Coming Face to Face with the Victims of Mining Oppression

It was an interesting situation, one I don’t often find myself in. A few of my colleagues from Operation Groundswell and I were having dinner with five Mayan Q’eqchi people from the communities of El Estor, Guatemala. I don’t speak Spanish nor do our guests speak English. And yet, there we were, sharing a meal together. Through awkward smiles and broken Spanish (on my part, at least), we exchanged names and warm greetings. We dug into pupusas, burritos, black bean soup while trying to converse through a mix of hand gestures, our translators, and more smiles. As lovely as the encounter was, I wish I had met these wonderful people under very different circumstances…

Angelica, German, Margarita, Maria, and Rosa were not in Toronto as part of some citywide tour or vacation. They were not here to enjoy the culture and sights our city has to offer. No. They are all victims of extreme human rights violations by Canadian company Hudbay Minerals—a company accused of forcibly evicting local indigenous communities in Guatemala. And they were here to give testimony on three precedent-setting civil negligence suits concerning the gang rape of eleven Q’eqchi women, the assassination of community leader Adolfo Ich (Angelica’s husband), and the shooting and paralyzing of German.

They shared their pained experiences with us, explaining their purpose for coming to Canada as just one step in their long and bitter fight for justice. Though a colleague spoke enough Spanish to translate, we really didn’t need an interpreter to feel the grief and sorrow these people had endured and carried everyday in their hearts.

We hear stories of these human rights violations everyday. But that’s all they really are. Stories. Abstractions so removed from our daily life. It’s a harrowing but necessary experience to come face to face with the people behind these stories and to realize that these are not isolated cases taking place in just one small, remote community. From Guatemala to Honduras and beyond, conflicts and violence involving foreign mining companies abound. 

Action needs to come from the Guatemalan government to uphold rule of law and put an end to the poisonous culture of impunity, but also from the Canadian government that allows the actions of these corporations. For instance, the Canadian International Development Agency has established development projects in partnership with the very same mining corporations responsible for these human rights violations as well as environmental degradation.  

As non-profit organization MiningWatch stated, “Aid money is meant to address poverty, not to promote the commercial interests of Canadian mining companies. Nor should it subsidize the obligations of mining companies to provide benefits to affected residents and rehabilitate damaged environments”.

If we are to demand change and action, we must begin at home.

Take action against mining oppression in Guatemala through Amnesty International's Write for Rights campaign and RightsAction.org.

Pushing back against the #Kony2012 Backlash

My Facebook feed has been exploding with videos, blog posts, and comments about Joseph Kony for the past few days. This is not normal. War criminals are not usually the topic of heated discussions amongst my Facebook friends. No, lolcatz and other banalities are often the topics du jour. But since Invisible Children's #Kony2012 video hit the internetz, all have been abuzz about Uganda, Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and even the credibility of Invisible Children itself. A public dialogue about development, aid, and human rights on Facebook? Am I dreaming? When does this ever happen? Seriously?

#Kony2012 has been under some serious heat the past few days and it's been fascinating just to see and read all the backlash. Some of the main critiques of the campaign can be summarized as such:

Invisible Children's shady financials (from Visible Children):

"Invisible Children has been condemned time and time again. As a registered not-for-profit, its finances are public. Last year, the organization spent $8,676,614. Only 32% went to direct services (page 6), with much of the rest going to staff salaries, travel and transport, and film production. This is far from ideal, and Charity Navigator rates their accountability 2/4 stars because they haven't had their finances externally audited. But it goes way deeper than that."

Factual inaccuracies and the oversimplification of the issue (from Michael Wilkerson on Foreign Policy):

"It would be great to get rid of Kony.  He and his forces have left a path of abductions and mass murder in their wake for over 20 years.  But let’s get two things straight: 1) Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and hasn’t been for 6 years; 2) the LRA now numbers at most in the hundreds, and while it is still causing immense suffering, it is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality."

The revival of the "white man as hero" narrative (from Max Fisher of The Atlantic):

"Worst of all, the much-circulated campaign subtly reinforces an idea that has been one of Africa's biggest disasters: that well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix it. Africans, in this telling, are helpless victims, and Westerners are the heroes. It's part of a long tradition of Western advocacy that has, for centuries, adopted some form of white man's burden, treating African people as cared for only to the extent that Westerners care, their problems solvable only to the extent that Westerners solve them, and surely damned unless we can save them."

The effectiveness of the campaign's intended goal (from Project Diaspora's Teddy Ruge):

"Kony has been on the run for 25+ years. On a continent 3 times the size of America. Catching & stopping him is not a priority of immediate concern. You know what is? Finding a bed net so that millions of kids don’t die every day from malaria. How many of you know that more Ugandans died in road accidents last year (2838) than have died in the past 3 years from LRA attacks in whole of central Africa(2400)? We’ve picked our battles and we chose to simply try to live. And the world should be helping us live on our own terms, by respecting our agency to choose which battles to put capacity towards."

