What do popular environmental struggles against gold mining throughout Latin America have to do with ending the war in Iraq?
Today every Latin American country is host to foreign gold mining operations. With modern mining techniques, anywhere there are mountains, gold can be mined: The geological conditions that produce mountains mean that trace amounts of gold, invisible to the eye, lie disseminated deep within mountain ranges. Modern open-pit mining techniques demolish and pulverize mountains, to soak the ore in cyanide solutions to extract about one ounce of gold for every eighty tons of rock. These techniques are incredibly disruptive and contaminative. They leave entire mountain ranges devastated, create enormous toxic “tailings reservoirs,” create acid drainage which contaminates entire river systems, leave vast regions desertified, and communities sickened and impoverished.
Under destructive modern techniques, more gold has been extracted in the past twenty years than in all human history before today. Modern mining is carried out almost exclusively by a few increasingly powerful transnational corporations, such as Barrick Gold, Rio Tinto, Glencore, Goldcorp, and exploration activities by hundreds of “junior companies.”
Modern gold prospecting is less about geology, and more about prospecting for the local social conditions which enable corporations to contaminate and freely utilize energy and water resources while controlling vast amounts of territory.
The selling point for building a gold mine is the creation of a limited number of jobs for the local population. The insertion of transnational mining companies and the privatization of common goods such as land and water is not possible in localities where institutions, knowledge and culture are strong and healthy: on the contrary, mining insertion is successful in regions where corruption and dependency rule, and where traditional, autonomous economies, spaces and cultures have been weakened or destroyed.
Mining firms see themselves in a growing race against time: in the face of rising public rejection, their goal is to get their “foot in the door,” that is, install their multi-million dollar mining projects at all costs, in order to transform social and economic landscapes, and thus ensure their continued, and profitable, existence, before the public finds out what is really in store for them. Direct action makes it possible to for us to prevent or delay an open-pit mine. But once it is installed, it is there forever. There are over eighty large-scale metals mining projects in operation throughout Latin America: Each one is a regional disaster. There are literally thousands more in exploration.
But there is really good news: Social conflicts have erupted in every single country where mining firms are now operating: Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, all of Central America, Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, and my current abode, Argentina. In Tambogrande in Perú, Esquel in Argentina, and Miramar in Honduras, gold mining firms have been forced out by local pressure. In La Rioja, Argentina, this spring local activists carrying out a four-month roadblock campaign successfully ousted Barrick Gold as well as their corrupt governor from their province. Here in Argentina, we have passed legislation prohibiting big mining in five provinces.
In the face of this widespread opposition, mining firms have responded by aligning closely with corrupt national governments to increase use of military force, while at the same time carrying out well-moneyed campaigns to promote “responsible mining,” “sustainable development” and “jobs” on a local level — trying to co-opt and split communities by buying the support of institutions such as the press, universities and oversight agencies. This is the practice of “social insertion” — the mining corporations’ strategy to purchase “legitimacy” through the bankrolling and thus control over the very public institutions that the neoliberal State has abandoned.
The nature of popular movements against mining operations varies considerably from community to community, but they are all based in a rotund “NO” to all forms of metals mining activities. Communities are seeing through corporate-NGO greenwashing discourses such as “mining with control,” “best international standards,” or “corporate social responsibility,” and realizing that a no-concessions stand in the face of open-pit metals mining utilizing chemical leaching processes is the only viable way to prevent the specter of contamination, acid drainage and local impoverishment which continues to take place even under the best conditions in the most advanced first world countries such as Canada and the US.
A most powerful community tool is popular consultation or referendums. Communities struggle mightily to carry out referendums which in every case have won overwhelming rejection of mining projects, leaving the discourse of mining companies and global finance agencies in the dust. Through the carrying out of these referendums (Esquel, Tambogrande, San Xavier in Mexico, and Sipikapa in Guatemala) communities carry out a crucial double action: they reject mining, and they begin the important democratic process of defining their own autonomous paths of “development.”
This September 16, 2007, communities in the mountains above Piura, Peru carried out a historic public referendum regarding the ongoing conflict over the Majáz mines project. 97 percent of the residents voted to reject the project. Meanwhile, in Calingasta, Argentina, the corrupt provincial governor banned a public consultation for three years in a row. In this beautiful, but feudal and corrupt backwater, ruled by Barrick Gold Corporation, foreign “miners” ply village roads in 4x4s with tinted windows. When they pass, locals stop talking, and look away in fear and contempt. These groups of modern “miners”, muscular, ugly and rude, be they Canadians or whatnot — they are the Yankee occupying army in these modern “zones of sacrifice.”
On September 10, the occupying armies of miners struck the northern Mexican village of Celemania: A mining truck transporting 25 tons of dynamite crashed in the small mountain town. In a tremendous explosion, 28 villagers were killed and 250 injured, dozens losing limbs, eyes, and hearing. The company responsible was Australian mining chemicals company ORICA. Every day thousands of these potential truck bombs crisscross villages throughout Latin America.
What does gold have to do with stopping Bush’s war in Iraq? According to the Le Monde Diplomatique, Bush’s United States desperately needs to buy all of the gold that it can in order to prop up the national economy in this time of war. For every dollar that is spent on the war of genocide in Iraq (at last count some $450 billion dollars) Bush must have an equal amount of gold, in the form of bullion, in reserve. And in the face of the increasingly unstable dollar on world markets, foreign governments, banks and investors are purchasing more and more gold bullion as a hedge against the upcoming collapse of the dollar.
This demand is driving ever upwards the price of gold, and politically and economically pressuring increased extraction of gold at a frenzied rate. The gold mining giants such as Barrick Gold Corporation are consolidating their power through mergers and takeovers, with support of public and private international finance corporations. But resistance makes their profit margins increasingly narrow: A variety of tactics from political delays to sabotage, and pressures on a local level can make all the difference in the world in halting their projects and sending these firms, and their activities, into a tailspin.
The fight against big mining insertion in Latin America, North America, Asia, Australia and throughout the world is an ecological battle to preserve the mountains and water that sustain life and livelihoods; it is a fight for local power in the face of a globalized world system; it is a fight for the dignity of people and culture within their environment. And finally: We must support the fight against destructive gold mining because every ounce of gold extracted from our sacred mountains today is going towards the support of this genocidal imperial military world order.
For more information: