Data Worth Its Weight in Gold

What impact do mining activities have on health and the environment?

F. B. : Extracting activities are amongst the most polluting in the world. For instance, in the United States, the EPA1 considers mining waste as their leading environmental problem, even before nuclear waste or chemical products. And this, despite the fact that it is one of the countries with the strictest norms and for which we have the most data. It is already alarming, but the situation in other countries is much worse. In some remote areas of South America or Africa, there is neither control nor data, although we witness a child mor­tality up to twelve times higher than the country’s average. For instance, in the city of Cerro De Pasco,2 100 % of the inhabitants should be rushed to the hospital. Their blood tests show a level of heavy metals that is way too high! Beyond the sanitary risks, the issue is also political. Mining companies often abuse their influence over local popula­tions and governments.

How can a community go up against these giants?

F. B. : We provide NGOs and advocacy groups with the scientific proof they need for their fights. When a com­munity considers itself the victim of a mine’s pollution and wants to halt its activities or at least seek financial compensation, it needs to prove the loss it is suffering. That is what our team of scientists do. We go on site, collect data and establish reports that are then used to make social and envi­ronmental progress. A lot of citizens contact us. We choose those we work with in accordance with our resources and with our team. The length of those missions varies a great deal. Sometimes we stay a few weeks, we train them and come back. Sometimes we spend up to two or three consecu­tive months there. Right now, we are working in sixteen countries, most of the time on mining problems.

How does the data you collect help communities?

F. B. : Imagine you must take legal action or start a lobbying campaign against an activity you deem polluting or dangerous. You must provide tan­gible proof of what you are arguing. Our data helps citizen groups to stren­gthen their arguments in order to get compensation. If an NGO proves that a river is polluted, the company, faced with irrefutable scientific statements, will no longer be able to deny its impact. For instance, in Mexico, the Carriza­lillo community received an important compensation from a gold-mining company – around fifty million dollars over five years. We have also induced a change of the mining law in Honduras, where the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, following the publi­cation of one of our studies, because it violated human and sanitary rights.

Is it possible to transform mining extraction into a responsible activity?

F. B. : More or less. Producing an ounce of gold in Canada, a country where standards are observed, costs about 600 dollars. In Honduras, it costs 200 dollars. You often hear that it is because salaries are lower, but that is false. They are even higher in Hondu­ras, because you have to pay expatriate employees. The difference in price comes from the mining technique, which respects neither human rights nor the environment. You still have to dig a huge hole in the ground to extract something, and it inevitably impacts the ecosystem. It is costlier, but we can implement standards to limit the damage and enforce a few basic principles.

Is it easy to deal with the authorities?

F. B. : Our actions regularly go against the State. In theory, it has the duty to protect its citizens, but in reality, it is often the accomplice of the polluting company because of lobbying or cor­ruption. The first step is always to go see the company and tell them: “we have scientific proof, now you have two choices: either we talk, or we end up in court and we organize international support cam­paigns.” It usually works because they have a reputation to protect.

How do you see the future?

F. B. : With population growth, the demand for materials from the mining industry will rise and lead to more pol­lution. One of the main challenges is thus to tackle this public health issue by learning from previous cases. In El Salvador, after sixty years of mining, there is a city that is considered dead because of the pollution. After too many ravages, the same country became the first to ban metal mines on its territory. It is our duty to prevent the same situation from happening to others in sixty years.


By Timothée Vinchon