The absence of Ugandan voices and agency (from InnovateAfrica):

"Invisible Children’s US staff is comprised exclusively of Americans, as is the entire Board. How do you represent Uganda and not have Ugandans in leadership? Couldn’t the organization find a single Ugandan? An African? Did it even think about that? Does that matter to current staff and board members? I understand that IC’s main audience is American and its focus is on American action. However, when your work and consequence affect a different group of people than your target audience, you must make it a priority to engage the voices of the affected population in a real and meaningful way, in places and spaces where programs are designed, strategies dissected, and decisions made."

I've spent most of today sifting through the many blogs and articles about the campaign and though most of the critiques are valid, justified and very well-thought out, I can't help but feel a sense of repulsion from the sarcasm of those who lambast Invisible Children's initiative. The overall tone and language that have surrounded the backlash is sarcastic and arrogant, deriding those who I honestly believe want to genuinely do something positive (as these memes would demonstrate). More than that, much of what I've found online only offer attacks on Invisible Children and the #Kony2012 initiative without offering any alternative solutions. Instead of galvanizing people to act as a force for good, this tone and language will simply lead people to resort back to inaction, paralyzed and disheartened to hear that the organization they were so excited to support is just a "scam". Yes, it is essential to call out an organization on its transparency, accountability, and overall goals. That is part of being an intelligent and informed citizen. And yes, good intentions are not enough but disparaging them, in my opinion, is even worse than slacktivism.

At the time of writing, the video has over 43 million views. That is not something to scoff at. Let's be real. Activists, journalists, and academics who have worked in Uganda and Central Africa for the past two decades have never mustered as much interest and energy as this video has in FIVE DAYS. We need organizations who, with their slick marketing skills, will shine a light on pressing issues that fly under the radar. And we need the academics and activists who are well-versed in development and aid to work with these organizations to ensure that responsible and effective programs are developed and implemented. There should be collaboration in this space, not contempt. And so here I quote the sentiments of Sarah Margon of the Center for American Progress

"...instead of continuing to debate the strengths and weakness of the Kony2012 video, or attack Invisible Children for their lack of financial transparency, let’s figure out how to turn this momentum into a constructive opportunity that can result in smart policies that will have a positive, real-time impact in the affected areas of central Africa. Let’s harness this energy and turn it into something productive that ensures we’re telling the right stories, inspiring well-informed advocacy, and working together across governments, academia, grassroots activists, and local populations to help bring this chapter of the LRA — and the impact in affect areas — to a close."


Do your research. Learn about and educate yourself on the situation in Central Africa today. Listen to and read African voices by tuning in to local media. Some of the leading newspapers on the ground are the Daily Monitor, the Independent, and New Vision. Another great resource is Global Voices, which is a community of citizen journalists and bloggers (this includes stories from around the world too, not just limited to Uganda).

And then support local initiatives. There are many organizations led by Ugandans themselves who are better equipped and better informed to implement proper solutions on the ground. I've been scouring the internet, talking to leading activists on the ground and here are some starters for you:

HURIFO: an NGO dedicated to promoting human rights and aims especially to raise the visibility of the plight of internally displaced persons in Uganda.

International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI): dedicated to promoting human rights in situations of conflict and displacement, enhancing the protection of vulnerable populations before, during and after conflict.

Art for Children Uganda (ACU): an NGO committed to lift the voice of all children through creative means to promote cultural awareness, develop critical thinking and self-expression, and recreate and promote psychosocial healing.

a youth-led community building initiative in Lira, Uganda.

Concerned Parents Association (CPA) Lira: a child focused organization formed by a group of parents affected by the abduction of children by the LRA in Northern Uganda.

Women of Kireka: a women’s cooperative business based in Kampala, Uganda providing business skills training, added capital and a resilient peer group to women affected by the conflict. 

The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI): an interfaith peace building and conflict transformation organization.

Friends of Orhans Uganda: an initiative administered by former child soldiers, orphans and abductees from Pader District that aims to reduce the vulnerability of mothers, orphans, former child soldiers, abductees and women through education and skills empowerment.

**This is not, by any means, an exhaustive list. If you know of any local organizations doing responsible and effective work in Uganda, please let me know in the comments section so we can expand this list!


For all its flaws, Invisible Children has managed to raise not just awareness but also fervour about an issue that many have forgotten about or never even knew about to begin with. Let's use this surge in energy and momentum to do something productive. Opportunities like these do not come by very often.

