corporate investments. Mining is a priority and an integral part of the Argentine, Canadian, and global economy; however, we must proceed with mining in a sustainable way. Companies like Barrick have shown to be systematically irresponsible. They portray a dark side of global economic politics and have shown time and time again that they are uninterested in balanced approaches to development. They only provided rhetoric and lip service to the sustainable development objectives that both of our countries profess.


As Environment Secretary of Argentina, I fought hard for the promotion of sustainable development, for responsibility, and for accountability. I confronted many corporate sectors engaging them in costly but responsible cleanup. Many did not like this intervention, but ultimately accepted the change of tides. They understood that the responsibility to respect human rights and environmental standards was critical to their own survival and sustainability. They understood that more stringent controls, more transparency, and more accountability was good for business, and more importantly, good for society.


The mining sector, however, I am sorry to say, responded quite differently from the rest. They were more stand-offish, more resistant, more aggressive, and more dangerous. I and my closest staff were personally and physically threatened following our mining intervention. My children were threatened. My offices were wire-tapped. My staff was bought and the public officials that once controlled Barrick for me became paid employees of Barrick Gold. My mission and our mission as a nation to control mining was jeopardized and ultimately, I was forced to resign due to insurmountable pressures from companies like Barrick Gold, who ultimately get their way when our institutions fail to control their performance and compliance.


They insist that they abide by internationally recognized environmental regulations. They insist that they comply with the law. They insist that governments hold them to strict accountability. But in the end, this is not true. As the maximum environmental authority of my country, a country which is rich in mining, which must deal with the impacts of large scale international mining investments, I have witnessed firsthand that this is not true. I have seen human rights violations from the mining sector that would not be tolerable in their homelands; that would not be tolerable right here in Canada, but which are accepted as the cost of doing business in countries like Argentina. This is why it is so important that you continue this debate you are having and that you find ways to promote accountability of the mining sector from your vantage point. Finally, it is important to understand that the image of Canada is inevitably related to the behavior of these companies. Argentineans perceive companies like Barrick Gold to be the representatives of the Canadian people and government. When Canadian mining companies act in a manner that is not befitting the true Canadian image, the reputation of Canada and its people suffer.


I don’t ask you to be against mining; I do ask you to be against impunity. I don’t ask you to be against Canadian mining companies; I do ask you to ensure that Canadian mining companies acting abroad are accountable to your own highest standards. I don’t ask you to intrude on the sovereign jurisdiction of countries that wish to promote their mining industries; but, I do plead with you to consider that the decisions you make about holding Canadian companies to account for their behavior, can and do influence the way they will do business. It can and will change the lives and natural environments of hundreds or thousands of people. Even the smallest improvements in accountability mechanisms at home, here in Canada, might go a long way to avoid the historical problems that this sector has wreaked on many populations around the world. For this I ask of you to seriously consider the predicament you have before you and seek, to your best capacity, ways to influence the behavioral patterns and minimize the impacts of Canadian mining companies operating abroad.
Thank you.
Romina Picolotti
Former Secretary of Environment of Argentina
President, Center for Human Rights and the Environment

 

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