Genocide for Hire: Canadian Mining, Latin America and Pecuniary Killings

Law & Theory Sep 30, 2019

By Gideon Salutin

In late November 1781, the slave ship Zong, halfway across the Atlantic, discovered their drinking water reserves critically low. Recalling the insurance policy on their cargo, the crew spent three days tossing African would-be slaves overboard, eventually claiming a profit on the massacre due to the owners’ lawful right to destroy their property.

Since the details of the Holocaust came to light in 1945, academia, press, and government institutions tend to think of crimes against humanity as the materialization of pre-existing racial biases. Gregory Stanton stands among today’s most renowned genocide theorists partly thanks to his Eight Stages theorem in which the classification of an in-group steadily develops into the massacre of an out-group. But the theory is cut and dry, left out in the sun so long that the twists and turns genocides so often take become imperceptible (Stanton recently amended his theory to ten stages after being attacked for oversimplification). The realities of this field create variations in every aspect from their motivations to their effects, yet Stanton and other theorists pronounce definitions on “genocide” like it’s a question on a multiple-choice exam. These reductions dismiss underlying financial incentives which motivate many perpetrators and which, while less aligned with post-war scholarship, are nonetheless to blame for specific human rights violations. Such instances are just as common today –if not more so– than they were in Stanton’s era. This article examines Canadian mining actions in Latin America as a case study for a wider series of actions I label pecuniary genocide. These are genocides which, while tolerated due to pre-existing socio-racial conceptions, aim for resource or monetary profit rather than obscure notions of racial purity.

Genocide Not Applicable

Since the NAFTA agreement of 1994 encouraged Canadian investment in Latin America, Canadian mining projects in the region have grown into a $150 billion industry, constituting 66% of Canadian mining assets. It’s a prime mover of the Canadian economy, but the process of extraction in Latin America leaves its environment devastated along with its often indigenous inhabitants. The greatest interest is in gold and copper, which both require boring deep into the ground via dangerous mines. These techniques erode local ecosystems, agriculture and economies, while run-off minerals are dumped into nearby water reserves. Peru’s 2014 protection of the rights of nature was in part a response to these direct affronts.

While Peruvian advocacy networks focused on environmental protection, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Guatemala have framed the issue nationalistically. Over two hundred Canadian companies extract from these regions annually after they were granted concessions by local non-democratic governments. Rather than enforce human rights standards, Canadian embassies prefer “voluntary” approaches. International corporations are expected to politely respect and conform to human rights standards. No actor exists to mitigate, no institutions exist to defend, and no tribunals exist to prosecute the flagrant human rights violations swarming Latin American resources.

This has led to permissible evasions of such standards. Hired security, often ex-military trained during deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, are given live ammunition to protect company interests from local and/or indigenous communities. As though not secure enough, companies further work with domestic paramilitary organisations operating either with the state or against it. Kidnapping and extortion are benign strategies once torture and murder became common. These moves ignited responses by local populations such as those in Bolivia, leading to increased rural violence. These result from international extraction coupled with methods involving human rights violations, linking profitable resources, exploitable populations, and cheap mercenaries in a new Pan-American exchange.

Behind this targeted violence against both indigenous communities and South American rural locales lies neither eugenics nor racial purification. In their place are theories that students of Economics and Political Science will recognise well: supply and demand, financial globalization, self interest, and growth acceleration. This does not mean their victims’ race and ethnicity is inconsequential; it is in fact essential to the crime’s tolerability. But instead of acting as the primary motivation, as is common in genocide studies, race and isolation in this case have simply rendered the crimes acceptable to the Western public who profit –knowingly or not– off their proliferation. One could hardly get away with hiring mercenaries to attack Thunder Bay or Calgary, nor to attack a white farming town in South Carolina. Using race and nation as a conduit, these multinational corporations have replaced ethnological foundations of genocide with pecuniary motivations. Their effect is just as deadly, but their dogma is presentable to intellectuals and the international legal structure created to prevent their possibility.

