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Review of Allan Lissner's show: Someone Else's Treasure

by Paul York
October 25th, 2008

Report on OCIC showing of Allan Cedillo Lissner's photos from Tanzania, by Paul York of the Toronto Mining Support Group, affiliated with ProtestBarrick paulyork.2008@gmail.com

Earlier today I attended the Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC) showing of Allan Cidello Lissner's photos from Tanzania. The slideshow had a history-making element to it: it was, as far as I'm aware, the first public showing in Canada of photos of victims of the Bulyanhulu massacre and forced displacement of approximately 400,000 people. The photos were very sad, yet they also showed the dignity, resilience and persistence of the people in surviving and – where possible – opposing this crime against humanity. Allan made the excellent point that these photos were a form of independent media, a way for the victims to tell their story, since the corporate media (effectively complicit with the mining industry) have consistently failed to report their voices, even after many of them have visited Canada to share their stories.

He also showed his photos from the Philippines and the ProtestBarrick tour, accompanied by audio tapes of speeches by Neville "Chappy" Williams (AUST), Jethro Tulin (PNG) and Sergio (Chile) during their tour of Canada. Perhaps what was most interesting about this event - aside from the photos themselves - was the reaction of those present. Everyone, with the exception of Pieter Basedow and myself, were from NGOs working on human rights, mining or development in some capacity.

One notable exception was a woman sitting next to me, Marketa Evans. Last year she worked as Executive Director for the Munk Centre for International Studies (funded by Peter Munk, chairman of Barrick Gold), and in 2007 she appeared as a speaker alongside a representative from Barrick Gold at meeting hosted by Barrick's law firm, McMillan Binch Mendelsohn. The forum was titled "Canada's Responsibility Abroad" (http://www.igloo.org/ciiaevents/canadasr) though it was in fact a meeting to promote voluntary “corporate social responsibilty.” I noted that Dr. Evans did not take notes during the Philippines slideshow, but her notebook came out when the Tanzanian photos were shown.

As she scribbled names and quotes from the slides I had to wonder whether her report would end up on the desk of a Barrick operative, or whether she was just interested from the perspective of an academic. Even if the latter, a criticism that can be made of many academics who write on international development is that they are not sufficiently critical of the role of the IMF and World Bank and G8, all of which are responsible for putting pressure on developing nations to deregulate extraction industries so as to stimulate development which serves only the interests of developing nations. Ms. Evans ran the G8 project at the Munk Centre, which accepts funding not only from Munk, but also several banks, international corporations, CIDA (which works closely with the IMF and World Bank), and the U.S. State Department (see http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/about/g8rg_sponsors.htm/).

I have looked at her work and, predicatbly, it is couched in very neutral terms which fail to fully capture the human and environmental cost of G8 policies. After the show and during Q & A, Dr. Evans asked Allan what he wanted to see as a result of this project. Allan made a general statement that he wanted Canadians to become aware of what was happening and work for a positive change. She was dissatisfied with the answer and pressed for something more solid. Apologists for the mining industry often dismiss those who call for reforms by labelling them "anti-mining." Was she was pressing for some sort of remark from Allan to that effect? If so he didn't give it.

Instead a man with Peace & Development spoke up by giving a history of the (so-far) unsuccessful effort through the Halifax Initiative to bring about law reform and institute an ombudsperson. Dr. Evans also asked what the responsibility of the host countries was. This line of reasoning takes the focus of Canada and effectively absolve the Canadian government and Canadian corporations of moral responsibility. Allen's response, worth repeating, was that he wanted to show Canadians what was being done in their name, through CPP and other public investments.

Evans exited quickly after the Q & A.

When William Satcher of Ecosociete (being sued by Barrick for $6 million) was in Toronto we went to the Munk Centre and tried to interview Evans on camera; she managed to evade our questions and refused the interview, and told me it was her last day there. I have no idea with whom she is now working or why she showed up or for what reason.

A rep from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) - which has in the past accepted funding from Barrick - spoke up and asked Allan whether he thought to include the perspective of Barrick in his shows to provide "balance." He politely responded that Barrick got its perspective out through the mass media, through its website, and through its public relations advertising, and that he felt no need to amplify their voice more, but that the victims of Barrick needed a voice and these photos were among the few avenues available for them to appeal to the Canadian public. I found the JHR rep's comment on the need for a "balanced" coverage of perspectives insulting to the affected communities, and consistent with JHR's recent failure to work cooperatively with local Toronto mining activists and JHR’s general failure to research or recognize the history of law reform and policy efforts that have preceded its debut into this area of social justice work.

