Haiti’s environment is fragile and severely stressed. The exportation of precious wood like Kanpèch and dependence on charcoal production has destroyed the country’s forest canopy. Cholera, introduced by UN peacekeepers in 2010, contaminated the country’s water supply. More than 7,000 people have died and more than 500,000 have fallen ill from cholera. In this context any activity like gold mining, which can further damage the environment, must be approached with caution. Gold mining should not take place until appropriate safety measures and environmental monitoring are put in place.
Around the world, gold mining is a leading cause of environmental damage because of the toxins and pollution produced in the extraction of gold from rocks. For every ounce of gold obtained, around 80 tons of waste can be produced. In 1995, cyanide from a gold mine leaked into the largest river of Guyana (51km) and the president of the country had to declare the Omai River an “Environmental Disaster Zone”. The concentration of cyanide in the river was 148 times the level that the US Environmental Agency classifies as lethal. Such an accident would be even more damaging in Haiti considering that the country lacks municipal water reservoirs and much of the population depends on water from rivers for daily use.
The overriding danger is that the lure to quick wealth may cause officials to rush to get to the gold buried in the mountains and overlook safety issues. In a country where the government has failed to provide basic sanitation and potable water, the government must demonstrate that it can erect a system of accountability and oversight to protect people and the environment from the potential damage of gold mining. In a country where the justice system is weak, the government must demonstrate that it can hold rich mining executives accountable in the country’s courts.
The gold discovered in Haiti lies deep within its mountains and will likely require explosives and poisonous chemicals like cyanide and mercury to extract it. When trace amounts of these chemicals leak into the environment, particularly into the water supply, they can cause death as rivers are transformed into streams of contaminated and unusable water.
Nowadays, mining companies generally prefer to blow deep holes into the ground, called pit mining, rather than drill into the ground. Pit mining has become popular because it is the cheaper method. Often, following the extraction of the minerals, the mining companies leave behind deep craters and piles of toxic waste.
A number of mining companies have reported that they have already obtained the rights to mine one third of northern Haiti. We are unaware of any provisions made for the people who currently reside in these affected areas. According to Jane Regan of the Guardian newspaper, the president of Eurasian Minerals bragged, “We control over 1,100 square miles of real estate" in Haiti. This company obtained rights from past Haitian governments for drilling within 12 kilometers of Cape Haitian. This may bring mining activity perilously close to the Citadel. The Haitian government must decide how valuable its national treasures are. It has to make a decision on whether or not it will permit the ground to be removed from beneath the Citadel. The government needs to recognize that the people and the environment are more valuable and far more precious than gold. Gold mining in Haiti cannot be done on the cheap. Mining companies must take all measures to safeguard the environment. They must purchase insurance to cover accidents. They must contribute regularly to a government fund for clean-up and for providing clean water. Their legal responsibilities must extend beyond their years of mining so that they do not extract a fortune and walk away leaving a country in ruins.
The poor people of Haiti are likely to be the worst affected by Haiti’s gold rush. They may be displaced from their land and lakous to make way for mining. It remains to be seen if their displacement from the land will be codified in law under eminent domain or if they will benefit from laws that require that mining companies lease access to the land they want to mine.
Despite the glaring need for Haiti to proceed with caution, the call to hold off gold mining until proper laws and structures are implemented is likely to be silenced by the potential 20 billion dollar jackpot. We must remember that there are countless poor countries with fabulous mineral wealth. Haiti’s needs are too numerous for its gold deposits to be squandered. Its environment is too fragile to be further damaged by careless mining. The potential benefits and the potential risks are so huge that the country must not rush into gold mining. Now more than ever, Haitian official have to make sober decisions so that the country can benefit from both its natural and mineral wealth. It must protect these assets from those who would rob us and future generations of this shared inheritance.
References and recent gold mining timeline:
All information about gold in Haiti and about those given permits to mine the country were obtained from Mining company sources, from foreign press agencies and from US government publications. As is usual, the Haitian government does not make contracts that it signs in the name of the Haitian people accessible.
1970’s- UN reports on Gold in Haiti (British Newspaper the Guardian)
1985- Haitian Government reports on the finding of gold in the north of Haiti (British Newspaper the Guardian)
1997- KGW Resources of Canada and St. Genevieve Resources of Canada signed a mining convention with the Haitian Government. They got the rights to mine for copper and gold in the Blondin, Douvray, Faybe and Mòn Bosa (US Geological Survey*)
Late 1990’s- KWG Resources (70%) and St Genenieve Resources (30%) had been mining Douvray and Blondin for copper. This project became known as SOMINE. (US Geological Survey*)
March 9, 2005. The Haitian Legislature approved a mining agreement signed in 1997 between Haiti’s president and the mining companies . A part of this agreement, the Faybe Gold Project, gave St Genevieve gold mining rights in 50 square kilometers around Faybe. The company was to pay the Haitian Government 1.8 million dollars and 2.5% royalties. (US Geological Survey*)
2008- St Genenieve became known as Copper Mesa Mining. (US geological Survey*)
2012- Multiple international newspapers reported on the presence of an estimated 20 billion dollars of gold in the North of Haiti. (MSNBC, Today’s news May 12,2012)
2012- One Former Haitian finance minister who participated in the signing of mining contracts now works as a consultant for the mining industry ( Jane Regan reports in the Guardian)
*Susan Wacaster. The Mineral Industries of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Published by the US department of the anterior and the US Geological Survey in the Area Reports International 2009, Volume III.
Dirty Metal Mining, Communities and the Environment. A Report by Earthworks and Oxfam America. 2004
Jane Regan. Haiti's rush for gold gives mining firms a free rein over the riches. The Guardian. May 30, 2012
Special thanks to Gordie Simon for the photographs of Haiti's rivers.