“The Dominican Republic is not a country which makes its own history. Others have always been making our history for us. First the Spaniards; later the English, the French, the Dutch, the Haitians; still later the North Americans.”
—Juan Bosch, 1971
In 2019, Toronto-based mining company Barrick Gold announced plans to construct a tailings dam (an above-ground earthen dam used to store mining waste) in the Dominican province on Monte Plata. Since this announcement, a wide range of community groups, environmental activists, and NGOs from around the world have been pressuring Barrick and the Dominican government to halt the expansion.
“Tailings are a by-product of separating valuable minerals from uneconomic material, and comprise ground-up rock, process water, and chemical reagents,” write a team of researchers from the University of Queensland. It is a potentially toxic substance, and manmade dams have proven an imperfect receptacle. “In the past 50 years, 63 major tailings dam failures have been reported worldwide, with an upward trend in high-consequence failure events since 1990… the failure rate after 2000 has increased to a frequency of five to six significant tailings dam failures annually. Each failure event causes extensive damage to the local environment and in catastrophic cases has resulted in the loss of human life.”
Barrick’s proposed dam will hold the tailings from increased operations at Pueblo Viejo, a gold mine about 100 kilometres outside Santo Domingo which is owned 60 percent by Barrick and 40 percent by the Denver-based Newmont Goldcorp.
Protesting Pueblo Viejo
Pueblo Viejo is one of the largest gold mines in the world, but without an expansion, Barrick Gold CEO Mark Bristow claims the mine will be forced to stop production within two years. He asserts that the expansion will keep the mine operational until 2040, thereby “contributing to the social and economic development of the Dominican Republic.”
Local and international organizations are understandably alarmed. The storage of mine waste in Monte Plata would put more than a dozen waterways at risk of toxic contamination should the most stringent of safety measures fail to be met, as occurred in Brumadinho, Brazil in January 2019 and Mount Polley, British Columbia in August 2014. Pollution of these waterways will endanger the health of millions of Dominicans and threaten local cacao production, which serves as the sole income source for thousands of local farmers.
The Dominican government has sought to conceal the unpopularity of Barrick’s operations. When Anil Hira, a researcher with Simon Fraser University, conducted an opinion survey of people living near Pueblo Viejo, he discovered that 65 percent of residents believed the mine brought “little or no” benefits to local communities (only 25 percent believed the mine contributed “something,” although these contributions were not defined). Hira presented his findings to Barrick and the Dominican Ministry of Energy and Mines. Barrick rejected Hira’s conclusions, calling his questions “inducive and suggestive,” but the Dominican government expressed approval. Two weeks later, however, the government refused to publish his research.
In May 2021, 88 organizations from 21 countries (including 15 jewelry producers) sent letters to the Dominican government and Barrick Gold “raising concerns over the [expansion] proposal’s potential to exacerbate vulnerability to climate change, the inherently risky nature of tailings dams, the opaque and non-transparent nature of the expansion process, and Barrick’s track record of environmental harm.” That same month, police teargassed an anti-expansion protest in Santo Domingo.
In September, thousands of Dominicans marched on the National Palace in protest of Barrick’s actions, and on October 4, another 44 organizations (representing 17 countries) sent a letter to the Dominican Ministries of Energy and Mines warning them of the potentially deleterious effects of the expansion. In the face of these growing international pressures, the Canadian government—which takes a famously sympathetic view to the struggles of mining companies around the world—has said nothing about the environmental risks of the expansion or the undemocratic behavior of Barrick Gold and the Dominican government. The CBC has offered no coverage (their most recent article on Barrick in the Dominican Republic was published almost six years ago). The suppression of critical reports and the dearth of mainstream media coverage illustrates the importance Canadian mining companies and their state allies place on controlling information flow around their global investments, be it Pueblo Viejo or any of the similarly harmful mining sites to which the Canadian government lends its tacit (and often material) support.
