Editor’s note: Following the publication of this article, reports emerged that no survivors were found in an underground refuge chamber at the Perkoa mine in Burkina Faso. In the spirit of international solidarity, the NB Media Co-op wishes to send its condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.
Eight miners in Burkina Faso have been stuck underground for a month. Unlike other mining disasters, it’s received little attention outside West Africa.
K. Diallo recently tweeted, “for 20 days, eight African miners have been stranded more than 500 meters deep in a zinc mine operated by a Canadian company in Burkina Faso. Why on earth isn’t there more outrage on this? Or is solidarity just a privilege that remains for those who live in the west and are white.”
Vancouver-based Trevali Mining owns the mine in central Burkina Faso. On April 16 the mine flooded during thunderstorms and eight miners were trapped 550 meters below the surface. Burkina Faso Prime Minister Alberta Ouedraogo reportedly blamed “irresponsibility” by those running the mines, saying the use of dynamite contributed to the flooding. Trevali’s managers have been temporary blocked from leaving the country.
The eight men stuck underground are but the latest in a string of tragedies at Canadian mines in Burkina Faso. At least 37 were killed in a rebel attack at Montréal-based SEMAFO’s operations there in 2019. In October, several of Toronto-based IAMGOLD’s employees were kidnapped in northern Burkina Faso. A half dozen villages were relocated to make way for IAMGOLD’s open pit gold mine, which gobbles up significant water in an arid region. That company was also accused of hiding gold in coal shipments to avoid paying royalties.
Labour violations, killings or ecological damage at Canadian mines in Burkina or elsewhere on the continent rarely receive much attention. When they are mentioned, it’s usually in the Globe and Mail Report on Business or Financial Post and there’s generally little about Canada’s influence over mining policy.
Ottawa also shapes the country’s mining policy. The above data is drawn from a Canadian embassy sponsored project designed to promote the industry (interestingly, they failed to reveal how much profit Canadian firms extract from the country). In 2014, Ottawa helped establish an office of the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum in Burkina Faso and has funded aid initiatives with the mining sector.
In response to Diallo’s tweet, a number of individuals on social media pointed out how there’s a great deal of discussion about China buying up Africa’s natural resources but little about how Canadian companies dominate mining in most African countries. (In 2019, Natural Resources Canada reported that Canadian mining investment in Africa totaled $37.8 billion.) The crass double standard has been obvious for some time. In 2013, I wrote, “the dominant media prefers to focus on how Chinese companies are buying up the continent even though on a per capita basis Canadian corporations have taken control of a great deal more of Africa’s natural resources than China’s.”
In another example of media silence on Canadian mining policy in Burkina Faso, I was unable to find a single criticism of the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) Ottawa signed with an interim, military-dominated regime, in any major Canadian news outlet.
In 2014 Ottawa signed a FIPA with the transition administration that took over after President Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year reign was ended by popular protest. Burkina Faso was represented at the April 2015 FIPA signing ceremony in Ottawa by Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, who was deputy commander of the presidential guard when Compaoré was ousted by popular protest six months earlier. While the West African nation’s caretaker government was supposed to move aside after an election planned for later that year, the FIPA cannot be fully repealed for 16 years.
At the time, I submitted an opinion piece to four major dailies decrying this flagrant disregard for electoral democracy. Unsurprisingly, they all refused to publish it.
FIPAs undermine Africans’ ability to democratically determine economic policy by giving corporations the right to sue governments — in private, investor-friendly tribunals — for pursuing policies that interfere with their profit-making. These bilateral investment accords are primarily about protecting Canadian mining firms from popular discontent. After decades of privatization and loosened restrictions on foreign investment through International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs (SAPs), mining companies operating in Africa fear a reversal of these policies. The ability to sue a government in an international tribunal for lost profits partially alleviates those fears, which is why Ottawa has signed/negotiated these accords with 20 African countries.
There’s also been little discussion of Canada’s role promoting SAPs. Through the late 1980s and 1990s Canada channeled hundreds of millions of dollars in “aid” to support SAPs. The structural adjustment process forced more than thirty African governments to rewrite mining codes to facilitate foreign ownership and exploitation of their mineral resources. A World Bank-promoted reform in Burkina Faso, for instance, reduced mining income taxes by 20 percent, dividend withholding taxes by 50 percent and capped the government’s share of mining ventures at 10 percent.
At the same time as Canada’s aid agency promoted reforms that benefited foreign mining firms in Burkina Faso, Canadians mapped the country’s underground riches. Longtime West Africa-based freelance journalist Joan Baxter describes a chance encounter with Canadian geologists in her 2008 book Dust From Our Eyes: An Unblinkered Look at Africa: “Another CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] employee I met one evening in Bamako [Mali] told me his work with CIDA had been a long-term project to map the mineral resources of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. When we spoke, he was on a two-year sabbatical from CIDA, working with Canadian mining companies that had taken out concessions in that country. In the 1980s in Burkina Faso, I had met a team of Canadians who were flying in an odd-looking plane so full of antenna and wires that it resembled a flying catfish. When I asked the crew what kind of plane it was, they told me it was for mapping the underground riches of Burkina Faso, whose gold is now being mined today by foreign — and several Canadian — companies.”
Canada’s been shaping African mining policy since the colonial period. In 1916, Montréal-based Alcan started exploring in Guinea and a dozen years later began operating through a French subsidiary. After Guinea’s 1958 independence, Alcan’s Boké project became highly contentious.
A decade before Uganda won its independence, Falconbridge acquired a 70% stake in the Kilembe copper-cobalt mine in the western part of the country. Independence leader Milton Obote’s nationalization of the mine is one reason the UK, US and Canada backed General Idi Amin’s coup against Obote.
Like the eight miners trapped underground for a month, Canada’s exploitation of African resources is of little interest to the dominant media.
Yves Engler is a Montréal-based activist and author. This commentary first appeared on his website.