gold mining
Investigations spanning from the beginning of the year have surfaced a unique gold mining practice in the Philippines. However, the nature of the dangerous work has raised concerns over the lack of labor regulations and the safety of the workers, especially since children are involved.

The people of the coastal province of Camarines Norte, about 200 miles southeast of Manila, are practicing an underwater mining technique called “compressor mining.” It involves teams of miners who dig holes in shallow bay water to dig and sift for deposits of gold trapped in ore. One team member is the digger and spends two to three hours at a time below the surface of the murky water, handing buckets of mud up to another team member.

The buckets are then passed back to the final members who mix in mercury so that the gold will bind to it. Once they’ve maximized the gold-to-mercury ratio in the mixture, they squeeze it out so that it solidifies into an amalgam lump. The final step is to take a blowtorch to the lump so that the mercury evaporates, leaving gold to be collected.

The technique is called compressor mining because the worker under water breathes through a tube connected to a makeshift compressor. The compressor is often fashioned out of an empty beer keg and connected to a diesel motor that pumps air through the tube.

From start to finish, the technique poses a number of severe health and safety risks. The holes dug by the miners are unstable and any wrong move could cause a collapse, trapping the worker. Spending long hours in the water exposes entire teams to bacteria and parasites as well. There is also the issue of toxins entering the lungs regularly through breathing tubes and mercury fumes poisoning those extracting gold.

In interviews with the laborers, Richard Paddock of the Center for Investigative Reporting states that those he talked to were completely unaware of toxic exposure, and many were reluctant to believe him.

There are at least a few thousand people involved in the operation, and many of the teams are comprised of families with children as young as 5 years old. Since underwater miners make more money, 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls are attracted to the position in hopes of raising money to safeguard their future and their family’s future.

According to Thomson Reuters, in 2012, the Philippines was the 18th largest supplier of gold in the world. Yet, like in many developing nations, the retrieval of gold from deposits is dangerous work and workers have very little choice when they need to provide for themselves and their families. Even still, these Filipino gold miners only make $5 average per day, up to $20 on a good day, and sometimes go home with nothing.

There’s no way to track the supply of gold coming out of the Camarines Norte area; once it enters the world gold supply, it is impossible to trace.

 — Edward Heinrich

Sources: PRI, PBS, Pulitzer Center
Photo: Pulitzer Center

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)—a country currently at the bottom of the Human Development Index—the sentencing of Germain Katanga at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this past week has brought mixed reactions.

The Court convicted the former commander of the Forces de Résistance for his role in the February 2003 attack on the village of Bogoro in North-Eastern DRC that resulted in the deaths of over 200 people.

Conflict has consumed this area of the DRC, and more specifically the Ituri region, for years. The power struggle stems from the drive to control the local natural resources, namely gold. Approximately 130,000-150,000 persons in Ituri alone mine gold, often working over 12 hours a day.

High gold taxes and exploitation of small-scale miners prevents many from achieving a decent standard of living. This, in partnership with low agricultural production, produces hunger throughout the population.

Of the two convictions the ICC has realized since its inception, both defendants committed their crimes in Ituri. Critics of the Court point to the prevalence of indicted African leaders as an example of political influence. The failure to enforce their indictments, as in the case of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, has weakened the Court’s credibility.

Signatory states to the ICC’s Rome Statute can also refer certain cases to the Office of the Prosecutor, which means governments may use the Court as a weapon against political opponents rather than a source of justice. Critics have also questioned the influence of the West on the Court, considering 60 percent of ICC funding comes from the European Union.

The ICC appears to be arriving at a crossroads between political showcase and legitimate enforcer of the law. Were the Court to gain its intended footing on the international stage, it would have the opportunity to affect change in the DRC. Deterrence aside, criminal trials allow victims to finally describe their experiences, which can help in the process of national reconciliation.

Implementing law promotes the stability that could do little to harm an economy destroyed by years of warfare. Each trial brings media coverage that can be harnessed to advocate for aid to the DRC. Regardless, the relationship between the ICC and the DRC will be interesting to watch in the coming years.

– Erica Lignell

Sources: Brookings, European Commission, International Policy Digest, IRIN, La Presse, World Bank

ZARUMA, Ecuador — Gold has been mined in the city of Zaruma in southern Ecuador for over 500 years. The area has suffered a complicated history of extraction and exploitation, and now stands as a prime example of the challenges currently facing the Ecuadoran mining industry.

Approximately 10,000 people in the area surrounding Zaruma make their livings from “artisanal,” or small-scale subsistence mining. The work is backbreaking and the profit margins generally narrow. It is hardly the most efficient way to access the country’s estimated 280.4 tons of unmined gold.