Canada and the Dominican Republic
The Canadian mining industry’s involvement in the Dominican Republic goes back over half a century. Prior to Barrick’s assumption of a dominant role in the Dominican extractive sector, Ontario-based nickel producers INCO and Falconbridge were the most prominent representatives of Canadian capital in the country. In 1956 Falconbridge secured the rights to mine large areas of lateritic nickel, but the company did not gain national prominence until after the assassination of notorious dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. INCO, meanwhile, abandoned its Dominican properties because, according to a company official, Trujillo demanded “too big a bribe.”
The expansion of Falconbridge’s role in the Dominican economy was preceded by a period of intense political instability following the 1962 election of a left-wing president named Juan Bosch. Seven months after his inauguration, a group of Dominican military officials staged a coup that removed Bosch and established a three-man military junta. Forces loyal to Bosch began to organize in the country, including a wing of “constitutionalist” military men led by Colonel Francisco Caamaño.
When the leftists gained the upper hand in 1965, US President Lyndon B. Johnson dispatched more than 40,000 US troops to the Dominican Republic in support of the conservative factions. Before his assassination in November 1962, President John F. Kennedy summarized the US view succinctly: “There are three possibilities [for the Dominican Republic], in descending order of preference: a decent democratic order, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castroite regime. We must strive for the first, but we really can’t renounce the second until we are sure that we can avoid the third.” Ultimately, the US settled for a Trujillista regime cloaked in the institutions of a “decent democratic order.” In 1966, the Johnson administration helped organize a suspect presidential election which brought to power Joaquín Balaguer, who in addition to his pro-US alignment was a long-time Trujillo crony with an ardently liberal economic outlook.
Even before the 1962 election, Bosch’s PRD party was infiltrated by CIA spies. One of them was Sacha Volman, a Romanian exile who became a CIA asset and an employee of Radio Free Europe. He was subsequently transferred to Latin America to support centre-left anti-communist movements. Volman is an interesting figure—although certainly anti-leftist, he helped elect Bosch by organizing a peasant vote in support of the PRD. He also set up the secretive Institute of Political Education (codenamed ZREAGER) in Costa Rica, which was where, according to long-time CIA officer Philip Agee, “we [the CIA] sent young liberal political hopefuls for training.” Did the CIA initially back Bosch, hoping he would serve as a loyal anti-communist liberal, before deciding that a tried-and-true Trujillista was a more reliable choice? Volman’s role in the crisis remains unclear, and Agee himself admits that “I don’t quite understand this invasion of the Dominican Republic.” One thing, however, is certain: Volman would become an important part of Falconbridge’s nickel operations in Bonao region.
During the political crisis following Bosch’s removal, Canada’s External Affairs Minister Paul Martin announced that, rather than seeking information from the democratically elected Bosch, he had instead spoken with Falconbridge, reporting that “We have… been in touch by telephone with the Falconbridge Nickel plant… and we are told all is well in that quarter.” On May 28, 1965, Martin defended the American invasion, saying “it is easy enough to criticize countries [like the US] which bear the brunt of responsibility when dangerous situations develop.”
Falconbridge in Bonao
Following the 1963 coup against Bosch, Falconbridge’s Dominican subsidiary Falcondo negotiated greater mining concessions with the unelected Reid Cabral government. In 1968, the company moved ahead with the construction of an enormous ferro-nickel complex. The project was completed in 1972 at a capital cost of $195 million, at the time the largest expansion of nickel mining in the Dominican Republic (all of this is documented in Falconbridge: Portrait of a Canadian Mining Company by John Deverell and the Latin American Working Group, and any subsequent quotes in this section are taken from Deverell’s book).
