The price of gold
Alain Deneault is a social scientist from Quebec and a leading critic of the Canadian mining industry. His book Canada Noir brought a lawsuit from the Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold. In this interview, he tells the story of Canada’s shocking record of human and environmental abuse in the mining sector.
How did you get interested in goldmining?
When I returned to Canada after studying in France, I started to work closely on these issues. I found out that many reports, documents, books and documentaries worldwide existed on the problematic behaviour of Canadian corporations, especially in the mining sector in Africa. I formed a team and we started to gather information about Canadian corporations in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Greece. We saw that Canadian corporations were involved in such cases as bribery, massive pollution, corruption, threats to public health, tax evasion, and the military support of dictators or rebels that aimed to control areas where the ore was. I was shocked to see that academics doing work on these corporations were carrying it out in an obscure manner – talking about governance in western Africa. They were also researching companies they didn’t dare mention.
In the mid-2000s, I thought the time had come to summarize all the information that had been gathered internationally. I wrote a book called Noir Canada, with Delphine Abadie and William Sacher who helped me do the research.
What role do you see gold playing in the world now both culturally and economically?
I tried to figure out why 75 per cent of the world’s mining industries are registered in Canada. Among them are many goldmining companies. Most mining companies raise the same kinds of economic and social issues but with respect to gold there are two particular issues.
Exploiting gold in Africa is scandalous because it takes a lot of water. And in many countries water is more important than gold for people. But huge corporations have concessions obtained by mysterious methods: maybe through corruption or other means. They then use huge amounts of water and cyanide and spoil natural resources that are vital for the daily living of populations. These operations represent a higher risk of pollution than other kinds of development.
The second issue is the absurdity of goldmining. Human beings nowadays don’t need gold. We use gold for jewels and for institutions that are active in the financial markets because they want to have reserves in case of an economic crisis.
The gold industry illustrates the useless character of a lot of mining exploitation. It’s a pity when we talk about the mining industry, even sometimes within activist circles, that we do so without considering other questions like our current way of life, overconsumption, and how we could recycle what has already been dug up and used in industrial processes. If we only need gold for industry and dentistry then we will have more than enough. The other purposes are not justified given the risks involved with goldmining.
There is beginning to be a mouvement de décroissance, a degrowth movement, around the world. Do you think that gold could be a strategic focus for looking at degrowth globally?
The main idea of degrowth or décroissance is to put an end to the idea that the measure of the health of a society is its capacity to grow in the scope of indicators that ideological institutions provide, such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). When we proceed in that way, we are destroying the basis of our societies and economies. If we look at gold carefully, it could be the symbol of a system that is always pursuing accumulation and, in the process, destroying what is necessary for us to continue to live in our ecosystem.
Can you talk about what happened with your book Noir Canada and the mining company Barrick Gold?
I published it in the spring of 2008. My publisher Ecosocieté advertised it on Barrick Gold’s website. Without even seeing the content of the book, Barrick Gold sent us a legal letter saying that if we published the book and they thought there was any defamation they would sue us. We talked about it and decided to go on and launch the book. So the company sued us for $6 million.
The book was mainly summarizing relevant sources about the role of Canadian corporations in Africa. We asked for a public enquiry on the allegations supported in the documents because we felt that these corporations should not have legal impunity. Barrick’s lawsuit wasn’t enough to stop us but then the Banco Corporation sued us for $5million in Ontario. We had to fight in two legal systems with two different teams of lawyers. We discovered how unfair the legal system was in our country. No average citizens from the middle class or even the upper middle class have the means to defend themselves in a courtroom because it costs so much.
Every citizen in the country finances the legal system through our taxes but only millionaires and billionaires have access to it because of a notion essential to the legal system, which is that a lawyer doesn’t represent a citizen with rights but a client with means. If someone is unable to be a client, they will never be able to organize a legal defence based on the specialized language and knowledge of the court system. Lawyers have such high fees that while one has the theoretical right to defend oneself, that person does not have the practical means to ensure that this right is practically applied or enforced. So we struggled in that context for three and a half years. Meanwhile, we sold several thousand copies of Noir Canada worldwide. The Quebec government brought in a new law which allowed legislators to support people like us who were facing this kind of lawsuit. We were advised to settle out of court, but there was still the problem of the inequality of means.
We finally decided to withdraw the book and Barrick Gold withdrew its lawsuit. Afterwards, we published Imperial Canada Inc with the same content but presented in other ways. We didn’t win or lose on a legal level but we certainly won on a political level. I think that our point of view is part of the social consciousness. Many people now think of issues of abuse and problems of pollution whenever the topic of a Canadian mining company comes up.
In goldmining there has traditionally been a troubled relationship between the mining company and local miners. Local mining has sometimes existed before the commercial mine, sometimes afterwards, as local people believe they have as much right to this gold as foreign companies do. In South Africa this is a huge issue – it is estimated that 10 per cent of the gold is lost to ‘ghost miners’ [they steal gold from the mineshaft]. What are your thoughts on this?
It would be a mistake to think that we can only exploit ore on a gigantic scale or by very traditional methods as if there was nothing in between. The easy-to-reach sources of ore have already been exploited. We are now exploiting resources in low-grade sites using technologies that are very polluting. Western markets ask a lot from the earth and now India, China and Brazil all want the same. The demand is higher than the existing sources can satisfy. Some mines now only find one gram of gold in a ton of waste. This would not have attracted much interest three or four decades ago.
There is no sovereign political body able to regulate this process. So we act as if we can only proceed using the methods and the technological approach of corporations like Barrick Gold and Rio Tinto. If we had an anthropological point of view we could say that in many contexts it makes no sense to be an artisanal miner – without equipment, it’s very dangerous. But we should think of ways they can continue to operate that are safer and fairer. For that, we need to make technology accessible. But if a company brings technologies to a country where people are subordinated to it they will help nobody. This is something we always should keep in mind when we talking about what we mean by foreign aid.
Read New Internationalist's September issue on Gold, edited by Richard Swift. Coming soon.