2010-02. Gold Fever: Artisanal and Industrial Extraction in the Mining Triangle
February 20th, 2010
February 20th, 2010.
Issue: MiningSince 1880, güirisería, or artisanal mining, has been the main economic activity in the municipalities that make up the so-called mining triangle in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).Enormous extensions of tropical forests cover most of the RAAN in northeastern Nicaragua.Currently, population density hovers around 17 residents per square kilometer. Human presence has always been scarce in this part of Central America.In 1880, a gold rush unleashed the colonization of the geographic center of the RAAN, giving birth to the three municipalities that make up the mining triangle: Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza.Industrial mining has come and gone on several occasions, but multiple generations of güiriseroshave been extracting gold in this region for 130 years.The Process of Güirisería:
The material collected is called broza and it contains small particles of gold. Broza can be sold to a mining company, or the miner can transport and process it in an artisan workshop called rastra. (2)
Mercury has numerous negative effects on humans that include: disruption of the nervous system, damage to brain functions, DNA and chromosomal damage, allergic reactions, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches, sperm damage, birth defects and miscarriages. (7)
In order to separate mercury from gold, the amalgam pearl is heated in a common pan or pot. This process poses a great health risk to the miner and those nearby due to the inhalation of mercury-containing fumes.
In order to recuperate the mercury for later use, the leaves are submerged in water to separate the heavy metal. Over time, however, traces of this very dangerous metal are lost due to its constant transformations from solid, liquid and gaseous states. This loss of mercury affects the local air, water and soils, posing a serious hazard to the health of the local population.
Industrial Mining in the Triangle
Between 1909 and 1979, U.S. and Canadian companies extracted the mineral quarries in the three municipalities through industrial methods. “In 1979, the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, combined with the drop in the international value of gold, prompted the North American companies to abandon the mines. Employees were not appropriately compensated” nor were responsible closure procedures carried out to mend environmental damages or prevent future ones. (10)
This image shows a panoramic view of the former Rosario Mining Company mine in Rosita.
In 1980, the revolutionary Sandinista government nationalized the abandoned industrial sites in the mining triangle. But due to low yields and the internal armed conflict involving U.S.-backed Contras, all mines were eventually closed. In 1994, exploration and exploitation licenses were once again privatized and put up for bidding. “On May 9th, 1994, the Minister of Economy signed off a 12,400-hectare and 50-year mining concession for a Panamanian company called Hemco Nicaragua S.A. (also known as Hemconic).” (11)
During the past 15 years, Hemco has been a subsidiary of several Canadian mining companies: from the now bankrupt Greenstone to RNC Gold to Yamana Gold. Today, Hemco operates as a subsidiary of a private U.S. company. (12)
On July 2009, Calibre Mining Corporation, a Canadian company, acquired from Yamana Gold the license to extract gold, silver and copper from the so-called NEN Project. Renamed Borosi Project by Calibre, this vast concession reaches all three municipalities for a total of 710 square Kilometers. (13)
Current Socio-Economic and Environmental Situation:
Even though the large-scale mining industry has always promised work, development, and progress, the reality has been an endless and prolonged trail of poverty, social conflicts, and environmental degradation. This image shows the tailings pond in Bonanza, where the waste product from the open-pit Hemconic mine has accumulated over time. Besides cyanide and heavy metals that accrue in this type of artificial waste pond, this particular one also contains dozens of barrels used to transport the cyanide needed to separate gold from the rock.
This past January 30th, 2010, an earthquake measuring 4.3 in the Richter scale cracked part of the containment wall that is supposed to keep the toxic waste product from flooding the town and contaminating a local river. “Seventy-four people from thirteen families who reside on the edge of the tailings pond in Bonanza had to be urgently resettled, as they were in serious risk of being flooded and buried alive inside their humble homes.” (14)
“Alexander Alvarado, Mayor of Bonanza, stated that the toxic lagoon was built very close to the town itself and poses a serious threat to the urban population. If one side of the containment wall were to give in, it could flood and seriously affect several of the town’s barrios. Alvarado also mentioned that the water in the local river was being tested to make sure cyanide had not spilled into it.” (15)
“The current situation in the mining triangle, where industrial mining and güirisería coexist, clearly confirms grave levels of poverty, severe social deficits, terrible health and environmental deterioration, and an important loss of natural resources.” (16)
“Neither the companies nor the governments have cared for the protection of the local population. There have been, and continue to be, great deficiencies in basic services, such as potable water, hygiene services, electricity, sewage, schools and community centers.” (17)
The current market price of gold has reached astronomical levels never before imagined. In February of 2000 the ounce of gold sold for around US $300. Today, ten years later, an ounce sells for over US $1,120. “According to market experts in specialized web sites, within the next few years, the ounce of gold could reach a record price above US $2,000.” (19)
This outrageous fever to acquire gold, worsened by the speculation driven by powerful economic sectors, insures that the dangers behind its extraction, be it industrial or by güiriseros, continue to affect populations not only in Nicaragua, but also in dozens of countries in our fragile planet.
Version en español aquí.
All images were produced with the support of Oxfam America and are co-property of Oxfam America and MiMundo.org. If there is interest in republishing this photo essay, we ask that you please receive consent from both organizations first.
Several images first appeared in the publication: Mining in Central America: Pain and Resistance.
14 López, Fermín. “Ante peligro de derrame de laguna de oxidación: Reubican a 13 familias en Bonanza”. El Nuevo Diario. Managua, Nicaragua. Thursday, February 11, 2010. Edición 10597.