Swans Commentary » swans.com August 27, 2007  





by Martin Murie





(Swans - August 27, 2007)   Nevada, north of Elko. A fighter jet slipped silently between ridges, followed by sound. I was climbing a steep slope, noticing ancient, weathered stumps of pine and juniper, signs from long ago. Railroad ties? Gold mine timbers? The jet disappeared, but the mountain was rumbling, a deep earth sound. At the ridge crest I stood amazed; the other side of the mountain was gone. I was looking down, down into a huge terraced pit. At the bottom trucks moved like little ants. Gold mine, modern style: cyanide-laced water seeps through neatly-spread heaps of bulldozed and blasted mountain to retrieve a few ounces of gold.

Let's look at Newmont Mining, the biggest mining corporation in the world. In Peru it has three partners: Peruvian, French, and a 5 percent stake from the World Bank. The partners squabbled among themselves. The details are murky and, with one exception, Newmont execs refused to talk to a NY Times-PBS investigation. (1) The exception, a "Mr. Kurlander," in the NY Times' exceedingly respectful style, admitted that he was in contact with Peru's head of intelligence, "Mr. Montesino." Secret tapes recorded by the spy boss, perhaps for purposes of blackmail, show Kurlander and Montesino professing friendship. Montesino is now in jail and the former president of Peru, under whom he served, Alberto Fujimori, is exiled. Kurlander says that all he wanted from Montesino was "a level playing field."

Ah yes, those lovely fields, we all know about those, places where opponents are leveled. And let's not get into the CIA's involvement with Montesino. What we want to look at are the people on the land.

When Newmont moved in some people were happy to get jobs, but as the earth removal and cyanide-leach-heap process went on, water tables dropped and well water tasted strange. There was a leaking keg of mercury too, spilling over 25 miles of highway. Anger erupted. When Newmont moved equipment to a new location, Quilish, to mine its rich deposits, the peasants blocked the road. Peruvian cops were called in, arrests followed, but the siege went on. Newmont had to helicopter workers into Quilish. Finally, the corporation gave up and moved its exploration to "the highlands near San Cerillo, where the pale green lagoons and peaty grasses act as a store of water for the peasants below." (2)

In the NY Times report is a big color photo of the Reverend Marco Arano, activist priest, talking with "a resident." Hey, does this resident have a name? Señor ...? The Reverend met a Newmont exec once, who claimed that Newmont had two ears ready to listen. Arano responded with a bible quotation to the effect that some people have two eyes and two ears and still do not listen.

The World Bank funded an investigation of the peasants' water supply. The report stated that "in the short term" the water was safe for human consumption, but in the long run the tons of bulldozed earth would be leaking acids and heavy metals into the region's waters. Newmont says it will do "long term treatment and cleanup" after the mining is completed. That's what mine corporations always say, all over the world, minerals first, cleanup afterward. At the time of writing of the NY Times report, Newmont had not yet set aside funds for long-term treatment. Meanwhile, a stream, Quebrada Honda, that once had a fish population now has none. Kurlander had actually sent a memo warning Newmont execs that they ignored many environmental protections in the rush to get gold; he went so far as to suggest that those in charge could become "subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment." (3)

I keep meeting people, in bookstores and on the street, who still trust corporations. The most startling I've yet come across is praise for Wal*Mart, whose greening sounds impressive until we notice that the paint is exclusively devoted to gadgetry, improving the efficiency of its huge truck fleet from 6 mpg to 18 mpg. Wow, big deal! Also, converting to 100 percent renewable energy in its buildings, and a zero waste program. Wal*Mart execs also "consult" with a wide array of organic producers, jewelers, NGOs concerned with climate change, packaging, and so on. These measures will, in the long run, save big bunches of money and at the same time lift high the banner of environmental responsibility. (4)

The catch is how they treat the workers. A successful union organizing at one Wal*Mart led to the entire store shutting down, moving elsewhere. This is so damn typical, all across the corporate world: making big cost-cutting enviro moves while treating workers with condescension, threats, shut-downs, lay-offs. Environmentalists too often go along with that, all of it. The mind set among so many big operators in the enviro field is totally un-ecological. That mind set ignores rights and welfare of people: Inuit and Athabascan societies in Alaska, farmers and ranchers, hard labor in farm fields, hard labor in assembly lines, fishermen within range of the Exxon-Valdez disaster, the ongoing disaster in Bhopal, India.

Irrationality infests these systems too. Fantasies that are unbelievable and so very true. One of many examples:

Seventy-five percent of the apples on sale in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, even though New York state produces ten times as many apples as the residents of the Big Apple consume. (5)

The fundamental ecological fact is that people are part of the ecosystem of Planet Earth. This being so, and our responsibilities also paramount, I would like to propose a cardinal rule: No corporation wins a green medal until it enters into full labor rights agreements with those who do the work. That means the right to organize without penalty, the right to strike without penalty. That would be a bare minimum requirement. Others should probably be added.

So, how does an outfit like Newmont win a green badge? It doesn't. It can't. Newmont is an experienced, clever, powerful predator, and there are others around too, ripping away. Stories in mining country across the world have this in common: jobs, working for the mine, neutralizes and splits communities; land and its human and animal inhabitants suffer; long-term recovery turns out to be an empty promise. At its best, "remediation and cleanup" is a poor trade for the original ecosystem. Look at the many years Exxon appealed the Prince William oil spill fine. Its obedient lawyers are still appealing. In Bhopal, India, Union-Carbide's disdainful regard for the victims is legendary.

The final statement in the NY Times report on Newmont in Peru quotes a former Newmont consultant, Mr. Vera.

Mining negatively impacts the Andean cosmic vision of the unity of Nature ... The conflict can't be settled with money. Mining generates resentments that are difficult to heal. (6)

"Resentments" is too pale a word. "Anger" is what led the activist priest and his peasant colleagues to blockade the mine's extension. Short-term effects are what people on the land experience in their lifetimes. Long-term "amelioration" and "restoration" is pie-in-the-sky by and by. Conclusion? It's better to stop blasting and bulldozing the earth. In Peru, it's thirty tons of rock and earth for every ounce of gold. Most of the gold is used for jewelry. We can do without gold jewelry, can't we? And be happier ? Gold these days is one of hundreds of "things" we could do without. Make a list, it will be a long one. But suppose we actually dared to launch out on such a "do without" program? What about the economy? Corporations broke, jobs in the millions lost, chaos everywhere, stock market plunged to the seventh or eighth circle of hell. We need to answer that. It can't be done by ranting and raving about our culture's devotion to the Great God Corporate Dominator. That is not a grabber.

Intellectuals can be as hooked on the Great God as anybody else. Look at the wonderful prose turned out by Paul Hawken, full of grassroots spirit and good things to say about local farming, local crafts, community, democracy, and yet he is bewitched by Wal*Mart's shiny green propaganda.

Is the corporate hold on thought too firm for mere activists and intellectuals to break?



1.  New York Times International. October 25, 2005.  (back)

2.  ibid.  (back)

3.  ibid.  (back)

4.  Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, Viking, 2007.  (back)

5.  Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, Times Books. Henry Holt, 2007.  (back)

6.  New York Times report. Oct. 25, 2005.  (back)


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About the Author

Martin Murie on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 27, 2007