Recognizing what the underground stores of gold, copper, and silver worth an estimated $200 billion could mean for a country with more than a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, President Rafael Correa introduced a bill aimed at encouraging new investment in the mining industry. The measure seeks to diversify the Ecuadoran economy, which is heavy in oil and exports, and to attract companies to make big investments in large-scale mining projects.

Unfortunately for President Correa, the pending legislation was not enough to entice one of its major targets, Canada’s Kinross Gold Corporation, into following through with a planned $1.3 billion mining project in southeastern Ecuador. The development of the Fruta del Norte mine was scrapped after more than two years of negotiation, and is now expected to be taken over by Chinese investors.

China has been an increased presence in Ecuador over the past several years, and Chinese investor groups seem eager to continue the expansion. Having already established a strong presence in the oil sector through China National Petroleum’s and Sinopec’s local subsidiaries, investors are keen to deepen their involvement with the mining industry. Last year Chinese-backed Ecuacorriente signed a $1.4 billion deal with the government to open a large-scale mining project in the Mirador copper deposit. The company is currently negotiating another deal to expand their operations to the Panantza-San Carlos copper deposit.

These concessions to major foreign investors with superior capital and technology have not gone unnoticed by concerned indigenous groups. Many groups across the country have protested. Some — like the Shuar — have even marched to Quito. The fear is artisanal miners cannot survive in an industry dominated by huge corporations.

Communities like Zaruma are at the heart of the debate. On one hand, the seemingly inevitable expansion of foreign companies into the area now home to subsistence miners would bolster an important Ecuadoran industry, despite the risk that such an expansion could cause social unrest.

On the other hand, there is the idea that investments should be focused on local mining businesses, like many already operating in Zaruma. The investments would allow these businesses to increase their capital and technology so as to be able to compete for government concessions. Their operations would be smaller projects but would keep the profits in the local community.

The mining of precious metals in Ecuador has a difficult, haunted history, and in many ways the uncertain future of communities like Zaruma demonstrates how complex the issues surrounding the industry remain even today.

– Lauren Brown

Source: BBC, The Financial Times
Photo: Ecuador Times

How Will Uganda’s Gold Rush Affect Its Poorest Region?
The foothills of the Moroto Mountains in northeastern Uganda are marked by hundreds of holes dug by eager villagers in search of gold. Close by, mining machinery installed by the private mining company, Jan Mangle Company Ltd., crank noisily in search of the same.

The relatively recent discovery of gold in the Karamoja region holds the potential to change the fate of the region’s pastoral communities. But whether this change will be negative or positive remains to be seen. The poorest region of Uganda, Karamoja, has been damaged by decades of violent conflict, and many in the region feel they have been neglected by the central government.

In 1980, a fifth of the Karamojong population, including 60% of infants, perished in a widespread famine that resulted in the fall of dictator Idi Amin. Conflict ensued once Karamoja’s clans looted the Moroto armory and used the weapons to ransack cattle from villages in neighboring Kenya and what is now South Sudan.

Cattle are considered among most Karamojong people to be a person’s main representation of wealth. For this reason, many of those unfortunate enough to have their cattle stolen from them during the years of conflict were prompted to begin digging and panning for gold.

Today, the region is relatively free from conflict and has returned to a state of peace and security. This is mostly due to the controversial government disarmament programs in which villages were surrounded and searched for hidden weapons by troops in the Ugandan People’s Defense Force.

The return to security has opened the door for many corporations to poke their noses into Uganda’s mineral-rich lands. In Karamoja, the foreign presence of Jan Mangle Limited has prompted mistrust among locals. It is popularly assumed that the benefits will flow toward the wealthy, leaving the poor even poorer.

“We don’t know where the gold is going to,” said one young villager. “We hear the land is sold to investors and we are afraid we will not see any benefits from the gold. They have not told us anything.”

The government of Uganda has a strong history of forcibly displacing indigenous people in order to buy up land to sell to corporations. An example is the eviction of 392 families to make way for a German coffee company in 2001 or the nearly 20,000 people evicted in 2012 to clear land for a British forestry company. In various regions of northern and central Ugandan, hundreds of families are being paid peanuts for their land that is then sold to corporations such as the AUC Mining Company and Jan Mangle Company Ltd.

Years of manipulation and neglect from the central government have lead Karamojong residents to believe the worst, and it is nearly impossible to get information on government contracts from private corporations.

But government officials such as Moroto District Commissioner Nahaman Ojwe insist that the indigenous of Karamaja will actually see two benefits from the mineral extraction. First, current landowners will receive royalties from the mining companies. Second, the wealth collected from the gold by the central government could be redistributed to the indigenous of the region.

Whether these benefits will actually be felt by the people of Karamoja will be revealed in the coming years. But for now, the villagers keep digging while the machines keep drilling in Uganda’s poorest region.

– Kathryn Cassibry

Source: The GuardianThe Daily MonitorThe Observer
Photo: Foundation of Life