As Mining Continues During Coronavirus, Local Indigenous Communities at High Risk

Violent dispersal of the peaceful encampments against Oceana Gold’s Didipio mine.

Violent dispersal of the peaceful encampments against Oceana Gold’s Didipio mine. Source: Julie Simongo of the United People’s Organization of Didipio

Mining sites across the globe have become hot spots for coronavirus infections, threatening thousands of workers and indigenous and rural communities, according to a new report by a coalition of environmental watchdog groups. Outbreaks of the virus have occurred in and around mine sites in 18 countries, including Panama, Brazil, Russia, Canada, and Peru.

As communities shuttered stores and schools in response to Covid-19, governments determined that mining operations were “essential” businesses, allowing them to stay open. Workers often continued their tasks in close proximity to each other, largely exempted from social distancing guidelines.

At the Lac des Iles palladium mine in Northern Ontario, Canada, at least 25 miners have tested positive, one has died, and the virus has spread to the nearby indigenous community, Gull Bay First Nation, according to the report, which examined nearly 500 news reports, company statements, and government press releases. In the mining town of Parauapebas, in Brazil’s Pará state, the number of deaths from respiratory disease increased 200 percent in April 2020 compared to the previous April.

Mining operations “have become key vectors for the spread of the virus and are putting communities, rural and urban populations, and their workforces, at great risk,” the report says. “In many cases, indigenous and rural communities already face acute risk from the virus, especially communities whose health has been impacted by contamination generated by mining extractivism. They are struggling to protect themselves from potential outbreaks.”

The report also found that companies and governments were using Covid-19 shutdowns as an opportunity to harass protestors or attack environmental defenders, many of them indigenous, as well as to eliminate or bypass environmental regulations. According to the report, in Colombia, armed groups have murdered 36 human rights and land defenders since March 6, when the first case of Covid-19 was identified in the country. In the Philippines, an encampment of people protesting Oceana Gold’s Didipio mine was “violently evicted” by police, according to the report. Honduras enacted a 24-hour curfew and banned peaceful assemblies, including several protesting mines and infrastructure projects. And Brazil’s environment minister was recorded on video saying that the pandemic was an “opportunity to deregulate environmental policy.”