Sign Up for Our Newsletter


Buried Treasure: The New Global Gold Rush

PITS OF THE WORLD The Cripple Creek and Victor gold mine, 10,000 feet up in the Colorado Rockies, is nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano.
Giant mining companies are tearing up some of the wildest places on earth to feed our hunger for gold. But do we even need it?

Even though the sacristy was dimly lit, the man from Celendín kept his sunglasses on, because he had been blinded in one eye by a police bullet. All around, scores of peasant protesters were bedded down for the night on bare mattresses. Outside, under a glittering three-quarter moon and scudding clouds, student hunger-strikers were huddled in pup tents against the evening chill. Women in the tall white straw hats, rust-colored shawls, and multiple petticoats of the northern Peruvian highlands were stirring huge cauldrons over a wood fire. One of them ladled me out a warming plateful of some unidentifiable stewed fruit. The walls and railings around us were covered with posters, most bearing the words Conga No Va! The literal translation -- Conga Will Not Go Forward! -- doesn’t quite capture the raw force of the sentiment, which is closer to this: Conga -- a giant new gold mine, majority-owned by the Newmont Mining Corporation of Denver -- Go Home!

The colonial church of San Francisco in Cajamarca, 350 miles north of Lima, had been under occupation for a month, and no set designer could have fashioned a tableau more pregnant with symbolism. Up the block, a silent phalanx of riot police with shields, helmets, visors, nightsticks, and guns. And just beyond them, the cuarto del rescate -- the ransom room -- a place on which the entire history of the Americas pivoted. The conquistador Francisco Pizarro came here in 1532 and took the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, as his prisoner. Have your people fill this room once with gold and twice with silver, he said, and you will be released. It was done. Pizarro ordered Atahualpa garroted regardless, and the Inca empire collapsed.

Since those distant times, the business of gold has been transformed. The days are long gone when a miner could reach into his pan and pull out a gleaming nugget. The modern gold mine is an open pit many hundreds, even thousands, of feet deep where infinitesimal flecks of the precious metal are embedded in millions of tons of rock and must be flushed out with sodium cyanide diluted in millions of gallons of water -- the "heap leach" method. As these mines have grown bigger and the technological challenges more complex, few can make the necessary investment. Power is concentrated in an ever-smaller number of big corporations, such as Newmont.

Yet other things, starting with geology, have remained constant. The Peruvian Andes form part of the spine of the Americas, much of it of volcanic origin, which stretches from the rainforests of Alaska to the glaciers of Patagonia and bears, close to the surface and temptingly accessible, a wealth of gold, silver, copper, and other valuable metals. Characteristically, the places that hold these treasures have five things in common: they are beautiful, they are remote, they are environmentally fragile, they are the ancestral home of indigenous peoples, and they have a tendency to produce violent conflict.

The protests against Conga had simmered for years. Unlike many people faced with the prospect of a mega-mine, the cajamarquinos had actually lived next door to one for the better part of two decades, and so had some idea of what to expect from another. Yanacocha, in which Newmont also holds a majority stake, lies about  20 miles north of town. It is the largest gold mine in South America; in 2011 it produced an astonishing 1.3 million ounces, worth about $2 billion.

I went out early one morning to see Yanacocha with a local farmer named Gomer Vargas, a wisp of a man with sculpted features that suggested his distant Asian ancestry. Dressed all in black and wearing sandals, one might have taken him for a foot soldier in the Vietcong.

We drove up twisting dirt roads, traditional Peruvian harp music playing on the car radio, through a checkerboard landscape dotted with scrubby patches of grazing land and plots of wheat and pigeon peas. We passed a couple of For Sale signs in one forlorn hamlet. Vargas blamed the mine’s consumption of water. "Cattle raising has suffered," he said. "Down in Cajamarca, people only have running water for two hours a day."

And then, abruptly, we were on blacktop. There were yellow center lines, guard rails, white marker posts, signs that told you not to use your cell phone while driving and that seat belts can save lives. Yanacocha.

NRDC: Alaska's Big Dig

Joel Reynolds

Q&A with NRDC’s western director, based in Santa Monica, and director of the organization’s work on the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.

There’s a contentious battle right now over the Pebble Mine, which would produce huge amounts of copper, gold, and molybdenum. What are the main environmental concerns?

If it’s built, the Pebble Mine would be one of the largest in North America. It would be located on Bristol Bay, at the headwaters of the most productive wild salmon fishery in the world. And it would contaminate the watershed, decimate native species, and destroy communities that have been sustained by salmon for thousands of years. This is a classic example of the wrong mine in the wrong place.

Read the rest here.

