Corporate profits the point of Harper’s Africa policy

Despite rhetoric about providing aid to the poorest, the Harper Conservatives have worked assiduously to ensure that Canadian corporations profit from Africa’s vast mineral resources, rather than the continent’s people.

Even widespread criticism of their operations has failed to dampen the Conservatives’ support for Canada’s many mining interests in Africa. Canadian mining companies have been accused of bribing officials, evading taxes, dispossessing farmers, displacing communities, employing forced labour, devastating ecosystems and spurring human rights violations.

But more important than the specific instances of abuse, which I detail in my forthcoming book Canada in Africa: 300 Years of Aid and Exploitation, the mining industry contributes little to sustainable economic development. Instead it vacuums up resources to benefit wealthy people, very few of whom live in Africa.

The mining industry has found a set of loyal lobbyists in the Harper government. Indifferent to the deleterious impacts of the sector, International Trade Minister Ed Fast has included numerous mining executives in his delegations to the continent, and former foreign minister John Baird focused his visits to Africa on countries where Canadian resource companies sought business. For his part, International Development Minister Christian Paradis praised the sector’s development benefits in a bid to (misleadingly) convince African officials that “Canada owes much of its economic growth to extractive industries.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has personally promoted Canadian mining companies, for instance, when Benin’s president visited Ottawa in 2013. During a trip to Senegal in 2012 the PM met with representatives from several mining firms and publicly lauded the sector.

On a visit to Tanzania in 2007, Harper met with more than 10 Canadian resource firms, calling this an opportunity to discuss “the general business climate [and] what the government of Canada can do to assist in building our investments here.” In the months after Harper’s visit, the Canadian High Commission lobbied Tanzania’s Parliament to reject the recommendation of the country’s Mineral Sector Review Committee that the government keep more of the profits resulting from higher mineral prices.

Since 2012 Ottawa has pumped huge sums of public money into mining initiatives in Africa. The public money helped establish branch offices of a professional society, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum, in Senegal and Burkina Faso as well as a Senegalese school for geomatics (combining geography and information technology to map natural resources).

Last year, Canada pledged $18.5 million of tax money to provide training in the extractives industry in Mozambique, and earlier this year Ottawa announced a $12-million grant for a project called Strengthening Education for Mining in Ethiopia “to develop more industry driven geology and mining engineering undergraduate programs.” In 2014 the government budgeted up to $25 million per year for the Extractives Cooperation for Enhanced Economic Development (EXCEED) initiative, which it described as “a new funding mechanism to expand Canada’s involvement in areas of high development impact in the extractive sector in Africa.”

In addition to promoting the sector in general, the Conservatives are now channelling foreign “aid” through mining companies, ploughing millions of dollars into corporate social responsibility projects. One example of this “aid” was a $4.5-million grant to Lundin for Africa, a charity financed by mining behemoth Lundin Group of Companies, for its operations in Ghana, Mali and Senegal. Ottawa also put up $5.6 million for a project between NGO Plan Canada and IAMGOLD near the company’s mine in Burkina Faso.

As the Conservatives pumped tens of millions of “aid” dollars into supporting an industry notorious for abuses in countries with weak legal structures, they also blocked domestic attempts at regulation while ensuring Canadian mining companies held the upper hand in foreign jurisdictions.

The Conservatives defeated Bill C-300, which would have withheld diplomatic and financial support from companies found responsible for significant abuses abroad. They also opposed legislation modeled on the U.S. Alien Torts Claims Act that would have allowed lawsuits against Canadian companies responsible for major human rights violations or ecological destruction abroad.

After two decades of privatization and loosened restrictions on foreign investment, mining companies operating on the continent fear a reversal of these policies. And so, in what may be their most significant support to Canadian mining corporations in Africa, the Conservatives negotiated Foreign Investment Protection Agreements with a number of African countries. FIPAs give corporations the right to sue governments — in private, investor-friendly tribunals — for interfering with profits, such as expropriating a concession, changing investment rules or requiring that value-added production take place in the country rather than abroad.

In essence, these agreements aim to counter “resource nationalism.” “Canada appears keen to negotiate FIPAs with some of the most economically and politically vulnerable but resource rich African countries before they develop a taste for resource sovereignty,” notes academic and author Paula Butler in Canadian Dimension.

Canadian policy in Africa has become largely synonymous with the interests of Canadian mining companies. The Harper Conservatives have sought to ensure that the continent’s mining policy serves the interests of foreign corporations, the majority of Africans be damned.

This article first appeared in Ricochet

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