Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What's mine is yours (well, almost...)

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:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Life in the DR!

Well, it’s been a little over three weeks since I landed in the Dominican Republic, and plenty has been happening! Here in the Dominican, I’m working for an organization called ENDA-Dominicana (ENDA stands for Environment and Development Action, and is an international NGO based in Senegal). After landing in the country, we spend the first couple of days reviewing the documentation of the projects so that  we could figure out what kinds of things we were interested in doing. There was a lot to go through, and it still feels like there’s tons to learn. ENDA-Dom has been working in the country for over thirty years, so the full scope of their involvement in the Domincan Republic is something that only a few people are really aware  of.


I also spent a good portion of the first two weeks figuring out my living situation. I’m living with another intern from the Falls Brook Centre, Elisa. Since our internships are based around the town of Cotuí, we’re primarily living at the apartment that our director rents there. The apartment, I should add, is a palace compared to our digs at Falls Brook. It is huge, has all the amenities one could want, and is in a brand new building. It is also right next to one of the most happening nightclubs in Cotuí, the De Melissa Car Wash – so named because it is, in fact, a car wash during the day. Many nightspots are similarly repurposed during the work day, which helps to explain why a town of 17 000 people has three massive car washing establishments. We’re also renting a (far more humble) room in Santo Domingo because our work requires us to spend a day or two every week in the capital at ENDA’s main office. The lady of the house has rented to interns before, so she knows what to expect from us.

The main ENDA project that we’re working with is super interesting, and a little controversial. ENDA has partnered with a large Canadian mining company, Barrick Gold, to carry out a reforestation and ommunity development project in the area around the Barrick mine, near Cotuí. The project itself is pretty extensive, as the area stretches from the Pueblo Viejo mine all the way to Los Haitises National Park, on the eastern coast. The idea is to encourage landowners to plant trees on their land for the purpose of either having managed woodlots or agroforestry systems. This would allow people to obtain an economic yield from the trees they plant, either from timber harvesting or the sale of fruits such as cocoa, plantain, or citrus. Naturally, since the major corporate partner is a giant mining company, controversy has followed – more on that later.

Delivering trees in Jobo

Those same trees one week later, with treekeepers

We’ve also been shown around some of the other ENDA projects in the area – they’ve been supporting a bunch of small woodworking businesses and sawmills, with the goal of increasing local production. While the Dominican Republic has incredible forest resources and an advanced management system, it still imports something like 90% of its lumber because the local industry has not been able to match demand. Many of the difficulties that local industries face is due to the extremely stringent laws surrounding the right to cut down trees for lumber, which have been in place for over 50 years, since the Trujillo dictatorship. Ironically, the result of these environmental protection laws is that lumber is imported from countries that suffer from overharvesting, such as Honduras and Brazil.

Over the last week or so, we’ve been figuring out where we interns fit into all of this. Our boss in Santo Domingo has urged us to get to work on spreading the word about the project, since there has not been a lot of publicity since the planting started last year, and the project staff have not had time to publicize their  results. In addition to the promotion/website work, we’ve been accompanying the technical staff of the project into the field to help with surveys and follow-up with project partners. These visits also help us to gather information about different experiences that people are having, in order to spread information and suggestions related to the project. Also, we’ve been finding that there’s quite a network of interns in the area who are working on similar projects, so there’s plenty of opportunity for collaboration. We’re also trying to find ways to make our work sustainable, so that the website updating and promotion can be done on a continual basis, rather than relying on interns to come along and start from a basic level each year.

And that’s not all! We’ve also been meeting amazing people. Our co-workers in the Cotuí and Santo Domingo offices have been amazing friends and supports over the last weeks. We had two very memorable couchsurfing experiences with wonderful, generous hosts while we were finding places to stay and becoming acquainted with the Dominican life. The project partners that we have met in the villages around Cotuí have been incredible and welcomed us into their homes from the beginning. We’ve also met some international interns from Canada and Korea, and have heard of others from Japan and the United States in the area. All in all, I think we’re in for a really wonderful few months!