A few weeks earlier I’d visited a big mine in Cripple Creek, Colorado, the property of AngloGold Ashanti, the world’s third-largest gold producer. I’d stared up at the sky from the bottom of the 800-foot-deep pit; watched the colossal mechanical shovels and haul trucks at work; seen the black pipes, like outsize garden hoses, snaking up the towering ziggurat piles of ore-bearing rock to deliver the cyanide. So I thought I knew what awaited me here. But Yanacocha was on a whole other scale. The mine workings stretched for seven solid miles, one fathomless terraced hole after another, with a kaleidoscope of toxic tailings pits in shades of cerulean, lime, ocher, orange, lapis, and kelly green. (This is where Google Earth really comes into its own.) There was evidence here and there of efforts to reclaim the mined-out areas, tufts of grass planted at intervals like a questionable hair transplant on a bald head.

We stopped at one of the heap leach piles. The cyanide here was applied not by hoses but by sprinklers, such as you would use to water a lawn or irrigate a farm field. The spray was drifting toward us on the breeze, so we kept our distance. A company sign by the roadside read: El hombre es el unico guardián de su naturaleza -- cuidemos nuestro mundo. Man is the only guardian of his nature -- let’s take care of our world.

From the moment it opened in 1993, Yanacocha inspired deep mistrust. The most traumatic incident occurred in 2000, Vargas said, when a mine truck spilled 333 pounds of mercury in the village of Choropampa. People scooped it up with their bare hands and took it home in jars; children delighted in their shimmering new playthings; hundreds of villagers sickened. Soon afterward, Newmont carried out an internal audit that showed 20 serious environmental violations at the mine. The CEO was warned that senior officials risked criminal prosecution.

Now Newmont and its partners planned to invest $4.8 billion in a new operation, Conga, a few miles to the northeast of Yanacocha, smack on the headwaters of five local river systems. The statistics were prodigious. Over its projected 17-year operating life span, Conga would yield almost 12 million ounces of gold and 3.1 billion pounds of copper. There would be two main pits, each more than a mile wide. The tailings would cover almost three square miles. Four lakes would be drained to gain access to the ore-bearing rock, to serve as waste pits, or to provide water for the mine’s operations. Legend says that the largest of them, Perol, is where Atahualpa’s treasure was hidden; when the moon rises over the mountain, it is said, the lake is radiant with the glow of gold from its depths.

Newmont’s 10,000-page environmental impact assessment was approved in 2010 after an accelerated review, and last November the ongoing protests turned violent. Police used live fire. The man from Celendín lost his eye. The government declared a state of emergency. The Ministry of the Environment produced an internal report slamming the EIA, but official statements denied that any such report existed. In December the prime minister resigned and the cabinet fell apart.

Under pressure, the government eventually agreed to an independent review, calling in three experts from Spain and Portugal. Their report was made public in April. Three days later, President Ollanta Humala, who had taken office a year earlier promising to rein in abuses by foreign mining companies, delivered his verdict: Conga Va -- though with modifications. Newmont was asked to explore ways to preserve two of the four threatened lakes, find alternative sites for dumping its waste rock, and enlarge the artificial reservoirs it proposed to build to compensate local communities for their lost water.

I asked one leader of the protests what he thought of these concessions. I might as well have asked him to stand on his head in a tailings pit. "This means the total extermination of our water," he snapped. "There is nothing to discuss."

* * *

There are multiple sides to every story, of course.  So that evening, I sat down first with Marco Arana, one of the animating spirits of the movement against Conga, and then with Fredy Regalado, regional coordinator of the Grupo Norte, the consortium of mining companies operating in northern Peru.

Arana is a small, stocky man, a Franciscan priest. He speaks softly and with a slight lisp, projecting a quiet, deep-rooted indignation. After his ordination in 1989, he told me, he was sent to a poor rural parish near Cajamarca. The peasants informed him that there were some gringos in the vicinity and they appeared to be digging holes, guarded by armed men of threatening demeanor. Springs were drying up. Then, after Yanacocha began operations, cattle fell sick and people complained of rashes and pinkeye. Eventually, after the mercury spill in 2000, Arana and others formed an organization called Grufides, specializing in environmental protection, conflict resolution, and technical training for farmers.

Enough, said the bishop of Cajamarca. Father Arana was removed from his parish and transferred to a teaching post in Lima, then told to go to the Vatican and remain there for seven years. Being a man who does not take kindly to what he considers an injustice, he came back after two. But his problems were only beginning. "We are believers in nonviolent resistance," he said. "But the intelligence services began to tap my phone. They accuse me of instigating violence. There have been threats against my family. I always travel by taxi. I never sleep alone."

image of gblack
George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >