By Alicia Gariazzo
Eighty percent of the gold produced in the world is for jewelry. Supplying the gold for a wedding ring takes 18 tons of earth and leaves 12 cubic meters of waste. The low-grade mineral that is dug up is sprayed with a solution of cyanide, which releases tiny particles of gold as it lixiviates, or filters through. The waste cyanide is carried away in water through pipes to the tailings dams. The dams are left uncovered so the cyanide can disintegrate and the water can evaporate. Close to 100 toxic chemicals and heavy metals are released as the cyanide breaks down.
They remain intact after the process and they cannot be removed from an area several kilometers in diameter. One teaspoon of a two-percent solution can kill an adult. The method of lixiviation, banned in Canada and throughout the industrialized world, requires 180 tons of cyanide a month, which, since it is imported, has to be transported over land from the ports of entry. Another method, used less often, is amalgamation based on mercury. Modern dentistry now prohibits the use of the amalgam in teeth because of the secondary effect the mercury produces, even in small quantities.
The Barrick Gold mining company of Canada, the largest in the world, with subsidiaries in the most far-flung countries, is praised by their governments, even though their activities generate few jobs, and rejected by the local communities. After the conflicts, it ends up, mysteriously, being accepted.
There were large protests against this company in Lake Cowal, in Australia, before the year 2000. It is the largest lake in the state of New South Wales, protected by two international agreements on migratory birds, since it is home to many species in danger of extinction, and is the Sacred Heartland of the Wiradjuri nation. Now the mine operates on the edge of the lake as an open pit one kilometer long and 325 meters deep and, as late as 2013, the community was protesting the excess noise the project generates. The Wiradjuri nation lost its space for prayers. This happens, in Chile as well; the Ralco hydroelectric plant, owned by the Spanish company Endesa, also flooded an indigenous cemetery.
In 2003, a plebiscite was approved in Esquel, Argentina, rejecting the construction of a a Barrick Gold mine despite death threats to the leaders of the movement opposing it and despite newspapers like the New York Times and the Nouvelle Observateur criticizing the residents of Esquel “for putting the mining future of Argentina at risk” or demanding that Argentina “pay its debts with natural resources or with territory.”
Recently, in 2014, Esquel managed to win definitively but Barrick, with its subsidiary Yamana Gold, took its project to the province of Santa Cruz, also in the south of Argentina, committed to taking gold from underground and without using cyanide.
Until 1993, the business operated only in North America but in 1993 it came to Peru and Argentina and a year later, through the purchase of Lac Minerals, it was established in Chile with the El Indio mine, now being closed. Now it has subsidiaries in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
In Chile, it settled in the north of the country with the Nevada project, later called Pascua Lama. This is a binational project with installations also in San Juan, Argentina. After years of conflict, it suspended operations in 2013 because of criticism from community members over the loss of glaciers and the contamination due to operating with the open pit method and washing with cyanide. In 2014, the transnational has reached agreements with indigenous Diaguita communities representing 2,000 community members in Valle de Huasco.
The company will undertake irrigation projects and improvements in the water system to make up for the impact of shifting a glacier and contaminating the water table through the use of cyanide. A Diaguita counselor denounced them for violating the indigenous law, International Labor Organization Convention 169, and because the Asociación de Consejos Comunales Diaguitas would be receiving money to make monthly payments to the communities.
Since the year 2000, Nicaragua has been encouraging investment in mining after passing the Special Law on the Exploration and Exploitation of Mines. By 2008 it had 89 concessions. In 2012, it exported 431.8 million dollars worth of unprocessed gold, exceeded only by its export of 519.4 million dollars worth of grano de oro coffee.
In November, 2013, there were protests by members of the community of Santo Domingo, Chontales, over the felling of 40,000 trees to make way for the project, but the protesters were taken under control and the company managed to stop the protests in exchange for building a health center and a new municipal building and for supporting social projects. Currently there are five locations in production and there are no protests by the inhabitants.
El Limón: underground and open-pit exploitation, cyanide lixiviation.
La Libertad: open pit exploitation, cyanide lixiviation.
Bonanza: underground and open-pit exploitation, cyanide lixiviation.
Santo Domingo plans an amalgamation processing plant. Mercury will be used.
Somotillo uses cyanide lixiviation.
In other words, with a little patience, a consensus can be reached and everyone will be happy: Barrick producing gold all over the world, the cyanide vendors enjoying tremendous sales, brides happy with their rings and the owners of the mineral wealth in the communities enjoying the social projects that the company sponsors.
We can only guess what will happen when the mineral is all used up, leaving open pits, no glaciers and heavy metals in the water, the stomachs and the lungs.
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Tags: amalgamation, Barrick Gold, contamination, cyanide, Diaguitas, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Indio, Esquel, Guatemala, Honduras, Lac Minerals, Lake Cowal, lixiviation, mercury, Nicaragua, Pascua Lama, Wiradjuri, Yamana Gold