Barrick Gold's dirty secrets

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Canadian-owned Barrick Gold Corporation, the world's largest gold producer, is exploring, building and operating huge, open-pit goldmines on nearly every continent on the planet.

On average, goldmining today produces 80 tonnes of waste for every ounce of gold, while also consuming and polluting massive amounts of water. An estimated 50% of these mining operations occur on native lands. For many indigenous peoples, who often rely on their environment for food and other necessities, mining threatens not only their livelihood, but also their spirituality and traditional way of life.

New "modern mining" projects leave thousand-year legacies of acid mine drainage, destruction of ecosystems, disease and regional climate change. Riches in the form of gold, silver and copper are exported to First World shareholders, leaving behind poverty, dependency and pollution.

Of the nine mines Barrick owns and operates in Australia, the most controversial has been at Lake Cowal in central western NSW.

Lake Cowal is the sacred heartland of the Wiradjuri Nation and is currently being desecrated by Barrick Gold's cyanide leaching goldmine. Barrick opened the mine for operations in March 2006.

For seven years, a community campaign has focussed public attention on the cultural and ecological significance of Lake Cowal. This has included a "David and Goliath" legal battle since 2001 between Wiradjuri traditional owners and Barrick Gold.

Represented by traditional owner Neville "Chappy" Williams, Wiradjuri have focused on the validity of consents issued by the NSW government permitting Barrick to destroy all cultural heritage sites at Lake Cowal, and on the protection of Wiradjuri native title rights.

The Save Lake Cowal campaign is also deeply concerned about excessive water usage by Barrick Gold at the Lake Cowal mine. The area is in one of the worst droughts on record, but Barrick has licences to take up to 17 megalitres of water (equivalent to 17 Olympic swimming pools) every day.

A 30-metre groundwater level drop in October 2006 had up to 80 landholders anxiously watching their livestock and domestic supplies. Barrick cut a deal with local irrigators to use water from the Lachlan River instead of bore water.

On April 19, PM John Howard announced that Murray-Darling irrigators faced a water shut off unless there was significant rain within the next two months. Barrick and the government will not reveal how much water the company is taking from ground and surface water sources combined and whether its deal with irrigators will continue.

A delegation from Australia, including Williams, travelled to Toronto, Canada, to protest at Barrick's AGM on May 2, as part of a global day of action against Barrick Gold.

The protest included Western Shoshone from Nevada and supporters from the US-based CorpWatch research group, Friends of the Earth Australia and Canadian NGO GlobalAware.

Williams and Western Shoshone representative Sandy Dann questioned the Barrick Gold board of directors during the live webcast of the company's AGM. Dann articulated her intense opposition to Barrick's plan to mine her people's sacred mountain, Mout Tenabo.

Williams gave a passionate speech, after which he served a "notice to quit" on Peter Munk, founder and chairperson of Barrick Gold.

"As an elder of the Wiradjuri Nation, I serve this document on Barrick Gold on behalf of the Mooka and Kalara united families within the Wiradjuri Nation", Williams said. "Under Wiradjuri custom, tradition and lore, you have received your three warnings. You must now respect the unceded sovereignty of the Wiradjuri Nation and cease all operations, restore the landscape, remove all equipment and replace all artefacts to their GPS'd positions."

"We reserve our right to take further action as necessary", he added.

After the AGM, Williams approached Munk and stressed that Barrick Gold is desecrating the sacred site of Lake Cowal.

Williams argued that this violated his right to religious freedom under section 116 of the Australian constitution. As Munk moved away he turned to Williams and with a haunted look in his eyes said: "I'm so sorry."

Media from Quebec and Chile recorded Munk's admission of liability. Later a shareholder approached Williams saying: "I've got shares in Barrick. I'm thinking now [about] whether I should sell my shares in Barrick Gold."

On May 2, local communities around the world adversely affected by Barrick's mining projects carried out simultaneous actions in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Europe, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and Tanzania.

A CorpWatch report, Barrick's Dirty Secrets: Communities Worldwide Respond to Gold Mining's Impacts, detailing the operations of Barrick Gold in nine different countries, was also released and handed out to Barrick shareholders on May 2.

David Modersbach, who campaigns with communities protesting Barrick Gold in Argentina, said: "Our world does not need more gold and silver! We must fight to preserve this world for our children and their children's children. Traditional owners supported by environmentalists and concerned citizens hope to send a message to Barrick shareholders that their investments are highly risky: Throughout the world, communities are rejecting and shall put an end to these shameful mining operations."

[Ellie Gilbert is a film-maker and Lake Cowal campaigner. Natalie Lowrey is the national liaison officer for Friends of the Earth Australia. For more information on the Lake Cowal campaign visit http://www.savelakecowal.org.]

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