Response Not Applicable

Canadian courts have ruled that these cases must be prosecuted in host countries, sidestepping domestic culpability and leaving Latin American institutions on the hook. But host countries are unable to prosecute in the face of legal barriers like investor-state dispute settlements which companies can use to sue governments for interference. It has expanded in line with post-1970 globalisation theories which describe rising corporate influence and corresponding decline of state power.

The fact that crimes against humanity have become rampant in Latin America quickly becomes undeniable, but its motivations and relevant actors leave scholars unwilling to label it as such. In this instance, the label could prove useful in mobilising local actors and promulgating international concern. Our hesitation to apply it reveals the pitfalls of established meanings for crimes which can often escape fixed definitions. The Zong massacre described above was not an effort towards racial purity, yet was no doubt a crime against humanity, and part of a larger genocide. Similar crimes can be seen today to be motivated by financial interest, including diamond mining in Zimbabwe, war crimes in Syria, oil mining in the West Bank, and Brazil putting the Amazon’s indigenous communities to the torch.

Canadian extractors have developed what was originally an internationalist venture into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Due to underdevelopment, cheap labour has allowed minimal costs while extracting and destroying Latin America’s land and peoples. When Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, tried to crack down on paramilitary violence Canadian media swiftly clapped back by labelling him a “resource nationalist.” In this instance, who wouldn’t be?

History Not Applicable

Tonia Roth characterises these developments as a “new imperialism” where foreign policy opens new markets to create net benefits for the imperial state. What Roth overlooks is that her new imperialism is the old imperialism, dating back to 1492 in the Latin American case. In the early colonisation of the region, Cortez and others killed or enslaved thousands in their search for gold. Across the Americas, conquistadores drove indigenous populations towards extinction, not in a quest for racial purification (though such biases influenced and defended them) but in a quest for profit. Genocide was allowed due to perceived cultural differences, but was driven by a top-down desire for gold and land. Today, Cortez might be proud to see his conquest sustained by Canadian corporations.

In order to address modern human rights violations, multinational actors need to recognise the various origins from which genocide can grow. While oft-cited examples such as the Holocaust or Rwanda originated in racial hierarchies, others including the Zong Massacre were driven by profit. While events like these correspond with all the effects that human rights standards hoped to prevent, their alternate motivations leave them in a state of legal, intellectual, and organizational limbo. Today’s pecuniary human rights violations take place through labour disparities in the globalised market. Only local mobilization, transnational advocacy networks and/or international governance can prevent what threatens to become continuing violence. It will require a revolution in established litigatory practices not seen since the Nuremberg trials. Mandela, who lived through racial oppression designed to steal resources, wrote that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” We should not wait long.


‘Canadian Mining in Latin America – CIDP | Canadian International Development Platform’. Accessed 31 December 2018.

‘Conflicts at Canadian Mines in Latin America | Montreal Gazette’. Accessed 31 December 2018.

Czikk, Joseph. ‘Canadian Mining Companies Are Destroying Latin America’. Vice (blog), 12 February 2015.

Haslam, Paul Alexander, Nasser Ary Tanimoune, and Zarlasht M. Razeq. ‘Do Canadian Mining Firms Behave Worse Than Other Companies? Quantitative Evidence from Latin America’. Canadian Journal of Political Science/Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 51, no. 3 (September 2018): 521–51.

Hill, David. ‘Can Canada’s New PM Stop Mining Abuses in Latin America?’ The Guardian, 14 December 2015, sec. Environment.

‘In Latin America, Nationalism Stumps Canadian Mining Companies’. Accessed 31 December 2018.

‘MICLA | McGill Research Group Investigating Canadian Mining in Latin America’. Accessed 31 December 2018. .

Roth, Tania. ‘Human Rights and the Canadian Extractive Sector in Latin America: Can Canada Do More to Prevent Abuses and Improve Access to Justice?’, n.d., 61.