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Environmental Costs of Gold Soar in The Americas

Many of us wear gold jewelry, and almost all of us use electronic devices that contain small amounts of gold. And of course, people who invested in gold have reaped a nice profit as the price of gold has almost doubled during the past three years. But do we ever think about what that gold is REALLY worth – what the true human and environmental costs of that gold are?

Gold mining may seem like a thing of the past in many parts of the United States, but in Latin America the industry is booming, with mines proposed for places we would deem inconceivable. Gold mines are being developed in protected areas or ecosystems such as wetlands and glacial regions that provide water for millions in the Andes, forest reserves in the otherwise desert region of Baja California Sur, Mexico and even official Natural Protected Areas in various countries.

With current metal-prices, even cities are not safe – the gaping pit-mine in Cerro de Pasco, Peru is literally swallowing the city, with people being forced from their homes as the pit expands. Earthjustice’s international partners at AIDA are working on a number of such mining cases. One of those is the Marlin mine in Guatemala, perhaps the highest profile human rights and mining case in our hemisphere today.

The Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University recently released a report examining the economic and environmental impacts of the Marlin Mine. The report notes that while the local community near the mine in Guatemala experiences some degree of temporary economic benefit, the long-term environmental and health hazards presented by the mine far outweigh any financial rewards.

The Marlin Mine, which has been under international scrutiny for nearly a decade, is owned by the Canadian company Goldcorp. The mine was brought into production in 2005 and uses highly toxic cyanide to refine the mined gold. It is estimated that the mine will see significant production through 2017.

For years, members of the local community and environmental nonprofit organizations have been concerned about the impact of the Marlin mine on the health of the region’s ecosystem and communities. Specifically, concerns over heavy metal contamination in water from acid rock drainage have been raised.

In May 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an independent body of the Organization of American States (OAS), granted “precautionary measures” to the indigenous communities living near the mine, calling on the mining company to cease operations at Marlin. Earthjustice’s partner in international environmental law, AIDA, is drafting an amicus brief to support the case at the IACHR. The Tufts University report made three primary findings:

1. The Guatemalan government’s share of Marlin’s high profits is small. Guatemala receives about 42 percent of mine revenues, with local communities receiving only about 5 percent of revenues. The vast majority of revenues go to Goldcorp investors.

2. The environmental risk the Marlin mine poses to local communities is exceptionally high and likely to increase over the remaining life of the mine and in the post-closure phase.

3. The Marlin mine is contributing little to long-term sustainable development in Guatemala, as few of the royalties and tax revenue generated from the mine has been invested in public goods such as health, education and infrastructure, which could contribute to economic activities beyond the mine and after the mine has closed.

The report’s authors recommend that the “Guatemalan government comply with the request to suspend mining operations and that Guatemala’s Mining Law should be amended to capture a higher share of mine revenue and give a substantially larger portion to affected communities.” The report also recommends that “mine revenues be invested in building productive capacities for broad-based economic development in Guatemala.”

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