The market demand for gold, uranium, and other non-essential minerals in combination with new technologies that allow for wasteful intensive mining has led to an unprecedented attack on indigenous communities abroad. Is this really a time to start mollycoddling the perpetrators in the name of a “balanced” perspective? That would be like asking the fossil fuel industry how to protect the environment. The recent movie by JHR, “When Silence is Golden” - covering a case in Dumasi, West Ghana, is well worth seeing, but the film fails to provide a political analysis of context for understanding why mining abuses occur and the efforts of many groups over many years to oppose them.

At a recent film showing at Innis College Theatre, JHR's Ben Peterson was very defensive, refusing to work with local and international mining activists; however I get the feeling that JHR is more elitist and politically naive than wilfully complicit with evildoers. The same can probably be said of other NGOs, like AMREF, that receive money from mining companies, do good work with it, but fail to understand how they are actually helping to whitewash those companies and absolve them of their crimes.

Two people from OCIC spoke to me afterwards. They told me that their group was in the process of instituting an ethics panel for the benefit of NGO members who take funding from mining companies. They said they would not "police" their members but they would provide ethical guidelines, once formulated, to suggest to them. My response was that the guidelines should say "do not accept funding from mining companies." The lady - whose name I did not get - agreed with this, but added that this kind of guideline had to cover other issues as well - not only mining - and provide a more nuanced perspective on what did or did not constitute unethical funding sources from the private sector. This made me think of the so-called ethical funds (such as Jantzi Research) that take a relativist "best-of-sector" approach as to what constitutes an ethical investment, and who - by that standard - count Barrick as ethically sound. My analogy to this taking a dozen concentration camps and declaring the one that is least inhumane as ethically sound.

The argument that open-pit mining that involves acid mine leakage from tailings (which includes all major gold production) can ever be considered ethically or environmentally acceptable is just not credible. No amount of voluntary "CSR" (essentially pay-offs to locals) can ever compensate for the long-term destruction of an entire eco-system as there is no possible redress for future generations who will inhabit that site, nor is any consideration of the current generation of human inhabitants, nor consideration for the ecosystem itself and its non-human inhabitants. That is why (in my view) liberal reforms to the mining industry inevitably fall short of what is actually needed: an end to all open-pit mining and return to less intensive local mining.

Of course this is a perspective that business reporters and MPs on Parliament Hill might immediately dismiss as "unrealistic." However, I think that such so-called realism fail to take into account that local communities, if faced with death from water shortages and crop failures caused by mining, will fight back, and that these massive technologically complex operations are in fact highly vulnerable to sabotage and attack by people fighting for their lives. As fresh water sources diminish around the world, it is just a matter of time before the abuses of Canadian mining companies operating abroad will become the focal point for more massive protest movements (such as Pascua Lama) and even civil wars.

The question I would ask of those who naively advocate voluntary CSR and relatively ineffective liberal reforms (that is, reforms that allow open-pit mining to continue unabated) is whether their efforts actually alleviate suffering, or if they only manage to quell dissent and serve as a public relations exercise. For this reason I made a pitch to those assembled (all NGO reps) to work with affected communities when they are formulating policy reforms suggestions, since it is all too easy to advocate a position without consulting with those most affected.

Only the OCIC reps spoke to me afterwards; the other NGO reps (about a nine or ten) did not take up my invitation. Are they doing advocacy and law reform work without consulting the affected communities, and if so how effective can this be, and what are their funding sources and real affiliations? Whose interests do they really represent? These are questions that the board of directors of every NGO doing human rights and environmental work ought to be asking.

In summary, Allen's photojournalism is a highly effective tool for allowing Canadians to witness the human and environmental tragedy occurring in their name, subsidized by their tax dollars, and aided and abetted by their federal representatives. The slides stimulated discussion on the human cost of open-pit mining, and one hopes that they continue to be shown and published widely. History has shown that the power of photographs for moving people from ignorance and indifference to concerned action and helping to effect much-needed social and political change is considerable. The next showing is Oct. 29th at Hart House at University of Toronto.

 

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