More Than Words

"Language shapes the way we see the world". These were the words of my community engagement professor and they have stayed with me through the years and well beyond the four walls of that classroom. As I learn more about aid, international development, global injustices and inequities, these words have gained even more saliency in my mind.

Thoughts from Damned Nations still linger, especially those regarding the feel-good rhetoric of humanitarian involvement and many of our own desires to make a difference in this world (whatever that entails). We throw words around like "doing good", "charity", "empowerment", "social change", without a thought to their deeper meanings, historical significance, or the assumptions they bear. And then we act on such conceptions with the presumption of knowledge...a presumption that, on many occassions, can be more damaging than ignorance itself.

One of the most powerful quotes I've encountered is that attributed to Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian artist and activist, and one that has become the motto for many activist groups: "If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together". The choice of words in the two sentences may, at first glance, be subtle but their implications and entire messaging are radically different. Power dynamics are changed, dependencies are shifted, and even the result of the effort are dramatically altered.

Some may scoff at this and say much of this is just another case of our society's obsession with political-correctness. And I'll admit, the thought has crossed my mind as well. But I honestly do believe that the words that we use and the discourses we take part in shape not only our assumptions about global issues, but ultimately the way we react and respond to them.

Just as a small pivot can change one's entire direction, so too can a single word.

For those of you who read this post hoping for Extreme's ballad, my sincere apologies. Let me make it up to you: click here.

Consumers of War and Exploitation

I just finished reading Samantha Nutt's new book, Damned Nations, and my brain is going on overdrive trying to deconstruct all the complex issues outlined in that book. She seamlessly weaves hard facts of our world's increasing militarization (annual military spending is now at $1.5 trillion, the highest in sixty-five years) with gut-wrenching accounts of her personal experiences on the field in some of the most war-torn corners of the world. Perhaps most importantly though, Nutt poignantly reveals that often invisible but very real thread that binds us, as individuals, directly to this violence.

"We are consumers of war", Nutt bluntly writes. But more often than not, we are oblivious of this fact.  Case in point: the Canadian Pension Plan, which every working Canadian citizen must contribute to, has invested some $200 million to the top arms manufacturers in the world. We Canadians are, collectively and individually -- and most probably unknowingly -- polishing the very machinery that leads to human destruction. Meanwhile, the international community is in a frenzy trying to put an arms embargo against Syria to alleviate the violence currently taking place there. It seems rather counterintuitive, doesn't it? To be placing our bets on a boom in the weapons industry and then freaking out every single time there's conflict because those same weapons are being used to kill innocent people?

Tungsten, tantalum, tin, and gold are minerals used in our electronics...they also fund the conflict in Central Africa

And then there is the more publicized issue of "conflict minerals". In a nutshell, profits from the minerals that are used to manufacture many of our electronic devices are being used to finance armed militia groups, most especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where most of these mines are). Not only are civilians being murdered en-masse, but women, children, and men alike are brutally raped, re-raped, gang raped as a part of daily life (more on that here). And let's not forget the recent reports on the atrocious working conditions of the factories our mobile phones, tablets, and laptops are manufactured in...so atrocious that it has actually driven some people to commit suicide (Foxconn, anyone?).

And isn't it all just too ironic? The very technologies that have been lauded for liberating societies (think mobile phone use in the "Arab Spring"), the same technologies that are supposedly continuing our path towards greater progress are the products of rampant human rights violations. It's like taking one step forward and then two steps back. And so we are not just consumers of war, but we are also consumers of exploitation.

But then I wonder...if we really knew or understood the processes that lay behind the many things we consume, would we change our lifestyle, not wanting to be a part of such an irresponsible system? Or is the cost of human life too far removed that we just wouldn't be moved to act? I'm a bit of an optimist (maybe to a fault) so I'd like to think that the former is the case. Plus, this isn't new to us. We are aware of the exploitation happening in various developing nations and have even been moved to act before (as in the case of sweatshops). And so I'm inclined to believe that we (a good majority of us, at least) would be mobilized to act if we really knew what was happening behind all the marketing, branding, and all the shiny things made to distract us.

Already there is a growing movement towards ethical and responsible consumerism with a number of businesses offering products and services that are environmentally friendly, locally produced, and ensured against human exploitation. And then there is the growing popularity of "cash mobs" -- à la flash mobs but for shopping! -- where people spend money as a group to incentivize a business to make a socially responsible change (less sticks, more carrots).

"Every commercial transaction has a cost". And that goes deeper than the amount of money we pay...we're talking about the cost of human life here. And I think that those of us who are in a position of privelege have a responsibility to educate ourselves and be more conscious about our consumer choices....because that's just it...we have choices and simply acting guilty about these facts is needless and unproductive. At a time when humanitarianism and "doing good" seems to be on everyone's lips, a critical reflection of our motivations and actions must be our first step...