Spinning gold: the ‘happy’ story of Canadian mining

Goldminers illustration

AK Rockefeller under a Creative Commons Licence

It is a brilliant May afternoon and in downtown Vancouver the pink petals of the cherry trees come down like confetti onto the cement around the towers. Doubters – few in number – gather outside the hotel hosting the Goldcorp annual general meeting. With their signs and drums and leaflets they are righteous and determined. Meanwhile, the well-dressed faithful clack inside, moving through the – just in case – police line, up the stairs, and by tables laid thick with ‘community scrapbooks’ that show the happy story of Canadian goldmining around the world. Inside the darkened, windowless, sound-proof room the ritual begins.

First to speak is Goldcorp chair, Ian Telfer. In a little more than eight minutes, with jokes and pats on the back all around, he runs through the official business. It’s all winks and nods as he mouths the known liturgy, and the shareholders move, second, vote and chuckle in unison. Telfer’s voice is soothing and familiar; he is there to calm fears. It has been a tough year for gold fanciers: the price took a big dip, slipping from the dizzying unbelievable heights of a few happy quarters ago; meanwhile the global king players, Barrick and Newmont, tried (again) to get hitched, a move which ended in eye-clawing, stomach-retching hatred between the two; and a number of projects worldwide (not belonging to Goldcorp) have crashed, scaring everyone (notably Barrick’s stranded $8.5-billion boondoggle, the Pascua-Lama glacier-blasting fiasco in the Acatama Desert in the Chilean-Argentine Andes).

Downer news breeds nervous investors, and in the golden shell-game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t easy profits, the alchemist making of something out of numbers and mud, Goldcorp’s leaders are there to assure shareholders that, above all, there’s nothing tricky going on. They are on schedule, on top of it, confident, bullish, active and very, very smart. They are keeping their promises, making us all richer, squeezing the gold out of worthless, barren ground. We should be as happy as babies with pie. The single purpose of this gathering of believers is to present Goldcorp, and goldmining, as stable, reliable, safe, helpful to all, necessary even, and inevitable. A real win-win!

Just like the other guys

Chuck Jeannes, Goldcorp President and CEO, takes the mike. He reassures us: Goldcorp is not like the other guys. Goldcorp is the best, strongest, most balanced company – not a foolish risk taker, no big egos to soothe here, playing all the while with our money. Goldcorp is sticking to the consistent strategy of succeeding in a volatile market, delivering safe production, relying on an outstanding portfolio of long-life, low-cost, no-risk projects, creating sustaining value, meeting our vision, bringing lasting economic benefits. We are just one big safe ruckus-loving family! Heads nod. It all goes down like warm pudding. What are those crazy doubters doing out on the sidewalk pounding their silly drums?

In the golden shell-game of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t easy profits, Goldcorp’s leaders are there to assure shareholders that, above all, there’s nothing tricky going on

The room dims even more, the marching band swells, the video rolls, and we see how Goldcorp is taking care of business, helping everyone, even little children in Canada who live with Down’s syndrome. Goldcorp signs the cheque for the Special Olympics and we all cheer when one cute little boy on the bowling team gets one, two, three, four – no, five – strikes in a row. Not one pin left standing, not once. Perfection!

But what, what, what if the goldmen are wrong? What if they’re not telling the whole story, the true story?

What if open-pit goldmines do not create sustainable value, but rather poison watersheds, pulling up heavy metals from the deep earth and releasing acid drainage and deadly arsenic into communities’ usable water? What if the process damages the Earth irreparably, in ways that can never be undone, like the disastrous Giant goldmine in the Northwest Territories in Canada, where a billion dollars of Canadian taxpayers’ money is slated to be invested in containing a toxic mess that cannot be cleaned up? What if, quite simply, local communities have said ‘No!’, realizing that ‘low-cost’ goldmines with ‘unmatched growth profiles’ are not in their best interests, and will not bring flourishing of life, but quite the opposite for their villages and towns, now and for generations to come?

Ring of destruction

Who is right? Chuck and Ian in their clean shirts and shoes, or doña Diodora Hernandez – citizen and community leader in Acel, San Marcos, Guatemala, who has refused to sell her ancestral inheritance and now lives with her family and her cows on a finger of dry land, surrounded by the machines, swirling dust and the pits of the Marlin Mine, just above the eerie-blue of the toxic tailings pond?

What if open-pit goldmines do not create sustainable value, but rather poison watersheds, pulling up heavy metals from the deep earth and releasing acid drainage and deadly arsenic into communities’ usable water?

Me siento un poco triste,’ she told me, when I last visited her. ‘I feel a little sad. They have come and taken all the water. This is my land, my ancestors’ land, my grandchildren’s land.’ Tears flow from her good eye. The other eye is hollow, but infected with yellow pus. Almost four years ago, in July 2010, unidentified men came to her house at night, and shot her in the face.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Los Chocoyos, Sipakapa, the Marlin Mine has plans to crack open mountains, expanding its ring of destruction. Sipakapa was one of the first Guatemalan communities to host a plebiscite on mining. In June 2005, 98 per cent of the population exercised their right to hold a broad-based and authentic consultation process in accordance with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. They said no to the Marlin Mine on their traditional territory. But now, nine years later, the machines are finally going in.

Cabrican, in the neighbouring department of Quetzaltenango, is also under direct threat by the Goldcorp subsidiary, Entre Mares. I was in Cabrican as an international observer in October 2010, when an astounding number of community members came down from the hills and gathered in villages and hamlets to carry out their own community consultation process. Here I witnessed farmers and housewives, teachers and shopkeepers marking their paper ballots from early in the morning until dusk. Here, too, there was a resounding ‘No!’ to the idea that Goldcorp was actually out to ‘create sustaining value through mining’.

Back in the dark room, after the fawning and the applauding, I stood up, shaky, feeling naked and surrounded by sharks. It didn’t come out quite right, but I tried to speak up. I tried to say, ‘You are wrong. Doña Diodora is right, and so are the others of Acel – Javier, Aniceto, Crisanta.’

The Reverend Emilie Teresa Smith is the Rector of St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church in New Westminster, British Columbia, and Co-President of the Oscar Romero International Christian Network in Solidarity with the People of Latin America (SICSAL).

The September 2014 issue of New Internationalist will focus on Gold.