As I mentioned in my last post, the project that I’m going to be working with is a partnership between the Dominican partner on my internship, ENDA-Dominicana, and Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining giant. If you’ve never heard of Barrick, I encourage you to do some research on them as a company. For those of you who go or went to the University of Toronto, you should know Barrick through their sponsorships at the university, such as the Munk School of Global Affairs, or the Munk Debates at the Royal Ontario Museum.
The association with the mine is an interesting one. Certainly, it has been profitable for ENDA-Dom since it brings in a lot of funds from their corporate social responsibility coffers. The reforestation project is planned for a five-year period from 2011-2016, and is funded to the tune of $8 million (see the links at the end for more information). The partnership, however, puts ENDA as an organization in the middle of a controversial situation, relating to the history of the mine and the current political atmosphere in the country.
|The Pueblo Viejo mine|
First, the history: Barrick is the latest in a series of owners of the Pueblo Viejo mine. The original owners, Rosario Dominicana, had operated the mine in the 1980s and their tenure there resulted in awful contamination of the watersheds surrounding the mine. Rosario’s controlling position in the mine was bought out in 1992 by a Canadian company, PlacerDome, which planned to resume operations but was hindered by the ongoing cleanup efforts and the negative image of the mine in the community. Also, PlacerDome was bought by Barrick Gold some time later, and it was Barrick that assumed the responsibilities of remediation and resuming operations. They launched a number of community development initiatives starting last year (you can see their site for more details), including the reforestation project that ENDA is the lead partner on. They’ve also spent millions on a state-of-the-art containment system for hazardous wastes from gold mining, such as cyanide. Nonetheless, because of its coloured history, and because the recent operations have only just begun, the Pueblo Viejo mine is synonymous with environmental contamination in the national consciousness.
|An eroded hillslope on Monte Negro, part of the Barrick holdings in Pueblo Viejo|
The political situation does not help matters, either. There has been quite some opposition to the mine since it started operations last year. While some people have voiced concern about the environmental consequences, they are not the focus of most of the protests. This may be because other concerns are seen to be more important, or because people have some amount of faith in the safety precautions that Barrick has put in place for the containment of hazardous waste. The focus of the protests has been the lack of employment of local workers in the mine, which will get much worse once the construction phase ends completely and the largely Dominican construction workforce is dismissed. Many of the miners are foreign workers brought in from Peru and Mexico. The company claims that the vast majority of the employees are Dominican, and that the people who have been brought in have specific skills that they were unable to find in the country. However, many people I have talked to, including some who work at the mine, dispute this claim.
In addition, the Dominican government is poised to introduce a program of fiscal reform that would increase taxes on many everyday goods, making life more difficult for almost everyone. At the same time, the contract recently signed with Barrick was seen by many to be too lenient, and many are pushing the government to renegotiate the deal – something that the government, understandably, is reluctant to do because breaking a contract would result in all sorts of penalties and legal challenges, as well as international fallout from Canada and the United States. This puts the government in an awkward situation, since they’re facing the people and trying to get them to make a sacrifice after giving a sweet deal to the mining companies and spending lavishly on recent election campaigns.
There have been a number of protests in the area in recent months, with groups of people shutting down major highways and demonstrating against the mine. Many workers’ groups are using the protests to demand that more local people be given jobs, or that the company invest more in the communities. While none of these protests have happened while we have been here, I’ve heard that things get completely shut down. Many people here see them as kind of a nuisance, and Canadians that we know make a point of staying completely hidden when they occur.
The local organizations that partner with ENDA or the mine in different ways have to walk a fine line – they don’t endorse everything the mine does, but they support a more constructive engagement with the company that involves dialogue and seeing how Barrick can support the community. In general, the efforts of ENDA's projects to promote agroforestry and reforest sensitive areas are seen as positive steps. However, if public opinion were to shift drastically against the mine, all that could change.
For those who are interested in learning more, here are some links to news stories about the mine and the project I’m working on. They’re all in Spanish, but I figure Google translate should give the gist of them, at least: