All that glitters is not Barrick gold
Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold faces fierce community opposition to its new ventures in Lake Cowal as residents are outraged by what the damage it could do to the towns’ natural environment and heritage, writes Isabelle O’Connor.
Where the Lachlan River meanders its way through central New South Wales lies Lake Cowal, a rich aquatic ecosystem of migratory birds and marine life. It is the heartland of the indigenous Wiradjuri Nation. With the cyclic rise and fall of its water levels lapping at the Jemalong Plain, it is the state’s largest inland ephemeral lake situated 43 km from West Wyalong.
Regarded as a jewel in the local landscape, Lake Cowal is the latest site to succumb to the activities of gold mining under Canadian company, Barrick Gold Corporation. The Cowal mine commenced operation in April 2006 and in 2008 produced 191,000 ounces of gold. Yet a local and international network of supporters is putting up a formidable fight against mining activities, posing as a significant thorn in Barrick’s side.
On 3 February 2009, the New South Wales Land & Environment Court granted an injunction to Wiradjuri elder and chief protestor, Neville ‘Chappy’ Williams preventing the Minister for Planning Kristina Keneally from determining a request by Barrick to expand the mine. The mine pit’s surface area currently covers 70 hectares but the proposed ‘modification’ seeks to expand this to 130 hectares. Barrick subsequently lodged an appeal that was upheld by the Supreme Court on September 3. The final decision now rests with the Planning Minister after she assesses the company’s latest application.
This has been a significant step forward in what has been a difficult struggle against the will of one of the world’s largest gold mining companies.
“It’s been a desperate, never ending uphill fight against a multinational company and what we’re saying is how dare a foreign company come into our land and ride shotgun over our traditional armours,” says Williams.
Lake Cowal is the sacred country of the Wiradjuri Nation, a dreaming place filled with countless indigenous artefacts. As the largest Aboriginal language group in New South Wales, the Wiradjuri people have occupied the region for over 4,000 years and endured a tumultuous history. In the wake of European settlement and the declaration of martial law in 1823, they faced violent clashes with settlers who sought possession of Wiradjuri land.
To Ellie Gilbert, wife of former Wiradjuri elder and writer Kevin Gilbert, the mine acts as another attempt to force the Wiradjuri out of their country.
“The mine coming resonates with this because they’ve already survived such a horrendous history,” she says.
“I feel that Barrick Gold has no regard for our ancient cultural heritage which is as old as time itself. Our cultural artefacts at Lake Cowal are older than the pyramids of Egypt,” says Williams.
The Wiradjuri elders have led the “Save Lake Cowal” campaign and are joined by a series of tireless protestors from bodies such as the Rainforest Information Centre and Friends of the Earth Australia. Activities of the campaign not only include protests but annual Easter gatherings at the mine site attended by indigenous people and environmentalists to show solidarity for their cause.
“For the people that come they get to be a part of what we call black-green solidarity, a show of solidarity for indigenous people fighting for country;” says Mia Pepper who has been involved in the campaign since 2002.
At the 2009 Easter gathering, 28 protestors were arrested after climbing the bund walls into the mine pit and blockading the front gates of the mine.
Pepper has witnessed the personal sacrifice protestors have made in promoting their cause.
“When people go into the mine site it’s actually quite a brave thing for them to do, to go in there and risk not only their safety but also getting arrested. It takes a lot of personal energy to be involved.”
“It has a lot of personal costs attached for the people that do it,” she says.
This campaign not only focuses on the desecration of a site of indigenous significance but also the detrimental environmental impacts of the mine. Of particular concern is the use of cyanide leeching in the extraction of gold from ore and the risk of cyanide spillage both during transportation and in mining.
“Cyanide kills and cyanide spills. Accidents are regular in the transport of cyanide. So I think this is a major concern for people – how much cyanide is too much cyanide on the road?” says Graeme Dunstan of Peacebus.com.
Dunstan runs the ‘Cyanide Watch’ campaign that monitors the use of cyanide in Australian mining. With 6,090 tonnes of cyanide transported to the mine from Gladstone, Queensland each year, he is right to be concerned.
“This is not an insignificant amount, my friend. It only takes a gram of sodium cyanide to be toxic for an adult human being. It’s the most concentrated form of human poison ever invented,” Dunstan says.
It is also contested that the use of cyanide is shrouded in secrecy, so the risk of a cyanide disaster is unknown.
“There are disasters but you don’t find out unless someone dobs the mine in,” Dunstan says.
Cyanide is stringently monitored by the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and through the employment of the International Cyanide Management Code. The Cowal mine has voluntarily adopted the code and Bill Shallvey, community relations manager of the mine project, says that the Cowal mine is probably one of the most regulated mine sites in Australia.
