Resurgence of gold fever endangers forests and peoples of Latin America


((Construction of a road leading to deposits of gold, silver and copper in Trou du Nord, Haiti — AP photo))

[Translation of an article by Agence France Presse as published in La Jornada of Mexico City on May 13.  See original here.]

A resurgent gold fever has put Latin America at risk: tropical forests devastated by illegal operations where the law of the jungle rules, local communities at war against investment projects by large international mining companies.

The appetite for gold and other metals has generated a boom for informal mining, especially in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia, and put the formal industry at a peak, with projected investments of 300 billion dollars by 2020, according to the Sociedad Interamericana de Minería.

Regardless, 162 conflicts over mining have broken out all over the region because of the opposition of local communities to projects they see as threats, especially because of their great consumption of water, according to the Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina.

With gold prices that in the past decade have gone from 270 dollars an ounce to between 1,600 and 1,800 dollars an ounce (because it is a favorite shelter for investors in a turbulent world economy) and copper sky high due to the voracious demands of China, nothing suggests the tendency will slow down.

Artisanal mining: social and environmental disaster

Illegal mining, especially gold mining, has already taken hundreds of victims and has devastated thousands of hectares in the Amazon, where extensive encampments have mowed down everything in their paths.

Each gram of gold extracted requires two or three grams of mercury, which is then spilled into the rivers at the pans.  Bulldozers wipe out tropical forests in their search for water.

There is a parallel social disaster: thousands of children, women and men are exploited for sex and labor in precarious camps where there are no schools or medical facilities and the law of the strong arm rules.

In Peru, where between 110,000 and 150,000 people work in illegal mining, some 1,000 children are exploited sexually in the Madre de Dios area, according the the NGO Save the Children.

“There are dozens of brothels here, where hundreds of girls are brought, deceived into believing they are going to make a lot of money,” Teresa Carpio, director of the NGO in Peru, told AFP.

“This is exploitation of the human being at its worst.  The living conditions are miserable and all values are twisted,” she added.  “If you go there, it is like making a trip to the past, it is like seeing a wild-west movie, an unprecedented drama,” she stated.

In that region, one of the poorest in Peru, more than 18 tons of gold are produced a year, and, according to official estimates, more than 20,000 hectares of tropical forest have been destroyed.

In Colombia, thousands of people have gone back to exploiting old mines in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó.

In indigenous and black communities, the participation of children in gold mining is part of tradition.  It is calculated that there are between 200,000 and 400,000 children working in small-scale mining, according to data supplied by Amichocó [an environmentalist group] of Colombia to the Alianza por la Minería Responsable (AMR).

In Bolivia, some 10,000 people live off gold mining, exploiting small deposits “under extremely severe conditions, in a very precarious way and having a strong environmental impact,” according to AMR.

A new El Dorado

The lust for minerals has also made Latin America one of the most attractive regions for investments.  Last year, it captured 25 percent of the investments for exploration.  Today 45 percent of copper comes from Latin America, 50 percent of the silver and 20 percent of the gold, but if the investment projects take hold, the region will lead in the production of these metals in 2020.

Nevertheless, several projects have been halted in Chile, Peru and Argentina.  Enforcement of International Labor Organization Convention 169, which requires consulting communities about alterations to their territories, is the principal weapon against projects, which have suffered costly setbacks.

“Social conflicts, which are very evident in the region, are going to have and are having an impact on the time tables for investment projects,” economist José de Echave, former vice minister for the environment in the current Peruvian administration of Ollanta Humala, told AFP.

The Conga project, by the Newmont company of the United States, with investments of 4.8 billion dollars, is being resisted by the population of Cajamarca (in northern Peru), who consider that agriculture will by damaged because of the lack of water; the project was stopped in November.

In Famatima in Argentina, the Canadian Osisko Mining Corporation suspended its operation of installing an open-pit  gold mine on the General Belgrano mountain.

In Chile, the Canadian Goldcorp put an end to exploitation of the El Morro mine, in the north, because the indigenous population living in the region had not been consulted.

“What we are asking is that the economic model and the activities of production respect existing legislation, that development be harmonious and sustainable for the peoples who live in the areas that are to be exploited,” explained lawyer Consuelo Labra of the NGO Observatorio Ciudadano, who advises indigenous communities.

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