The damage done by Yanacocha

the importance of mining to the Peruvian economy

Since the early 1990s, when the Peruvian government relaxed many restrictions on foreign investment, mining has been the driving force of of the country’s economy, and its importance has grown even greater as a result of the rapid rise in mineral prices since 2000. In recent years, mining has accounted for approximately 60% of Peru’s export earnings and this trend seems likely to continue: in early 2013, it was estimated that foreign mining companies were “lined up” ready to invest $50 billion in the next ten years. According to the Central Bank of Peru, this surge of investment means that the country’s mining industry will grow at more than eleven percent during the next five years and — mainly because of this boost — the whole Peruvian economy will grow at around six-and-a-half percent. (92, 94)

the immediate physical damage

The importance of mining for Peru’s economy is reflected by the huge impact it has had on the Peruvian landscape — and on the lives of ordinary Peruvians. In regions directly affected by large open-pit mines at least, most people apparently believe that mining has damaged their lives.

The concessions areas granted to the mining companies by the Peruvian government are very large; by 2005 about seven percent of Peruvian territory had been conceded to mining companies and by 2012, nineteen percent had been turned over to them.(10) Of course, not all the concession land will actually be used for mining, but large areas of the Peruvian landscape have been destroyed by mines, and if the international mining industry has its way, many more will be destroyed in the future. Because technical advances in recent decades have made open-pit mining more profitable than the traditional method of digging underground shafts, most of the new mines in Peru — and elsewhere in the world — are open-pit mines. They inevitably make large areas of formerly useful and beautiful land ugly and unfit for human use.

The Yanacocha mine covers an area of more than 150 square kilometers.(1) It is large enough to be seen from space.(99)  Here is a view of a large area of northern Peru as it would appear to the human eye from an altitude of 260 kilometers. The light beige, roughly oval area just to the left of the word “Cajamarca” is the city of Cajamarca. The much larger but less distinct light-colored area just to the left of the word, “Yanacocha” is the mine.

the long-term damage to the environment

Open-pit mines are big, ugly scars on the surface of the earth. They destroy the beauty of the land and make it impossible for human beings to use it in a benign way. But the pits also do damage far beyond the area that is actually dug up. This damage is more or less inevitable because of the methods the mining companies use to extract pure minerals from the ore they take out of the pits. Yanacocha’s methods are typical.

the cyanide heap leaching process

There are no stone-sized “nuggets” of solid gold at Yanacocha or “veins” of pure gold running through solid rock. Gold mining had been going on in Peru for many hundreds of years when Europeans first arrived in the sixteenth century; and it seems that most of the visible chunks of gold had been taken out of the earth before that time. What remains are tiny, invisible particles of gold mixed in with rocky soil. This is the “ore.” At Yanacocha, it is dug up by electic mining shovels and carried to a processing area by trucks. There it is then crushed into very fine particles by heavy machinery. Then the gold is extracted from the crushed ore. This is done by the “pit leaching” method. The crushed ore is dumped into large artificial leach pits that have been lined with an impermeable rubber “pad” whose purpose is to prevent toxic substances from escaping into the environment. In these pits, the ore is constantly sprayed with a solution of water and cyanide — fifty miligrams of cyanide to one liter of water. As the solution flows through the ore, the gold dissolves and bonds with the cyanide. The water-cyanide-gold solution is then pumped through pipes to a processing plant and subjected to a series of chemical processes which separate the gold from the water and cyanide. Finally the gold is formed into nearly pure, brick-sized ingots which weigh just less than fifteen kilograms.

Huge amounts of ore are required to produce a small amount of gold by pit leaching, and huge amounts of contaminated waste material are left behind. For example, production of enough gold to make one wedding ring would create almost twenty tons of waste. Huge amounts of water are also required. According to Yanacocha’s annual report, thirty-three million cubic meters of water were used in this way during 2009. The water used in this way is not actually consumed by Yanacocha however. It is stored in a specially constructed reservoir, subjected to a purification treatment, and then released into the environment. (22, 255, etc.)

the importance of water

The conflict between between the campesinos and Yanacocha is centered on water. The peasants have two main grievances. First, Yanacocha is poisoning the water supply. Second, it is depleting the water supply.

