Well, wasn’t that a party.
It lasted four long days, jam-packed the two massive buildings of the Toronto Convention Centre, featured glitzy and glamorous (and expensive-to-attend) awards galas and parties, drew more than 23,000 people from around the world including a long list of dignitaries, government ministers, and politicians, and received surprise visits from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Conservative Premier Doug Ford, and reportedly contributed $70 million to Toronto’s economy.
Outside the convention centre, “People Before Profit” protesters rallied. They shouted “Shame!” as Rachel Small of the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network declared, “Canada is a state built on the removal of Indigenous people for resource extraction.”
At one point, the protestors — endorsed by more than 50 organizations — blocked the entrances to the convention centre.
But now, the 88th annual convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) — described by PDAC president Felix Lee as the “must-attend for anyone connected to the mineral and mining industry across the world” — is over.
It was the first one I’ve attended, and I expect also the last. While some industry insiders told me they greatly enjoy PDAC, I confess I didn’t.
The sensory overload — with so many people crammed into limited spaces, the endless booths and exhibits, live business television broadcasts, omnipresent corporate logos and promotion, discussions of how to persuade governments not to regulate and tax more, the snippets of conversations about rising gold prices, windfall profits, bothersome communities causing trouble for mining companies from Tanzania to Chile — was (for me) overwhelming.
So were the self-congratulatory speeches and discussions about sustainability and respect for Indigenous rights, which were coming from an industry with a dismal environmental and human rights record and a long history written in blood.
Now that I’ve had time to go through my notes and listen to the audio to try to make some sense of what PDAC was all about, I realize it was not just a place for industry insiders to network and hobnob and do all the things they do to attract investors and make money. It was also the incubator for PR messages from the mining industry, which we can expect to hear a lot in the future as it seeks to justify a lot more mining.
The gist of it is this: We can mine our way out of climate change
Prime Minister Trudeau said it:
The mining industry can not only drive the clean transition, but profit from it. To produce high-density batteries and wind turbines, you need copper, nickel and cobalt. To build a solar panel, you need 19 metals and minerals.
Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan said it. Heck, a troll said it on my Twitter account.
So get ready for the spin: If you want to tackle climate change, you can’t criticize the mining industry.
Teck Resources, the largest “diamond” sponsor of PDAC 2020, reduced the message to a slogan for its advertising: “Better Mining. Better World.”
Mining for truth
Like all PR messaging, of course, this misses nuance and ignores many ugly realities.
It fails to mention the need to make the industry more transparent; to reform regulations and laws so that companies and executives and shareholders can be held accountable for human rights abuses and environmental destruction, even long after mines close; and to ensure that companies pay what they should in royalties and taxes.
On “Canada Day” at PDAC, so-named because Canada was one of three country sponsors, along with Brazil (speaking of human rights abuses and environmental devastation) and Peru, the CEO of the federal agency Invest In Canada, Ian McKay, proudly told to his audience of industry leaders and investors that Canada is attractive to global investors for “exploration and development of critical minerals and metals” because it has the “lowest marginal effective tax rate in the G20, at 13.5%, 5% below that of the United States.” As if that is something to boast about.
The message that we need more mining to get at metals and minerals required for clean, green technology also fails to address the concerns of those who have the misfortune to live on top of the deposits of those metals and minerals.
Which is why, on Day Three of PDAC, dozens of people showed up outside the Toronto Convention Centre to protest the presence of Chile’s mines minister at the convention. He was inside presenting his country’s future mining plans, particularly to promote lithium, which Canadian companies are aggressively exploring for and speculating on in Chile.
More than 40 Canadian mining companies are working in Chile, with more than 100 mining projects and mines.
The protesters gathered along Front Street with signs calling Chilean president Sebastián Piñera a “criminal.” They denounced the country’s efforts to increase mining investment and mining that they say has contributed to an environmental crisis in the country, which has in turn led to wide-scale protests and violent repression.
Ramón Morales Balcázar of the Plurinational Observatory of Andean Salt Flats, who was in Toronto to speak at a counter convention called “Beyond Extraction” and at the protests at PDAC, said that the Atacama salt flats in his country are “severely deteriorating as the result of decades of extensive copper and lithium mining.” According to Balcázar:
We are concerned that these new lithium projects are being promoted and approved without the proper environmental protections, as is the case for Canadian company, Wealth Minerals, or while in violation of Indigenous rights, as is the case of another Canadian company, Lithium Chile.
In an email, Balcázar told me that the operations of the giant Canadian mining company, Barrick, have had negative social and environmental impacts in his country, and that a copper mine it partially owns uses large quantities of fresh water from the already very dry Atacama Salt Flat.
Lithium is “water-mined” on the salt flat, meaning it is extracted from vast amounts of saline groundwater containing 0.15% lithium, which is pumped to the surface and then evaporated, resulting in the loss of about 95% of the precious water.
Lithium is needed for batteries and energy storage in so-called “green” technologies for the transition away from fossil fuels. But, as Balcázar tweeted:
#Lithium is not Green. Lithium mining kills (too). Decolonise your transition.
In a private message, Balcázar told me that there is nothing green about the metals and minerals considered critical for the transition — lithium, cobalt, copper, and others — “under current extraction, processing, manufacturing, the use of individual electric vehicles (EVs), and not least the current energy production to fill batteries for those.” He added:
It’s really insane to think the EV market will save the world whatsoever. Effective decarbonisation requires degrowth and an end to extractivism, something governments and corporations refuse to accept.
