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Canada's Mining Industry Plumbs New Depths (literally)

Polymetallic nodules on the ocean floor. Image from the New York Times.


Last month, the New York Times published an explosive expose on a Vancouver-based mining startup, The Metals Company, and its shady dealings with the International Seabed Authority. The ISA is responsible for ensuring the ocean floor under international waters is only used for “benefitting the common heritage of mankind.” One of their responsibilities, according to the UN, is ensuring equal access to the resources on the ocean floor for developing nations.

Documents acquired by the Times revealed that The Metals Company was granted access to data from the ISA that, according to its own rules, should have gone to developing nations first. The company received an unfair advantage in their hunt for high-value polymetallic nodules, small orbs of metal on the ocean floor that contain important materials for the construction of electric car batteries. By knowing exactly which undersea plots had the best access to nodules, the company was able to go “shopping” for a developing nation desperate enough to sponsor their extraction projects. These nations, which get first priority when plots are allotted, will receive only a tiny fraction of the value The Metals Company extracts from the bottom of the sea.

While public criticism of The Metals Company was strong after this information was released, this incident deserves some re-examination in the context of Canada’s role in the global extractive industry. It is no coincidence that the metals company is based in Vancouver over 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies are headquartered in Canada. These companies operate all over the world, with devastating effects for workers, communities, and the environment. Catherine Nolin and Grahame Russel from the University of Northern British Columbia take the example of Canadian mining companies in Guatemala in their book Testimonio, a striking account of the violence against the Maya Q’echi’ people and nature waged by these companies. Canada’s disproportionate role in extractive industry accentuates the hollowness of our international environmental commitments.

The Metals Company, while engaging in an exploitative relationship with developing countries, does not seem to have the same problems with perpetuating colonial violence against the inhabitants of land they are trying to mine. They are far out in international waters, after all. That said, there is still the problem of the damage their high-tech extraction processes could do to the seabed, home to immense biodiversity. Hundreds of experts are calling for a moratorium on such mining. The Seabed Authority recently completed their review of the environmental impacts of the process, and approved The Metals Company to begin collecting polymetallic nodules. In the context of the ISA’s relationship with The Metals Company, there are concerns that the review was insufficiently stringent.

In the past decade, Canadian companies have been hit with civil suits by the victims of their security forces in Guatemala. If successful, this would be a huge step towards holding Canadian multinationals accountable for their crimes abroad. But what about crimes committed against nature? No international law against mass destruction of the environment exist, despite the best efforts of organizations like Stop Ecocide. The irreversible destruction of what oceanographer Craig Smith calls “one of the largest wilderness areas left” under international waters is not prohibited whatsoever. The agencies that would govern such issues can, apparently, be bought.

What this incident highlights is not that Canadian companies are playing dirty overseas that is well-established. The human rights violations perpetuated in Guatemala and elsewhere are far more pressing than what is discussed here. Rather, what this incident highlights is that everything is for sale. Even seabeds, deep under international waters, regulated by supposedly responsible international agencies, are subject to corrupt business practices and roundabout privatization. The moment something becomes valuable on international markets, it must be able to be sold for the profits of developed countries. This is disastrous for our planet, and Canada’s disproportionate role in it must be acknowledged to be remedied.

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