Guided by resource discovery and the heavy-handed rule of the free market, the mining of gold today is “rush-mining,” much as it was a century ago. From the Indigenous lands of Brazil to those in Canada, from Tanzania to the Philippines, whenever gold is discovered, local communities are forced to migrate or attempt to adjust to the new industry. In fact, only eleven per cent of the gold mined worldwide has a practical use in technologies like biomedicine or electronics. Meanwhile, seventy per cent is used for jewellery, with the rest going to investment. Some 35,000 tonnes of gold simply sit in bank vaults around the world, while the environment and innumerable communities are destroyed for its excavation.
Canada plays a huge role in this global market, being home to the largest gold-mining corporations in the world. At the very top reigns Barrick Gold, with others like Goldcorp, Gabriel and Pacific Rim close behind. Collectively they mine on every continent except Antarctica, on which mining is forbidden. But not all gold is excavated by large, corporate colonialists, nor is all of it done abroad. One quarter comes from artisanal or small-scale mining, and minimal but continuous extraction takes place at home (mostly in Ontario and Quebec.)
Countries in Central America and Central Africa have low environmental regulations and worker-safety requirements. They are resource-rich, and are therefore a lucrative destination for Canadian businesses. At home, even though most resource extraction takes place on Indigenous lands, we have relatively strict extraction, land-use and environmental laws, meaning most companies strive to mine offshore.
Canada: A Major Player
Many Canadian companies have been alleged and shown to participate in violations of international law. Amnesty International and CorpWatch, among others, have cited Barrick Gold, for example, for gross human-rights abuses. In spite of such findings, most corporations continue to be supported by such international bodies as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The former, for example, has secured Barrick with a $56.3-million guarantee on its investment in Tanzania, eeven as the company was still involved in legal proceedings in that country.
Other Canadian corporations – like Inmet Mining in Papua New Guinea and Newmont Mining Corporation of Canada in Ghana, Romania and Peru – are allowed to mine with the backing of our government. In Chile this has meant ignoring the local peoples’ objections to these companies’ operations, while they were being financially supported at home by Export Development Canada, and publicly backed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
In countries like Bolivia, Burkina Faso, Ecuador and Ghana, millions of people have taken gold extraction into their own hands. Often in direct competition with major corporations, individual miners (called “artisanal” miners) sometimes unite with community members into small-scale operations. Both artisanal and small-scale mining are important for families in the developing world – often their only means of survival. Most enter the business because their former source of income has been destroyed.
Like large-scale operations, this form of mining has massive effects on human and environmental health. Unlike large-scale production, however, the artisanal miners and their families inherit the bulk of these effects directly, thanks to their use of toxic mercury and cyanide in processing the metals. Toxic chemicals like arsenic and copper leach into waterways, pollute the air and seep into the soil of local communities.
When the two are in competition, large-scale mines often subject the small-scale ones to forced relocation, marginalization and sometimes even persecution, with the assistance of compliant governments. Traders who purchase the refined gold from the artisanal miners also often exploit them with artificial monopolies and restriction of access to fair prices and alternative incomes.
In some countries, like China, the government has rendered small-scale mining illegal and provides exclusive rights to large-scale corporations. For millions of people, therefore, this means criminalization and loss of income. It also means large-scale operations take over and – yet again – pass on the pollution to the local population. In most cases, companies also pay incomplete taxes, thanks to government subsidies seeking to keep their business. In return, companies provide largely symbolic corporate-responsibility policies and international-development campaigns.
Problems and Conflicts
Like large industry, small-scale miners are driven by chance discoveries of resources, as in one devastating example of a temporary 1980s gold rush in Brazil, wherein a mass migration of small-scale miners invaded indigenous Yanomami land. A bloody conflict was the result, leading to the death of twenty per cent of the Yanomami population in just a few years. In 1992, the government took control and declared the area Yanomami Park in an attempt to restore peace. The attempt was short-lived, however, as the land has again recently been invaded.
Such conflicts have spawned research and inquiry by NGOs and the United Nations. Organizations like the World Bank then use the NGOs’ reports to advocate for seizing all small-scale mining activities.
A Poisonous Industry
Large-scale operations produce large quantities of toxic waste, which often gets buried or dumped into streams. Large-scale mining practices also lead to destruction of topsoil, emission of toxic gases, degradation of forests and redirection of water, leading to floods and droughts. Also alarming is the new industrial trend of “green mining,” which uses cyanide instead of mercury for gold processing.
Cyanide, used during the processing and refining stages of industrial gold mining, has several identifiable human health effects. Unlike mercury, it can enter the body without being actually inhaled or ingested. It can be absorbed through the eyes and skin, meaning its effects are more invasive. Over a long period of exposure, toxicities accumulate. This has been studied and exemplified in such cases as that of Ghanaian communities situated adjacent to the Bogoso mine run by the American-owned Golden Star Resources.
Where chronic cyanide toxicity develops, it means severe neurological and thyroid problems. According to the International Cyanide Management Code, “chronic cyanide exposure is linked to demyelination, lesions of the optic nerve, ataxia, hypertonia, Leber’s optic atrophy, goiters and depressed thyroid function.”
A Toxic Day’s Work
Small-scale miners are also guilty of using cyanide, though the quantities are dwarfed by those used in large-scale operations. For a mining family, this means a full day’s work in knee-high water, resulting in only one to two grams of gold. The extracted ore is then processed at home, where it is combined with mercury, burned and washed with cyanide. The process releases toxic mercury vapour, and exposes the miners and their families to devastating health effects. Because of the simple tools and low-process inefficiencies, small-scale miners release as much as two grams of mercury into the environment for every gram of gold they get.
But compared to the sixty to seventy per cent of the world’s mercury pollution that results from large-scale mining, industry and the burning of fossil fuels, the levels released by small-scale miners are minimal. But the effect it has on the health of the miners is not. Due to their direct exposure to mercury and cyanide, and the fact that they live in the area they pollute, miners are made to suffer the direct costs of their resource extraction.
Once released into the environment, mercury can travel over 2,500 kilometres in just three days. It pollutes remote areas by dropping with rainfall or by binding to soil and water surfaces. Improving the safety of this technology is an urgent concern, as mercury – and its toxic and organic form, methylmercury – accumulates in human tissues and causes health effects like tumours, tremors and embryological and developmental delays.
Resisting Gold Mining
Grassroots and global resistance is steadily growing around the globe. Communities in Guatemala, the Philippines and Mexico have brought active struggles against Canadian and other corporations for years. New resistance is also growing against the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim, for its gold extraction in El Salvador, as well as in the U.S. where seventy per cent of gold mining takes place on Indigenous lands.
In Canada, resource extraction also often takes place on Aboriginal lands, and Indigenous, worker and student political resistance to corporate mining is on the rise. From Placerdome’s mining in the Yukon to Goldcorp’s operations in Red Lake, Ontario, a strong movement across communities and tactics is essential. Changes must be achieved in governmental policies and procedures, both in their dealings with the corporate world and their criminalization of Indigenous and grassroots resistance.
This article appeared in the September/October 2008 issue of Canadian Dimension (Canadian Students).