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United Church pension board refuses to divest from Goldcorp.

FOR ITS Mining the Connections Working Group and United Church of Canada members across Canada, seven years of struggle came down to this moment. Divest or continue to engage? At a fall meeting of the General Council Executive in Toronto, the pension board of the UCC squashed any doubt that remained about divesting from Goldcorp Inc. and presented its reasoning for keeping its money with the Vancouver mining giant, despite a vote voicing opposition to that position by the church as a whole.

In August 2015, the UCC General Council--the national assembly that meets every three years--voiced its will that its pension board divest from Goldcorp Inc. The vote passed with 78 per cent in favour, following a motion brought by four regional church bodies from across the country. Though the divestment initiative was first raised in 2009 by a group in the Maritimes, Mining the Connections (a working group of the Church in Action Committee of the Maritime Conference of the United Church), a Canada-wide grassroots movement emerged once the difficulties of divestment--and the irreversible negative impacts on partners in Guatemala--grew.

In its reasoning for staying with the company, the white and largely male pension board concluded that divestment would have no effect on Goldcorp or its policies, i.e. it would change nothing at Goldcorp's controversial Marlin mine--the focus of the divestment campaign--nor anywhere else the company operates. Despite the UCC's recent call for solidarity with Standing Rock protesters, the church has a long history of colonizing practices; the pension board decision is hardly the first time the church has decided for Indigenous Peoples what is best for them.

The pension board's written response, published online a week before the face-to-face meeting, notes, "Instead, the Board chose to engage with Goldcorp management to bring to their attention the issues and concerns that have been raised by the church's partners in Guatemala. This engagement... has resulted in substantial change to corporate policies and practices." According to Mining the Connections, engagement through SHARE has not resulted in comprehensive positive changes for the communities. The UCC, like other churches, unions and universities in Canada, uses the shareholder engagement group to enter into dialogue with the company regarding human rights concerns, though they often have no mandate or capacity to investigate and address the most serious impacts presented.

In 2012, after the second motion to divest from Goldcorp was proposed, the pension board blocked discussion of divestment at the General Council meeting. Aware that the board is not legally bound to be accountable to member's decisions on investment, the Mining the Connections Working Group knew a cross-Canada movement was essential and began a broader campaign of education.

Indigenous communities speak

Maudilia Lopez is a Maya Mam Catholic nun who lives and works in San Miguel Ixtahuacan, where Goldcorp's Marlin mine has been operating for over a decade. Along with her colleagues, she has met with United Church members and staff time and again to ask that they divest from Goldcorp. Living on the front lines, she sees and feels the social and environmental impacts of the gold mine every day.

In a recent interview while she was in Montreal to denounce the injustice her community faces, she spoke candidly about the role that racism plays in the struggle against the mine. She notes that, in an attempt to discredit their position, Indigenous Peoples are often labeled violent, even terrorists, when they are trying to defend their water and territory. "It's not enough for only us to speak out. We have said so much, but we aren't given credibility."

When asked specifically about keeping church pension funds in Goldcorp, she looks noticeably saddened. "Investors should know the damage their money causes us. If the church believes that their money is doing something good, they're wrong. On the contrary, they are killing us."

The Marlin mine was built in the early 2000s in Indigenous Maya Mam and Maya Sipakapense territory. It was a test of sorts. Being the first transnational gold mine company to enter Guatemala since the 1996 signing of the Peace Accords and a 36-year period of internal armed conflict in which hundreds of thousands of Indigenous Peoples were massacred, all eyes were watchful to see how the newly opened market would respond to the resource-extraction plan. Investors and Guatemala's business elite were giddy--especially after more gold than was hoped for was found at Marlin. With full support from the Canadian embassy in Guatemala, it seemed unstoppable, despite opposition to the project from the very beginning.

The year that the mine was set to begin extraction (June 2005), the company went so far as to try to stop a community-organized and municipal government-backed community consultation in Sipakapa through a court injunction. Nonetheless, the plebiscite went ahead and an overwhelming majority voted against metal mining in their territory. "Sipakapa Is Not For Sale" was a slogan heard throughout the country, and the consultation kicked off a peaceful national direct democracy movement to defend Indigenous territory against projects that threaten to displace and destroy life. Hundreds of thousands of Indigenous and Mestizo people throughout the country have now voiced their opposition to metal mining, including Goldcorp mines and spin-off projects. In 2007, Indigenous communities directly affected by the Marlin mine filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission against the Guatemalan state regarding lack of consultation and free, prior and informed consent.

Protester leader pays with his life

It was in early 2005 that Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel leader Raul Castro Bocel was killed in the largest mining-related protest to happen in Guatemala's new era of "peace." Though they were not from the region where the Marlin mine was opened, Castro Bocel and hundreds more from his community were standing in solidarity with the Peoples of San Miguel and Sipakapa in Guatemala's strong tradition of solidarity between Indigenous Peoples for the defence of territory. His courage to stand up and protect what he saw as sacred--Mother Earth, the water, life--and his murder as a result, throws the meaning of solidarity in action on its head for a group of church activists, and their pension board. With so little to lose compared to those on the front line, and knowing the irreparable injustice that is happening on the ground, what possible moral justification exists to not do as those, like Maudilia Lopez and the parishioners she serves, have asked?