The mining industry and its ardent supporters in governments can tell us ’til they’re blue in the face that mining is the new green, but it’s simply not that simple.
And, of course, the argument that we need more mining for the green transition doesn’t hold up at all when it comes to gold.
As the Halifax Examiner reported here and again here, all the gold that has ever been mined is still around, a great deal of it doing absolutely nothing but sitting around in bank vaults. If gold is needed for new technologies, it could be sourced from that supply; there is no need to mine it and cause still more environmental damage and create more toxic tailings that will last for centuries or millennia.
Gold recycles beautifully and is not one of the most critical metals or minerals needed for the transition to a low carbon future.
So gold, one might conclude, wouldn’t be the centre of attention at PDAC 2020.
But it was.
Gold was showcased by companies in 349 booths at the convention, far more than any other mineral or metal. (With so many companies going after the shiny yellow metal, it seems they are running out of names for themselves — otherwise how to explain a company that calls itself Golden Predator Group, or another called Grizzly Discoveries Inc.?)
In an interview, Devin Holterman, a member of the Beyond Extraction collective and a doctoral student at York University in Toronto, pointed out that while the mining industry claims it helps tackle climate change by extracting critical metals and minerals used in the transition, a huge percentage of financing in Canada has gone into gold exploration, with gold prices at a seven-year high.
There were no sessions at PDAC devoted to recuperating, recycling, and re-using metals, and Holterman told me that while human beings now consume over 100 billion tonnes of raw materials — including metals — every year, the percentage of recycling of those materials has dropped to just 8 or 9% of what we use. And still, he said, the mining industry just wants to “extract, extract, extract,” rather than re-use what has already been mined:
They talk a big game, these corporations, and in the end they’re interested in doing the same thing they’ve always been doing.
Nova Scotia’s “world class” deposits
Gold was also the focus of the PDAC exhibits of exploration and mining companies working in Nova Scotia.
There was Northern Shield Resources, exploring for gold near Barney’s River in Pictou County on a property the company calls “Shot Rock”; MegumaGold that is exploring widely for gold along the Eastern Shore; Transition Metals that is exploring for gold in the highlands of Cape Breton; Anaconda Mining that is planning to open a gold mine at Goldboro on the Eastern Shore; and also Atlantic Gold, which was acquired for $722 million last year by Australia’s St. Barbara, and is now a fully-owned subsidiary that operates the Touquoy gold mine at Moose River.
Of those, only the delegation hosting the Atlantic Gold booth refused to speak with me. Communications director Dustin O’Leary said there would be no media interviews, and asked me instead to send him an email with any questions I had.
This is also what happened when I visited the official Nova Scotia booth, and was told by Department of Energy and Mines representatives that I would have to send questions to the communications director in Halifax, which you can read about here. (I have also submitted a request to DEM for the cost of the province’s participation at PDAC 2020.)
Atlantic Canada had its day at PDAC on Tuesday this week, at a session called “Canada’s Atlantic Edge,” to showcase “mineral sector investment and trade opportunities” in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick. It was also heavy on gold exploration and mining, which featured in seven of the twelve presentations.
The event was funded by Atlantic Canada Development Opportunities (ACOA) and the provincial governments, and hosted by the “Atlantic Canada Mining Alliance,” an entity that isn’t defined in any of the handouts or the documents on the “Atlantic Edge” thumb drive handed out to attendees.
Sean Kirby, executive director of the Mining Association of Nova Scotia (MANS), and Ed Moriarty, executive director of Mining Industry Newfoundland, MC’d the session.
Three companies working on gold in Nova Scotia had their 10 minutes at the podium to present the potential of their gold operations and discoveries, namely St. Barbara, Anaconda Mining, and Osprey Gold Development of Vancouver, with its interests in gold deposits in Goldenville.
Boiled down, it seemed there were two main messages being conveyed to potential investors. First is that the Atlantic provinces have “world class” deposits of minerals and metals for the taking by investors, and second, that the provincial governments in Atlantic Canada provide mining companies with lots of support, although no details were provided.
As for Nova Scotia specifically, were all the gold exploration and discoveries to lead to mining, it looked as if Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore and southwest tip could one day be covered with open pit gold mines.
And as far as I could tell, no one in the audience of more than 100 people was interested in asking whether this was a good thing.
After I arrived home from Toronto, I was contacted by a young Indigenous Peruvian woman who is doing her doctorate and teaching her native language Quechua at the University of Toronto.
Her name is Yojana Miraya Oscco, and she participated in the protests at PDAC. Oscco spoke to me about how gold and silver mining companies, some of them Canadian, are ravaging the social fabric and environment of communities around her village of Calcauso in the province of Antabamba in the high Andes.
The region, she said, is called Apurimac (Apu=mountain and rimac=speak), and that for the Quechua people, the mountains are sacred. This is what she told me (edited slightly for clarity):
Mother Earth is our cosmology. My father is a shaman, and we believe strongly in the energy of the land, it is our relative. Or it used to be. Now mining corporations are destroying all this in our communities. Land and water are part of us, and corporations are destroying us. For us every mountain has a name, every one is a member of our community. The mining corporations do not respect the mountains, they only value the minerals in them.
Oscco believes that everyone who invests in a mining company should have to visit the communities where that company is working, and says that people in the communities where the mining companies work are always wondering who these people are who are benefitting, profiting from the mines.
Recalling what happened in colonial times, when Europeans came to Peru for gold and silver, she said:
History is repeating itself, with neoliberalism, they are back again for the minerals and history is just repeating.
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