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Expoplaza latina attracts mining execs and protesters alike

“By the end of Expoplaza, we hope you will know Latin America a little better.“ With these words, Latincouver’s executive director Paola Murillo opened the Expoplaza Latina, on April 30, an international business conference that aims to connect Canada and Latin America. Indeed, attendees had the possibility of getting a full picture of the economic relationship between the two regions. All they had to do was stay in the conference room of Simon Fraser University’s magnificent Wosk Centre for Dialogue until 4 pm and then come outside, where protestors from diverse communities voiced their fierce opposition to the event. Inside, the continent was targeted as a land of endless opportunities for Canadian companies in the fields of natural resources, new technologies and agriculture. Outside, grassroots groups, representatives of small communities from Latin America and members of First Nations populations denounced the dark side of the extracting industries. Among a variety of accents in the opening section of the event, there emerged one clear lingua franca: free trade. The one consensus was the need for the Latin American countries to score higher in the ranking of Canada’s economic partners, which could be attained through trade agreements. The consul general of Brazil in Vancouver, Ernesto Rubarth, pointed out that Mexico is the sole country South of the United States included in the top 10 list of trading nations with Canada. Brazil occupies a mere 26th place.

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Ernesto Rubarth, Consul General of Brazil in Vancouver speaks at Expoplaza Latina
“That’s too little“, said Rubarth, who had previously laid out some of the “positive, concrete and real“ results of the Mercosul, an economic block that promotes free trade among a select group of South American nations. The first panel of the day seemed rather reactionary at the beginning. The moderator, Glenn Sigurdson, eloquently questioned the flow of benefits from the extracting industries in Latin America: “Oil for whom?“ He further conveyed his discomfort towards anyone investing in “any business where there’s likelihood that somebody will oppose it“. The “opponents“ he was referring to, of course, are the small Latin communities, environmental activists and the politicized left wing in the South – the very same people yelling outside of the Wosk Centre. Many of the speakers in Sigurdson’s and other panels presented noble ideas: organic farming, solidified rain, online tools to assess the corruption level in the developing world, strategies for involving indigenous peoples in conserving the environment around mines, intercultural communication strategies, etc. However, most of these innovations and debates, whether technological or sociological, had one clear goal: address issues that stand in the way of free trade. The side effects of solving those issues may be beneficial to Latin American communities in short term and well perceived by environmentalists, but it is difficult to turn a blind eye on the flaws of the economic flow between Canada and the South. While Latin America opens its lands to foreign investment, Canada opens its doors to profit and kindly shelters highly skilled Latin American engineers and businessmen who have surrendered to the temptations of the ‘brain drain’. Again, “oil for whom?“ That was the prevalent argument outside of the Wosk Center. Paola Quiroz and Janet Mui±oz, two members of the Collective of Latin Americans in Metro Vancouver, voiced their discontentment with Latincouver, affirming that it does not represent the real interests of the Latin communities in the city and abroad and that Expoplaza “promotes the exploitation of Latin America through mining and gas“. Further, they claim to have sent an open letter to Latincouver with more than 200 signatures condemning the event. The national media have also voiced their concern with Latincouver’s business model. What happened at the conference, both in and outside of the Wosk Centre, is the continuation of a long debate surrounding the extraction of natural resources from Latin America by foreign companies. Vancouver seems to be the perfect setting for this discussion to take place, but the remaining question is a very familiar one for British Columbians: how can both sides work together to promote international trade without damaging the environment and the local communities where the companies operate? It is a question that is still waiting for an answer in Canada and Latin America.

About Vi­tor Borba

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