State forces murdering Indigenous Peoples to protect companies and their interests is all too familiar, but Castro Bocel's death was an early warning sign for the future of those in resistance to mining and other resource-exploitation projects in Guatemala. As mines and the dams they need for electricity became the focus of the Guatemalan State's strategy for direct foreign investment, the Marlin example was heard loud and clear. It was then intensified and repeated throughout the country, which can be seen through an Osgoode Hall Law School's Justice and Accountability Project recent report that examines violence at Canadian mines throughout Guatemala, and Latin America more broadly.

In 2008, Sustanalytics took Goldcorp off their list of socially responsible companies to invest in, yet the UCC pension board sought approval to continue investing in the company, a practice they continued for seven years before the responsible investment research firm okayed them in 2015.

Though the funds the pension board has invested in Goldcorp are relatively small, would divesting publicly from Goldcorp between 2008-2015 have created an important precedent and call to action for other churches and unions invested in the company? Could Goldcorp's deadly precedent have been stopped if investors had pulled out early enough?

In September 2016, Goldcorp walked away from talks with the state and affected communities near the mine around implementating precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission following the 2007 petition. According to the communities' lawyer, walking away effectively halted the process to guarantee potable water for 17 communities near the mine.

In addition to a precedent of violence and social conflict that Goldcorp introduced in Guatemala, the dependency between the company (and later other Canadian mining companies) and the Guatemalan state has also become increasingly evident. In June 2016--just days after Guatemala's Constitutional Court declared another Goldcorp licence, called "Los Chocoyos," illegal due to lack of consultation--the UN-mandated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and the public prosecutor's office issued an arrest warrant for Eduardo Villacorta, former Goldcorp senior vice president for Central and South America.

Villacorta and Goldcorp's subsidiary, Montana Exploradora, is part of a growing list of people and corporations wanted for questioning for collusion with the former Guatemalan president and his administration by providing illicit campaign funding in return for government-granted pay-offs. While Villacorta is still at large and no charges have been laid, his role representing the largest mining company operating in Guatemala and their close relationship with the now toppled government is clear. Of 57 others charged in the corruption scandal, 53 have been ordered to face trial, indicating a high level of probability that Villacorta would also be prosecuted if captured.

This legal case is in addition to a recent class-action lawsuit on behalf of shareholders against Goldcorp for failing to disclose water contamination at its mine in Mexico and subsequently filing false and misleading information.

New relationships or more of the same?

In 2015, Crisanta Perez, a Maya Mam mother of eight and fierce opponent of the mine, travelled to Canada to denounce the actions of Goldcorp. Crisanta and seven other women were criminalized--judicially targeted on trumped-up charges--by the company for more than four years before a Guatemalan court sided with them. During that time, the mountain where she would collect the sacred medicines she needed for her and her family was destroyed. Her spirit connection to the sacred had been severed for the sake of gold. In a country and church that spout reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, ask for forgiveness for harms of the past and talk about new relationships, how is it possible to continue investing in this destruction? It's insulting, and worse, racist and oppressive, to not act for change when you have the opportunity.

After meeting Crisanta and others at the International Health Tribunal in Guatemala, Cathy Gerrior, wape'k mikjikj e'pit (white turtle woman), daughter of a residential school survivor, wrote to UCC members about its pension board's investment in Goldcorp, which documented the physical, social, mental and spiritual health impacts of Goldcorp's mine.

"I feel confused and betrayed. My teachings are that an apology is not sincere when the one who apologizes continues to do the same thing that was harmful.... How is it possible, on the one hand, to work hard to reconcile with the past of violations against the native people here; and then on the other, consciously and willingly profit from the violations currently being perpetrated on the native people in Guatemala?"

Being in solidarity with those who are on the front line is not an easy task. It cost Raul Castro Bocel his life. It is easy to talk justice and preach stewardship when you can sleep at night under a roof you know won't collapse over your head and the water that your tea was made with in the morning won't poison you and your kids. It's exhausting to wake up every morning with the weight of disaster on your shoulders, knowing that because you are Indigenous, because you are considered poor by those in power and don't speak the same language as your oppressors, that your voice won't be heard, that no one will heed your call.

The UCC investments in Goldcorp are relatively small. Not even close to the hundreds of millions of dollars that other pensions boards hold, including the Canada Pension Plan and unions from across Canada. But its public divestment and the symbol of doing what is right would be huge.

Despite in-country visits, expert analysis and personal testimonies, the UCC pension board has given the benefit of the doubt to Goldcorp rather than to partners, the churches on the ground and religious NGOs documenting the serious human rights violations. Nor to the people on the ground experiencing and watching as their community was destroyed around them, who urged for divestment. They didn't listen to the bishops, or sisters or lay people who compared investing in Goldcorp to investing in death and the destruction of their culture and traditions. The pension board didn't have to listen to the people whose money they're managing, the staff and personnel who called on them to do what they saw as the right thing to do and divest.

When the metals are gone and Goldcorp leaves, the mess--both social and environmental--will be left to the Indigenous Maya Mam and Maya Sipakapense communities to deal with. Just as we've seen throughout Canada's history of colonization, future generations will still be picking up the pieces long after the gold is gone and damage is done.

Caption: FACING PAGE: El Salvador protest against Pacific Rim mine, September 2014. Pacific Rim is owned by Australian-Canadian mining firm OceanGold. Photo posted by, Oct. 30, 2013.

Caption: THIS PAGE: Maudillia Lopez Cardona. Photo by Matthew Usherwood posted on ipolitics. ca, Oct. 23, 2013.

Caption: Mayan Mam anti-mining activist Crisanta Perez with two of her children. Photo by Matthew Kok. Posted on blog: "Connecting People Guatemala/ El Salvador."
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Author:McVicar, Jackie
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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