poisoned water

Complaints by local residents that their water supply has been poisoned by mining activity are longstanding and widespread; and Newmont Mining Corporation, the majority partner in the Yanacocha consortium would be familiar with such complaints even if they had no Peruvian operations. In 2006, the Indonesian government sued Newmont for dumping arsenic-laced rock into Buyat Bay on Sulawesi Island, causing illness among villagers living nearby. Despite refusing to admit they had done anything wrong, the company agreed to pay $30,000,000 to settle a civil court case in Indonesia. At the same time, Newmont’s Indonesian director, Richard Ness, was facing criminal charges in connection with this matter. In 2007 he was tried and found not guilty. The court decided that there was not enough evidence that health problems had resulted from the dumping. The case had been initiated in 2004 after the National Police Central Forensic Laboratory found that levels of mercury and arsenic in the water of the bay exceeded national standards but the court was convinced that the testing had not been properly done. After resampling the water, several international organizations including the World Health Organization confirmed that mercury and arsenic levels were normal. University- and government- affiliated experts testified that they had found no evidence of disease among visitors. And Dr Jane Pangemanan, who had originally made the allegations against Newmont, recanted her earlier claims. (108,109, 262)

Despite Newmont’s insistence that they had broken no law and done no harm when they dumped chemicals into Buyat Bay, their willingness to pay $30,000,000 to avoid facing a civil suit over the Buyat Bay incident apparently indicates an admission of guilt of some sort. And a similar admission may be suggested by the fact that when one of their executives faced criminal charges over the same incident, they put so much effort into marshalling “independent experts” and, perhaps, persuading an important witness to recant.

In a somewhat similar case, in 2007, in Denver, Colorado, Newmont reached an out of court settlement with victims of the mercury spill in Choropampa, Cajamarca in 2000. These were both well-documented accidents, however, and the company had perhaps had no choice but to admit they had done real harm. To produce comparable proof that the environment is being damaged as a result of day-to-day mining operations is much more difficult. Perhaps it is impossible. As the Buyat Bay and Choropampa cases show Newmont has a policy of fighting tooth and nail against any legal actions that are taken against it. And they also have a policy of denying, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary — and even when they agree to out-of-court settlements — that they have caused harm. Even in the Choropampa case, where there was overwhelming evidence against them, Newmont insisted to the end that no long-term health effects had occurred; and the claims of many villagers that they had become ill as a result of contact with mercury were countered by “independent experts” who insisted that such effects could not have occurred.

As the size of the Buyat Bay settlement shows Newmont’s hardheaded response to legal action is not simply a matter of parsimony. It is presumably explained by the understandable desire to protect and enhance the company’s power to mine where they want and as they want — and to protect the power of the whole international mining industry to do so. Out-of-court settlements — even if their terms are not kept secret — have no validity as precedent; a court decision becomes part of the public record and can be used as a weapon — a “propaganda weapon” at least — by opponents of the mining industry anywhere in the world.


Difficult as it may be to prove that the routine use of cyanide by a mining company leads to harmful pollution, it is not at all difficult to “prove” that cyanide compounds are potent poisons. And that fact, taken together with the fact that ninety percent of gold mining worldwide involves the use of cyanide, does seem at least to provide a “case” for concern.

Cyanide occurs in chemical compounds that are formed by a bonding of carbon and nitrogen atoms. Cyanide compounds are produced naturally by some bacteria, fungi, and algae and by numerous plant species; they are even exhaled in minute amounts by the human body. In many of its forms, cyanide is highly toxic to human beings; as little as one teaspoon of a 2% solution of certain compounds can be lethal within minutes.(119) Cyanide kills by preventing brain and heart tissues from getting the oxygen they need to survive. Two of its most common forms are sodium cyanide (NaCN) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN). HCN is particularly lethal because it is a gas at average temperatures and so, can be inhaled. In Nazi Germany, pellets of a substance called Zyklon-B were used in the gas chambers of the extermination camps; when the pellets were wetted, they released HCN into the chambers and the people inside died. A similar method in which potassium cyanide pellets are dropped into sulfuric acid and HCN is released has been used to execute criminals in the United States. The method is still legal as an alternative to lethal injection in six states but has not been used since 1999. (120)

Although it is no longer needed for executions, cyanide compounds still have many uses. Apart from their use in the mining industry, they are used in the manufacture of nylon, computer electronics, adhesives, fire retardants, and pesticides; they are also used in the treatment of diabetes, in photography, in jewellery making, and to increase the germination rates of seeds. The most widely used sodium compound is sodium cyanide (NaCN). Since none of the natural sources can be exploited commercially this substance has to be manufactured by chemical synthesis: Methane and ammonia are brought together in the presence of oxygen and a platinum catalyst to produce gaseous hydrogen cyanide. This gas is then dissolved in sodium hydroxide to yield sodium cyanide. It is a powdery white solid. Over a million tons of sodium cyanide are produced in this way ever year. Six percent is used by the mining industry.

