The not-so-pretty face of gold

Date of publication: 
15 January 2010

Complaints that British Columbia mining companies are wreaking environmental devastation and abusing human rights in countries where they are developing mines continue to surface. But local companies insist they are complying with all laws, and using the latest environmental advancements. While the truth continues to be disputed one thing is clear. Many communities are divided by the introduction of a mine in their midst.

In two recent cases, one involving a B.C. company, the division has been blamed for murder.

In November, a local activist opposed to a mine in Chiapas, Mexico owned by Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd. was killed.

And last month two people in the department of Cabanas in El Salvador where Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Corp. is exploring for gold were murdered. A third was kidnapped and murdered in June, according to reports.

While some activists try to point a direct finger at the companies, most agree the only involvement of the mines is by their presence. Pacific Rim even questions if the deaths in El Salvador — which has one of the highest murder rates in the world — are related to its work, citing local media which attributed the deaths to a long-standing family feud. But there has been violence, including incidents when masked gunmen came into the exploration camp and damaged the drill rigs and threatened some of the workers, Pacific Rim’s president and CEO Thomas Shrake said.

While no recent deaths have been attributed to Goldcorp’s Marlin gold and silver mine in Guatemala, the Vancouver-based company has not been immune from verbal attacks, most recently in December when a local community group filed a complaint with the Canadian government alleging that Goldcorp had violated human rights.

“The Marlin mine has divided our town, harassed protesters and made us afraid for the health of our families,” the group said in a news release posted on the website of MiningWatch Canada, an organization funded largely by environmental, labour and aboriginal organizations. In a 13-page complaint the community group alleges that its drinking water is being depleted and contaminated, and that local citizens are suffering from skin rashes and other ailments.

Goldcorp, which has been operating the mine since 2006, denies the allegations.

“Our commitment to operating in a socially responsible manner informs everything we do as a company, and our record of socially and environmentally responsible operations is outstanding,” Goldcorp spokesman Jeff Wilhoit said in an e-mail. “It is disappointing that certain groups choose to recycle the same groundless complaints rather than engage in an open and constructive dialogue.”

Allegations of tainted or depleted water are also being made against Pacific Rim. But while Pacific Rim admits its drilling accidentally cut off the water source to some wells, it quickly solved the problem, restoring the water flow. And while the water was blocked, it trucked in cisterns of water for the affected families.

The company finds it ironic that it should be accused of environmental crimes.

“We consider ourselves very environmentally active and proactive and we believe that by taking the extra step we will be rewarded in the marketplace,” Shrake said. “I think there are a lot of people who would like to invest knowing that the company they are investing in goes the extra mile with the local people and takes the extra steps environmentally,”

As part of the company’s environmental approach, it looks for gold deposits that are extremely clean to mine, with fewer contaminants like arsenic, mercury and lead, Shrake said. And even in exploration, the company replaces the soil in such a way that “if you went out there today you wouldn’t even be able to find those trenches,” he said.

The standards it follows “would far exceed” standards in Canada, Shrake said.

“The whole notion that this is a potential environmental catastrophe and that we’re not using any of the modern technology is complete nonsense,” Shrake said.

But that’s not enough to satisfy the naysayers.

Jose Angel, an El Salvadoran now living in the Lower Mainland raises money to support the fight against Pacific Rim. He says while the locals first welcomed the mine, that has changed over the past few years as they have become more educated. That education includes being shown pictures of operating mines, including Goldcorp’s combination open-pit and underground mine in Guatemala.

“We can see the damage in the land,” Angel said. “What Goldcorp is doing in Guatemala there is environmental damage.”

But water is the biggest issue and pictures of the dry wells continue to be circulated despite the fact the water has been restored..

“They are privatizing the water,” Angel said.

And even if the water issues were solved, Angel does not want mining.

“Mining is not a solution for El Salvador,” he said.

The solution is for the government to solve the social problems by providing schools, hospitals and education.

“We have been living for 500 years without mining,” Angel said. “What difference is a mining company going to make?”
On Wednesday the newly-elected president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, bowed to the pressure exerted by mining opponents and declared his government would not authorize any mining extraction projects.

Eight years ago the mines department of El Salvador issued a report introducing new mining laws aimed at encouraging exploration and mining, Shrake said. And the country has been very welcoming since then, encouraging Pacific Rim to spend almost $100 million US on its projects in the country.

“It’s very frustrating. We’ve been led down the path by the administration,” Shrake said.

MiningWatch Canada believes that some countries shouldn’t be mined because of the disruption a mine causes. It advocates for companies to prepare a human rights impact study — looking at how the local population will react to the mine — before proceeding.

Canadian companies go to countries without determining ahead of time what the effect will be, including the divisions that may occur among the local people, MiningWatch’s Jamie Kneen said.

Kneen points to Colombia as an example. There armed groups forcefully removed locals from land they wanted developed, he said.

“The mining companies aren’t involved in that,” Kneen said. “They come in afterwards and say ‘look nobody lives here’.”

But Kneen understands that an impact study could take years, and most companies don’t have years to plan an investment without the window of opportunity closing. But maybe companies shouldn’t be mining at all.

“Mining is an extractive activity,” he said. “It can’t help but make an impact on the land, on the local economy and on society and that has to be understood.

“And I think it needs to be understood by the industry that there are times and places that it’s not appropriate to mine.