“This mine takes things to another level in as far as cyanide management offsite. We’ve had no issues with cyanide. We continue to comply with all our regulations.”
“We’ve just completed our eighth independent environmental audit with a clean bill of health. We continue to set new standards here,” he says.
Dunstan remains sceptical of whether such regulation will be effective in the management of the Cowal mine.
“There’s a code but these codes say ‘World’s best practice for cyanide management’ – well what is “World’s best practice”? I’ll tell you what it is, it’s what they can get away with since the last disaster,” he says.
Environmental concerns also include the risk of mine tailings contaminating waterways and the extensive water usage in the greater Bland Shire, an area that has been plagued by drought for many years. It has been claimed that despite the water supplies barely meeting community needs, the Minister for Planning granted Barrick approval to pump up to 17 mega litres of water a day from the Lachlan River. However, Shallvey says that this was not the case.
“Barrick doesn’t have approval to draw that amount of water out of the Lachlan at all. We have an approval to draw 3,650 mega litres a year from an underground water source called the Blank Creek paleo channel. We have purchased additional water from a local farming community to supplement that source,” he says.
Barrick claims that the limit on this approval for the life of the mine is 30,000 mega litres and Shallvey states that Barrick’s intention is not to ask for an extension on this amount.
Regardless of Barrick’s intentions it seems that harmful environmental impacts of the mine are significant. An additional problem is the threat to the habitats of various water bird and marine species such as the Austral Pillwort and Freckled Duck. Some of these species have been afforded protection under international treaties such as China-Australia Migratory Birds Agreement (CAMBA) and the Japan-Australia Migratory Birds Agreement (JAMBA). However, according to Gilbert, none of these treaties seem to make the slightest difference when mining comes to town.
“None of these laws protect something if a mining company wants it.”
“We’ve tried every law that we could to stop this mine and nothing works. The government and even the courts just bend to the will of these multinationals,” she says.
Fortunately, the recent injunction appears to be turning the tables in the campaign’s favour. The claim rests on allegations that the plan was not a modification but a radical alteration to development consent under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979. It was also argued that Barrick fraudulently misled the Minister for Planning by failing to mention concerns about the stability of the mine pit wall.
Yet it appears that this was not the only instance where Barrick has managed to use the art of persuasion and trickery to get their needs met. There are ongoing complaints with regards to the adequacy and transparency of community consultation between Barrick and Wiradjuri. This is a key issue in the Save Lake Cowal campaign.
Natalie Lowrey of Friends of the Earth Australia says that Barrick used dividing tactics to procure people who were not traditional owners of the land to sign off on a Native Title Agreement in 2003. This agreement aimed to incite discussion between Barrick and Wiradjuri elders with a view to formulating a mine project that provided positive outcomes for the surrounding communities.
“Barrick Gold used a fair amount of money and persuasion to get a certain amount of people to sign off who weren’t traditional owners of that area,” she says.
Shallvey disagrees and insists that the company’s consultation process was thorough and transparent.
“Barrick went through quite a lengthy consultation process with the Wiradjuri council of elders. We went to great lengths to make sure that we engaged with Wiradjuri people from the length and breadth of their country.”
“Barrick respects the rights of the traditional owners here. We’ve continued to work with them and we’ve developed cultural heritage management plans,” he says.
However, Gilbert says that efforts to retrieve a copy of the Native Title Agreement under Freedom of Information legislation have been fruitless, casting more doubt over the legitimacy of Barrick’s actions.
“Five Wiradjuri signed off on the agreement on behalf of community who weren’t authorised – to bind the entire Wiradjuri Nation to an agreement that no-one can even see!” she says.
Despite their crafty measures to gain indigenous support, some locals have still been lured by Barrick’s activities. Job prospects prove to be a significant draw card in this time of economic uncertainty. Mayor for Bland Shire, David Bolte welcomes the idea of up to 40 more jobs being created by the mine. Currently there are 300 employees at the mine with a further 200 contractors employed by Barrick.
Shallvey also cites competitive wages and consequential economic gain for surrounding businesses which will create sustainable business units that will be operational long after the mine has gone.
“This is a substantial project as far as a regional economy is concerned. We’re injecting huge sums of money in terms of wages and the on-flow for small businesses here is quite huge,” he says.
Shallvey points to two surveys carried out by research company UMR Research Pty Ltd, on behalf of Barrick to support his claims. The results showed that in 2004 and 2006 80 per cent of members in the greater Bland Shire community are in favour of the mine.
“We live in this community so we know how much support there is for this project to stay longer and certainly the only real opposition we get comes from people outside the area and I guess a lot of them seem to be fed misinformation and innuendo,” he says.
But Dunstan dismisses the hope of new jobs for the region as ‘false prosperity’ and with the life of the mine currently projected to stay only until 2017, job prospects are are hardly be sustainable.
