Wednesday, April 23, 2008

part 2: pascua-lama, the debated mining project

It’s rumored that certain trusty canine friends are “good as gold.” An honest and generous person might be said to have a “heart of gold,” something for which Neil Young has been mining for decades. A yearning for a pot of gold lies under the arc of every rainbow, the gold medal is clearly the most prestigious, and if you are an outstanding and productive person you may be deemed worth your weight in gold.

In its scarcity, the shiny metal has garnered the reputation of having great worth, and for thousands of years has been cherished for the beauty societies have given it. The extraction of the metal and subsequent use of it has played crucial roles in many civilizations as leaders have struggled for power, wealth and beauty. The war over gold today, even in light of the countless other precious objects over which we fight, is still ravaging the land in which it rests and the people who live and work on it.

Gold mines have periodically intrigued me for a couple of reasons. My grandmother told us how two of my ancestors, a father and a son, came from an economically depressed Slovenia to the United States around the turn of the 20th century to work in the gold mines of Colorado. The father died in an accident, and the son moved to Chicago to stay. I always thought it was just a story, but after meeting the descendants of the family they left behind in Europe I learned it was true. Strange memories of an elementary school musical will occasionally drop themselves in my lap, the rhyming lyrics about the Yukon Valley in Alaska which made the gold rush era seem like a sentimental fantasy. But while I personally have never nurtured an interest to wear the precious metal, I also had never had a particular aversion to it until I heard about the No Dirty Gold campaign.

No Dirty Gold is a campaign to demand change by “calling on retailers to identify and disclose the source of the gold they sell-and to ensure that jewelry, watches, cell phones, computer chips, and other products do not contain gold mined at the expense of communities, workers and the environment. Currently, retailers and consumers do not have an alternative to dirty gold.”

The campaign states that:
The production of one gold ring generates 20 tons of wastes.
More than half of all gold comes from indigenous peoples' lands.
80 percent of all gold is used to make jewelry.

The good news is that the campaign exists, that it is making headway, and that media attention has been drawn to the issue. The troubling news is that it hasn’t had enough media coverage, that not enough headway has been made, and that gigantic mining corporations are still excavating with poor practice around the world.

Barrick Gold is the largest gold mining company in the world. They recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, and their slogan is “Responsible Mining.” With headquarters in Toronto, this Canadian company is mining at 27 locations and has 10 development projects; some of the locations include Papua New Guinea, the United States, Canada, Australia, Peru, Chile, Russia, South Africa, Argentina and Tanzania. They are also exploring on 100 sites across 16 countries. On their website, they boast about their corporate responsibility. They contend that they work in support with local citizens, and imply that they have the community’s best interest at heart.

One of their projects, Pascua-Lama, is located on the border of Chile and Argentina. I traveled to the area twice to learn more about it from the perspective of the local community, and discovered many contradictions between what Barrick says and what local Chileans think.

The Huasco Valley is a narrow alley through steep and jagged Andes Mountains. A river cuts through the center, and flows all the way from the glaciers housed on the Pascua-Lama mountain to the Pacific Ocean, providing the only natural source of water for the valley. Located in the Atacama region, named after the direst desert in the world, these glaciers defy science in their existence, and are already suffering severe damage from climate change and the explorations for the proposed mine. Dry, rocky terrain juts up to the fertile vegetation made possible by the river: this is a farming valley. It is also a valley of economic depression, with the worst unemployment rates in the country.

In an attempt to understand the predicament more personally, we met with activists and with families, we stayed with them in one of the towns along the river, Chingüinto, and we attended a weekly community meeting on the battle between the people of the Huasco Valley and Barrick Gold. What we learned needs to go beyond the rugged walls of the valley. Even though so much has been written and published about the destruction of land and communities by mining, how can a small community face up to the likes of the abominable Barrick Gold?

To be continued…

See photos from the Huasco Valley
Read Part 1: Pascua-Lama
Read more about the No Dirty Gold campaign