At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, production cuts and closures were enforced by global mining companies. The global health crisis simultaneously resulted in the drastic decrease of demand for raw materials extracted by mining operations globally.
Silver extraction was hit the hardest by government lockdowns and collapsed demand, with 66 percent of global production put on hold. Some metals such as nickel, an essential component of electric vehicle batteries, have lost more than 30 percent of production, as countries vulnerable to COVID-19 such as the Philippines where mining operations are concentrated, temporarily ceased to stop the spread of the disease.
Despite downward trends in demand, companies involved in the extraction of gold and rare-earth minerals—materials used in the production of components for renewable energy technologies—have continued production and are seeking to expand further still, at the expense of the environment and human rights.
Ottawa-based watchdog MiningWatch Canada, together with various allied organizations, provides insight into these troubling trends in a new report entitled, “Voices from the Ground: How the Global Mining Industry is Profiting from the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The report takes a particular interest in Canadian mining companies because of their overwhelming market power and their significant influence in jurisdictions around the world.
Some governments have deemed mining operations as “essential activities,” yielding to the need for raw materials to supply the manufacturing sector and continue capitalist growth. Other governments have made mining an “essential activity” responding to industry pressure to do so. Regrettably, stringent quarantine measures that should have curbed mining activities did not bring an environmental silver lining as extraction continued as normal.
Only a week before the coronavirus was officially declared a pandemic, 23,000 people attended the world’s biggest mining expo. Held annually in Toronto in March, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention went ahead earlier this year despite warnings from public health officials. Several attendees of what was dubbed the “coronavirus convention” subsequently tested positive for COVID-19. Despite nearing the pandemic’s tipping point, the global mining industry’s pageant show could not be postponed.
As documented in the aforementioned MiningWatch report, companies have also taken advantage of the pandemic to try to cover up dirty track records in countries like Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Northern Ireland, and the Philippines.
Close to mine sites that have kept operating are communities which have become vectors for the spread of COVID-19 between workers and community members, while also sickening land and water protectors on the frontlines. Many of these global mining operations are infecting Indigenous peoples. In support of mining firms, governments have also deployed military and police forces to vilify legitimate, peaceful protests under the guise of preventative pandemic measures. Restrictions on freedom of assembly and association have also been imposed without public oversight.
What’s more, imprisonment has not stopped under COVID-19 and environmental defenders are at heightened risk of contracting the disease due to unsanitary conditions within jails. While mining executives continue to enjoy protections, peoples’ lives are put at greater risk around mining operations.
For instance, a ‘people’s barricade’ closing access to the Didipio Gold-Copper Mine on the island of Luzon in the Philippines was violently dispersed by national police in April on the basis that it violated community lockdown measures. The barricade was initially set up by Indigenous peoples in opposition to a mining operation near their community in July 2019. The Didipio mine is owned and operated by OceanaGold, an Australian-Canadian owned venture. Even before the spread of the coronavirus, OceanaGold was known for its human rights violations in the Philippines, including killings with “near impunity”, according to a report by the United Nations.
The Philippines is considered the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental defenders, with more than 30 environmentalists murdered and countless more criminalized in 2018 alone. Mining conflicts are found to be responsible for the largest share of murders against land defenders in the world—an estimated average of more than three killings per week, according to Global Witness. The violence in the Philippines is encouraged by President Rodrigo Duterte, who launched a deadly anti-narcotics crackdown after sweeping to power in 2016 on a platform of eradicating crime. More recently, an authoritarian “Anti-Terror Law” underwent legislative approval. In effect, the law criminalizes most forms of protest and curtails civil liberties, especially for those opposing mining operations. Many critics say the law is a distraction from Duterte’s poor response to the pandemic, and is designed to tighten his authoritarian grip on the country and Philippine civil society.
Of the 61 global mining operations continuing under COVID-19 (and covered by MiningWatch’s Voices from the Ground report), Canadian companies own more than one-third of the mines. The Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability has questioned the labour practices of these companies and has called for an independent ombudsperson to investigate abuses and redress harms caused by Canadian companies operating around the world. Some even go as far to suggest that mining is really about the iron logic of capital, which not only drives innovation by financing projects but fuels violence through private armies hired to protect private investments.
Resistance to Canadian mining interests in the Philippines has come to a head under COVID-19, as authoritarian power uses the global crisis to crush democratic opposition. Mining expansion has pushed Indigenous communities and poor rural folk to confrontation, making it clear that the Philippine government was never interested in investment and regulation for the public interest; it was always geared towards extraction for capitalist accumulation and profit margins for the powerful.
The increasing violence surrounding extractive operations around the world demonstrates the role of mining as capitalism’s ‘commodities fallback’ in the face of unprecedented economic upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic. As the global crisis continues to unfold, the inherent dilemmas of this planet-wrecking system are quickly being unearthed.
Ysh Cabana is a writer and community organizer living in Toronto. He is also a member of BAYAN-Canada, alliance of progressive Filipino groups.