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How Harper's New Stance on Mining Could Help This 7-Year-Old Girl

06/20/2013 12:14 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has never met Amani.

There are trillions of dollars' worth of minerals hiding beneath the soil of seven-year-old Amani's country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But she has yet to see any benefits.

He's never watched this small girl, the age of a Canadian first-grader, slaving on a farm under a baking sun. He's never heard her explain how she's earning money to keep herself and her grandmother alive.

Amani may know nothing about the trillions of dollars' worth of minerals hiding beneath the ground of her country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). But she may reap the benefits of her country's mineral wealth in the future, thanks to a new Canadian G8 commitment announced by Harper in London last week.

A broken system

Mining companies -- including those headquartered here in Canada -- are required to compensate the governments of countries from which they source their treasures. The funds paid to countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are meant to improve the lives of the people like Amani.

"The compensation is supposed to turn the wealth in the ground into better lives for families" explains Harry Kits, a senior policy advisor with World Vision Canada. "It's meant to provide things like education and healthcare services for communities, safe drinking water, and roads so families can take their produce to market."

Yet the system isn't working effectively, as evidenced in the DRC. The country is among the world's wealthiest, holding an estimated $24 trillion worth of minerals underground. Yet in a cruel paradox, the DRC ties for last place on the UN Human Development Index.

Amani is the paradox personified. Forget school feeding programs, medical clinics, and help starting small businesses -- the region is just too poor. Her payoff is keeping herself and her grandmother alive for another day.

Canada's responsibility

Canada has a responsibility to the children of the countries in which our companies mine. We Canadians are surrounded by the benefits of international mining -- from the copper pipes in our walls to the gold on our fingers. The very vibration of our cell phones is made possible thanks to 'tungsten' a mineral found in very few corners of the world except the DRC.

Half of the mining that takes place around the world is done by Canadian companies. Nearly 60 per cent of all the world's mining and exploration companies, and 35 per cent of all oil and gas companies, are traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

These companies strive to abide by the mining codes of the countries from which they source their resources, paying both taxes and royalties to the governments in question.

Follow the money

Until now, there's been no way to know how much and to whom Canadian companies were paying. Nor whether countries such as the DRC are using the funds for the purpose which they were intended. And the people of communities such as Amani's have had little power to hold their government accountable.

"This new Canadian initiative will give power to the communities," says World Vision's Kits. "In the DRC, for instance, people are beginning to know that when the national government receives a payment from a Canadian mining company, the country's mining code says that 40 per cent must be passed to the provincial government in which the mine is located -- to help people across the entire province. Another 15 per cent must go directly to the community in which the mine operates."

"If they don't know the value of the original payments, how can community leaders determine whether their families are reaping the correct benefits?"

Changing children's lives

That will change, thanks to the initiative announced at the G8 this week.

"This is a direction we're determined to pursue, because this information is essential for citizens to hold their governments accountable," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at a meeting of oil, gas and mining executives in London.

There are still a great many details to work out, such as how the new system will be enforced, and by whom. And it will mean extra paperwork for mining companies, as they publically disclose the payments they make to foreign governments.

But, if all goes well, it could mean very different lives for children like Amani.