Vancouver-based mining company Pan American Silver held its Annual General Meeting (AGM) on May 12th: the final shareholder meeting for retiring founder and Board Chair Ross Beaty. To shareholders attending online, Beaty narrated a glowing chronicle of Pan American Silver’s socially and environmentally responsible history in Latin America. Yet, when Breaking the Silence and other shareholders submitted questions regarding the social and environmental impacts of the company’s business on communities in Mexico, Peru, Guatemala and Argentina, they were ignored and their questions deemed not “pertinent”.
Shareholders asked if Pan American Silver would take responsibility for acid drainage and other tailings dam risks at the Quiruvilca mine in La Libertad, Peru. Pan American Silver offloaded this project in 2012 after operating the mine for seventeen years, saying it trusted the responsibility of the incoming company to take care of workers and communities. But the new owners walked away too and it has since been labeled a “time bomb”. There have been five emergency declarations due to the high levels of heavy metal contamination in the Moche river from acid mine drainage, which began under Pan American Silver’s watch, as well as dangers related to the instability of its tailing impoundments.
The same question was posed concerning the community of La Colorada, Mexico, which was forcibly displaced to make way for mine expansion in 2017. During the AGM, Beaty called the La Colorada mine a “massive win for our shareholders” and failed to acknowledge the human suffering that the expansion caused. Over forty families were uprooted and moved to a “Residential Unit” that adjoins the mine site, where the company exercises near complete control over daily life. On top of these suffocating conditions, residents are concerned about potential impacts on their health, given the close proximity of their homes to the mine.
Further questions were raised about the conflict that Pan American is fueling with Indigenous Mapuche Tehuelche People and other residents of the province of Chubut, Argentina. The company’s involvement in pressuring local authorities to overturn a mining ban that has been in place since 2003 is leading to unrest and repression. The mining ban in Chubut has been tenaciously defended for nearly twenty years out of concern for mining’s impacts on water and the environment. Recently, 30,000 residents of Chubut signed a petition demanding their legislature approve a “Popular Initiative” that would expand and complement the environmental protections in the existing ban by prohibiting all large-scale metalliferous mining activity at every stage including prospection and exploration, not only exploitation.
However, under increasing pressure from industry, the Chubut legislature has made multiple attempts to repeal the 2003 mining ban and recently rejected the Popular Initiative – without legislative debate. This caused massive social upheaval in the last few weeks during which at least three people were detained and beaten by police. Shareholders directed a question to Pan American Silver’s new Chair of the Board, Gillian Winckler, asking if the company would end its involvement in the Navidad project given clear and unwavering social opposition in Chubut.
Rising tensions and violence against community members is also a concern at the company’s suspended Escobal mine in Guatemala where a court-ordered consultation with the Indigenous Xinka People is pending. Pan American Silver’s continued interference at the local level is seen by the Xinka as an act of bad faith in the context of the consultation that worsens social division. This is evidenced by a rise in violent attacks against participants in the consultation process, including an attempted assassination against one land defender in January, an armed attack against a Xinka delegate to the consultation process in April, and death threats against others. In April of this year, 3,900+ individuals signed a petition denouncing the violence. Shareholders asked Winckler if Pan American Silver will respect the Xinka people’s right to a “free” consultation and immediately cease interference in local communities. They further asked if, at the end of the consultation process, Pan American Silver would respect the Xinka’s right to say no to the future re-opening of Escobal mine.
Unfortunately, none of these questions were acknowledged nor answered during the AGM. After President and CEO of Pan American Silver, Michael Steinmann, answered three other shareholders’ questions, Vice President of Investor Relations, Siren Fisekci announced, “Those are all the questions pertinent to the business of the meeting that we received from shareholders.” With that statement, Pan American Silver dismissed truly life-threatening concerns regarding the wellbeing of communities living near the Quiruvilca, La Colorada, Escobal and La Navidad projects. For Pan American Silver, community concerns are not “pertinent”.
Ironically, the bulk of the meeting was dedicated to self-congratulatory remarks from the out-going chair of the board, Ross Beaty, about Pan American’s glowing reputation as a corporate citizen. Prior to question period, Beaty stated:
“We’ve got this fantastic reputation, and it’s a reputation for excellence, not only in the engineering of mines…it’s our reputation and the other things, things that are important today… the environment, social governance. Those are the things that shareholders are valuing more today than ever, and I can say we’ve lived that… at the end of the day, it’s your actions and your real world events that happened that build reputations and build value.”
Beaty and Pan American Silver are clearly aware that the social and environmental impacts of their investments are of concern to shareholders, but their refusal to even minimally acknowledge or respond to serious concerns means they aren’t serious about addressing them. If the incoming chair of the board, Gillian Winkler, hopes to make any difference in the direction of the company, she should treat the lives, livelihoods and self-determination of affected peoples with respect, and start taking responsibility for the company’s actions.
Written in collaboration with Earthworks, Institute for Policy Studies – Global Economy Program, MiningWatch Canada, Mining Justice Action Committee, and Students for Mining Justice, University of British Columbia.