When it is mixed with water, as happens in the pit leaching process, NaCN rapidly reverts to HCN which evaporates into the air. When it evaporates in breaks down into its components; it is no longer HCN and no longer poisonous. Because of the volatility of HCN, the amounts released into the air do not build up to the point where they are dangerous to animals or humans, even those who are working or living close by. Of course, not all the sodium cyanide comes into contact with the air and, so, not all of it evaporates. Some of it remains in solution with water and some of that inevitably leaks out of the leach pits and enters the ground water.

Mining companies can appeal to the volatility of sodium cyanide to defend their claims that, in the long run at least, the pit leaching method is not harmful to the environment. They can argue that, even if they leave large amounts of waste behind when they leave an area, the cyanide that it once contained will have completely disappeared. Even if there is no possibility of cyanide escaping from old waste and leaking into the water supply long after a mine has stopped operating, there can be no doubt that there is a possibility of such leakage from new waste.

And there is no doubt whatsoever that when cyanide from newly-created mine waste leaks into the environment that the results can be devastating: There are well-documented cases of this happening — and one of them at least involves Newmont.

1982: Zortman, Montana

Zortman is a tiny mining town in Montana in the northwestern United States. It is about 300 kilometers east of the Rocky Mountains and about 115 kilometers south of the Canadian border. It is located, in an isolated mountainous, and forested, area known as the Little Rocky Mountains. Its altitude is ard 1200 meters. Its average minimum temperature in January is -12°C and its average high temperature in August is 27°C. In 2010, Zortman’s population was sixty-nine. (309)

Zortman lies on the southern edge of the Fort Belknap Reservation, home to two tribes of native Americans, the Gros Ventre and the Assiniboine, who “moved” to the reservation in 1855.(308) In the early 1890s, two prospectors, Pike Landusky and Pete Zortman found gold on the southern edge of the reserve. Because the land was owned by the two tribes, it could not be mined by outsiders. In 1895, however, the Assiniboine and the Gros Ventre were threatened by starvation and so, they agreed to sell the southern part of the reserve to the government. After that, in accordance with US law, anyone who wished could set up a mining operation in the area could do so. The news of the discovery and the subsequent sale led to a gold rush: hundreds of miners flooded into the area and two small mining towns, Zortman and Landusky came into existence. As things turned out there was enough gold to support an underground mining industry until the 1950s.

Because the supply of gold that could be mined by traditional underground methods had been exhausted, large scale operations and the area came to a halt for more than twenty years. Then in 1979, Pegasus Gold, a Canadian-registered company (309) acquired mining rights to the area and began work on two open-pit operations, the Zortman mine and the Landusky mine. According to American law, they did not have to buy the land or pay any royalties on the profit they made from it. It was Pegasus’s intention to use cyanide-based heap-leaching techniques and modern mining equipment to exploit ore that could not previously have been profitably mined. (The Zortman and Landusky mines were among the first in the world to operate in this way. Thirty years later, ninety percent of the gold mined worldwide was produced by these methods.)

During the years Pegasus was operating the Zortman mines, a great deal of damage was done to the local environment. In the period of 1982 to 1984 alone there were eight cyanide spills. In 1982, nearly 200,000 liters of a cyanide solution were released onto land adjacent to the mine and into several creeks that drain the area. This spill was caused by a rupture in a pipe supplying the cyanide spraying system. When the tap water in people’s homes was tested, inadmissably high levels of cyanide were found and the water supply had to be cut off. A later cyanide spill was discovered by a mine worker who noticed the distinctive smell of cyanide when he turned on the water tap in his own home. Perhaps the worst spill occurred in September 1986: on this occasion, although it had no permission to do so, Pegasus intentionally allowed seventy-five million liters of cyanide-laced water to escape from the mine site; it spread over a land area of seven hectares. Pegasus explained their action by saying that had no alternative: the pond where the poisonous water was being stored was in danger of overflowing due to a heavy rainstorm.

