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Gold Mining Doesn't Glitter

A column by Peter d'Errico about gold mining.

People have mined gold for centuries. Archeological evidence points to gold mining at least 7,000 years ago. Stories of Aztec gold drove 16th century Spaniards to invade the continent, where they found products of a rich mining and smelting history.

"Gold rush" is a common phenomenon in North American history. The yellow metal drove repeated waves of invaders across the continent. California is the stereotypical locale, but Colorado and Alaska were also locations of intense mining fever. Charlie Chaplin made a movie of the Klondike rush. W.C. Fields parodied gold rush films in The Fatal Glass of Beer, where he utters the famous line about a night that "ain't fit for man nor beast."

While no country's currency now operates on the "gold standard," many countries maintain substantial reserves of gold. The U.S. is only 19th on the list, below Mexico and just above Malaysia. China tops the list, followed by Japan and the European Union.

Gold is important in high-tech products and projects. The Keck Observatory, in Hawai'i, coats its secondary mirror in gold. Computers and other electronic devices require gold. Lawrence Livermore Labs says, "nanostructured gold is a very promising candidate as a catalyst, optic, sensor, energy harvester as well as an energy storer." And, as you might expect in this crazy world, there are gold toilets.

The problem—and it's a big one—is that gold mining is dirty, very dirty. The Western Shoshone "No Dirty Gold" campaign aims at drawing attention to the dirty business, as well as to the inequities of mining that eats at their lands while providing others with immense profits. As a measure of the effects, the Western Shoshone point out that it takes ten tons of ore to extract one ounce of gold. Of all gold extracted, 85 percent ends up in jewelry, 5 percent in dentistry, and 10% in industrial uses.

The Western Shoshone have fought for decades to limit mining and to get their share of mining proceeds under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has run roughshod over Western Shoshone lands, permitting international mining corporations to expand operations, without any input from or compensation to the original inhabitants of the land. Litigation has, to date, not been successful.

In July 2012, the first ever People's Health Tribunal in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Guatemala, took up the issue of destructive gold mining. Representatives from throughout Central America testified about the effects of mining on their communities. The Tribunal panel consisted of scientists, health workers, and human rights defenders.

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Testimony at the Tribunal presented evidence of serious health effects, including respiratory diseases, skin diseases, increased instances of cancer, premature births, and an increase in birth defects and miscarriages. Testimony also described political effects attendant on gold mining, such as physical violence directed at community members, assassinations of those who speak out against mining, and government repression aimed at supporting the mines.

One representative to the Tribunal described the mines as "trauma for communities," bringing "irreparable harms, harms that have no price, that last for hundreds of years." From this point of view, the mines are a violation of the right to free, prior, and informed consent upheld by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the right to be properly consulted, as protected by the International Labor Organization's (ILO) Convention 169.

An expert witness, Dr. Juan Almendares, Honduran doctor and founder of the Honduran Science Academy, stated, "If we want to analyze health, we need to talk about not just one system, but all the systems...We need to integrate science, spirituality, and the social conscience". He added, "Knowledge isn't just created in universities, but also among people...We need to listen to each other, to listen to each other's knowledge and wisdom."

The People's Tribunal does not have legal power to make changes in mining laws and practices, but it does have power to make people's voices heard and provide space for communities to speak to the world. To the extent that political and legal institutions must in the end take into account what is happening in people's lives, the Tribunal is a powerful event. There are many examples around the world of terrible social chaos resulting when people become desperate for change after governments ignore what is happening to them.

Goldcorp, the Canadian mining company responsible for some of the mines in Central America, was assisted by a $45M loan from the World Bank. After the Inter American Commission on Human Rights criticized the company, it issued a statement proclaiming its adherence to international standards, and the Guatemalan government ignored the Commission's recommended precautionary measures.

Extraction of resources without regard to community integrity is a hallmark of colonialism. It continues in the guise of international business. Not everything about gold glitters.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.