“They promise jobs but they’re all short term. The mine was supposed to last for 13 years but they’re going for 20 years. What’s 20 years when toxic dust is going to be around for thousands of years?” he says.
The Barrick Responsibility Report for 2007 details further community benefits of Barrick’s activities in the Lake Cowal area. The company claims that it has funded seven university scholarships and four trade apprenticeships for Wiradjuri men and women in mining-related studies or trades.
According to the report, Barrick also created the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre. This project was part of a joint initiative with West Wyalong High School, the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority and the Lake Cowal Foundation, an environmental trust established in 2000 to protect and conserve the Lake Cowal area. The Centre aims at providing the local community, particularly farmers, with education, training and resources for environmental management.
Yet their glossy brochures, pie graphs and regular community meet-and-greets fails to hide the fact that Barrick still has a lot to answer for. Campaigners such as Pepper are unconvinced that Barrick can redeem themselves through seemingly benevolent efforts.
“They’ve got Wiradjuri people that are pro-mining that they mention all the time in their little spiel about how responsible and wonderful they are, when you know people in the community and you know the real story. You know that people are fired [from the mine], you know about their safety risks,’ she says.
Indeed Barrick’s efforts to promote the viability of their activities appear to be little more than a well-oiled media and public relations campaign to hide a lack of real consideration of the wants and needs of communities.
“We see a pattern in the amount of energy and money they put into their so-called Corporate Social Responsibility Reporting. When the communities themselves read this, they can’t believe it because it is lie, after lie, after lie,” Lowrey says.
The Save Lake Cowal campaign is therefore not a stand-alone battle against Barrick, with similar stories of callous attitudes towards surrounding environments and communities reverberating through its sites across the world. A global alliance has been formed protesting their dubious activities which seem to follow wherever Barrick sets up camp.
In Porgera, Papua New Guinea, one of Barrick’s most lucrative gold mines has been a site of continuous violence and unrest among local indigenous inhabitants and the military. In April 2009 a joint military and police operation led to the burning of 300 houses of surrounding residents which has lead to an urgent plea to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to address this issue. It is believed that Barrick was complicit in this action as it seeks to expand its mining operations. Barrick has also come under scrutiny for the Porgera mine’s unsound environmental practices such as the dumping of mine tailings into surrounding waterways.
On the border of Argentine and Chile, Barrick’s Pascua Lama project has also proved controversial with indigenous communities being denied access to their land. There have been detrimental environmental consequences from the deliberate thawing of glaciers, so as to access gold deposits. There are also ongoing concerns about water availability for agricultural communities. The controversy surrounding the Pascua Lama project has received little international media attention despite the intensity of community dissent. The only publicity the community have obtained has been through NGOs like Mining Watch Canada which has published a series of updates on their campaign.
Representatives from communities surrounding these mines, as well as other sites such as the Bulyanhulu and North Mara mines in Tanzania, have formed a strong network that has voiced their concerns internationally.
Lowrey is at the forefront of turning the campaign into a global protest and helped establish the website ProtestBarrick.com as an alliance of various NGOs including nine indigenous communities.
“Often these communities don’t have the voice to be able to get out there so there is growing international support to get these voices out there through the United Nations and other forums so we can put pressure on Barrick Gold to either close their mines or start having better practices around the world,” she says.
Williams and other indigenous leaders, such as Jethro Tulin of the Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, took their case to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. They have also twice visited the Barrick Gold AGM in Toronto and in 2008 Williams served an eviction notice on Barrick CEO, Peter Munk. On that occasion, after telling Munk of how his mine effectively suppresses Wiradjuri spirituality, Williams got an extraordinary reaction.
“He looked at me and he said “Sir, I’m so sorry. I am so sorry” but yet his company still continues to desecrate and mine our sacred site”,” Williams says.
So why is it, then, that Barrick continues to operate the way it does even when the CEO knows that their activities are causing irreparable damage and in the face of overwhelming pressure from this global alliance? According to Barrick representatives, it appears to boil down to a battle of wills.
“I guess they are passionate about their cause and I guess we’re passionate about our job here and that’s why we’ve been so successful,” Shallvey says.
Dunstan is unreserved about showing what he thinks is the truth behind Barrick’s actions.
“They’re vicious bastards and what’s motivating them? Pure greed,” he says.
The campaign has publicly raised many questions about Barrick’s operations. Regardless of the outcome in Minister Keneally’s re-assessment, campaigners like Williams show no sign of slowing.
As a grass roots campaign without the backing of a hefty corporate budget, the resilience and perseverance of protestors shows that not everyone will bend to the will of big business.
“We’re not going to give up; we’re not going to go away. We’re going to fight to the bitter end to protect and preserve our ancient cultural heritage,” says Williams.