Balaguer himself was a great fan of the Canadian company. In 1971, he personally presented Falconbridge CEO Marsh Cooper with the Order of Merit of Duarte, Sánchez, and Mella, the highest honor bestowed by the government for distinguished services to the Dominican Republic. He directly pointed to the Canadian company’s presence as an indication that his government was a legitimate and stable actor following the period of instability, telling the Wall Street Journal that “Among the sure signs of the climate of security and confidence the Dominican Republic offers foreign investors [is] the installation of the enormous metallurgical plant by the Falconbridge Co. of Canada…”
At this time, the CEO of Falcondo was a South African named Ian Keith who had worked on gold deposits in colonial Zambia in the 1950s. By the 1970s, John Harbron of the Financial Times reported that Keith “has become an intimate part of Dominican public life, as much as the emerging elite of presidents and managers of rejuvenating Dominican public and private companies who are absorbing some of Falcondo’s way of doing things.”
One of Falcondo’s main sources of minerals and labor was the region of Bonao. The area was extremely underdeveloped: during the Trujillo era, the dictator’s brother Arismendi treated the impoverished city as his personal playground. According to the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), Trujillo “set out to repeat on a local scale what his brother… was doing on a national scale,” protected by a brutal private army and reportedly “assert[ing] the right to rape any woman in the town before her marriage.” Falcondo operated in Bonao during the last five years of Trujillo’s reign, coexisting well enough with Arismendi Trujillo as it laid the groundwork for later expansion.
The NACLA reports that, in 1968, Bonao had an unemployment rate of 46 percent and the yearly income of most families was less than $50. The infant mortality for children under four years of age was a shocking 60 percent. The massive poverty of the region led Falcondo management to suspect the dispossessed population of left-wing sympathies. The company hired a university team from St. Louis to administer a questionnaire to the town’s residents in order to gauge the people’s political beliefs. Some of the questions reportedly included: “Is it true that in this country the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer?”; “Do you believe Cuba today is better off, the same, or worse off than it was under Batista?”; “Are you a member of a political party?”; and another question about whether or not the US military should leave Vietnam.
One of the principal worries of Falcondo management was that the presence of a massive, luxurious company plant side-by-side with the community’s grating poverty would cause unrest amongst the population. As a result, Falcondo hired CIA agent Sacha Volman to manage its labour relations strategy in Bonao. He oversaw the creation of a cooperative called Coofalcondo, a multi-purpose complex which offered “political education” courses in “leadership training, democratic process, and worker-management relations, all defined in terms suitable to Falcondo.” Volman also deployed his skills in supporting anti-communist centre-left forces by backing the creation of explicitly non-political unions in Bonao. This did not work, and within a short time, the company’s labour force went on strike. Falcondo distributed advertisements calling the strikers “minority groups of extremist tendencies,” and after eight days Dominican security forces stormed a meeting of union officials, arresting nearly one hundred, accusing the workers of being communists, and threatening some with murder. Unsurprisingly, the Canadian government remained silent.
Evidently, Volman’s strategy of backing centre-left elements to suppress a more militant labor force had not worked. Keith later told the Wall Street Journal that “We saw no alternative but to crack down hard.”
Bonao, Monte Plaza, and Canadian capital today
In 2006, Falconbridge was bought out by a Swiss mining company called Xstrata. Xtrata was purchased by an Anglo-Swiss outfit called Glencore in 2013. In 2015, the Dominican subsidiary Falcondo was bought by the Canada-based Americano Nickel Ltd., “a specialist mining holding company with a focus on Nickel exploration and mining in the Dominican Republic and the Americas.” Americano Nickel is the current owner of Falcondo’s mining properties.
In 2018 and 2019, extractive exports represented around 40 percent of the Dominican Republic’s total export revenue. The two largest extractive operations remain the Canadian-owned Falcondo holdings and the majority Canadian-owned Pueblo Viejo mine. As protests around Pueblo Viejo intensify, it is no wonder that the Canadian government remains silent, allowing Barrick and the Dominican government to dominate the narrative. This is exactly how it acted during the crisis of the 1960s and the entrenchment of Falcondo’s power in the 1970s.
Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Follow him on Twitter @OwenSchalk.