Dead animals were found after one of the spills, but apparently there were no reports of human death or even illness being caused by the spills. It is possible, of course, that such events occurred but were not reported — especially possible in light of the fact that, apart from mine employees, almost all the residents of the area at the time would have been native Americans. In a YouTube video, Catherine Halver, who works with Island Mountain Protectors a group that helps native Americans with the legal aspects of environmental problems, tells the story of a young boy who spent a few moments wading in a creek and who found his legs were covered with a painful rash when he got out. He was taken immediately to the nearest hospital, but the doctor there refused to take the matter seriously. He told the boy’s mother that if she bathed the boy more often, he wouldn’t have such problems. (In the same video, Catherine Halver mentions a road in the area which, she says, was built from mine tailings, so everytime it rains more poisonous chemicals are washed into the creeks.)(304)

acid runoff

Stories like those told by Catherine Halver show that in some cases at least, the pollution caused by “acid mine runoff” from mining waste can be an even worse problem than direct cyanide poisoning of the water supply. Acid runoff occurs whenever rock or soil containing a high proportion of sulphur compounds is exposed to air and water. When this happens, the sulphur is turned into sulfuric acid. And as the acid flows over the waste rock, more metals are dissolved including poisonous “heavy metals” such as lead, arsenic, and copper.

Acid runoff can and does occur naturally but when it does it is a stable process does only limited damage to the environment. It has also occurred for thousands of years as the result of mining activity. There are abandoned Roman mines in Great Britain that are still producing serious acid runoff more than 2000 years after ceasing operation. Before the twentieth century however, most metal mines were underground. Underground mining does cause acid drainage but not nearly as much as is caused by open-pit methods. Moreover, in the past, open-pit mines were much smaller than the gigantic pits that have been dug in recent years. And in addition to that, sophisticated mining machinery now makes it possible to crush ore much more finely than was possible in the past. (311) As a result, the amount of surface area that is exposed to water and air is much greater than it was previously.

When acid runoff is severe, its effects can be just as devastating as those caused by cyanide pollution. It can lower the “pH” — a measurement of acidity — to four or below, making the stream water approximately as acidic as the acid used in automobile batteries.(310) Acidity levels of that sort are extremely harmful to acquatic life of all kinds. If it persists it can kill all living things in a stream except for the “extremophile” bacteria that flourish under such unusual conditions. 311 It seems that not a great deal is known about the precise way in which acidity and high metal levels kill fish. According to at least one study however, it has something to do with damage done to gill membranes and gill mucus. (313)

A 1975 study done in Pennsylvania showed that there was a definite correlation between the amount of acidity in a stream and the number of fish living in it: in streams with a pH of more than 6.4, sixty-eight species of fish were found; in those with a pH from 5.6 to 6.4, there were thirty-eight species and in those with a pH between 4.5 and 5.5 there were only ten species. In 90% of streams whose acidity was under 4.5 and which had a “total acidity” of 15 miligrams per liter, there were no fish at all. (313) In another study, in British Columbia, of the effects of acid runoff from the abandoned Britannia copper mine, it was shown conclusively that high acidity was fatal to young salmon. When healthy young fish from another area were placed in “surface cages” in Britannia Creek near the mine, they all died within two days.(313) Another study on the Yukon River produced data that suggested a loss of genetic diversity in coho salmon due to acid runoff from a nearby gold mine. (313) And a Montana study done in 2003 of streams in the Boulder River watershed, an area containing almost 300 abandoned metal mines, it was found that where they ran close to the mines, the streams had no fish at all.(313)

There is one troubling effect of acid runoff whose reality and seriousness can be demonstrated without resorting to any complex scientific procedures because it is easily detected by the naked eye. This is “yellow boy” — a reddish-brown sludge that coats the bottom of affected streams. This deposit does not actually poison the water, but it does do serious environmental damage. It kills the insect and plant life that would normally live on the stream bed, and deprives fish of an important food source. It also does aesthetic damage because it gives affected streams a very unnatural and therefore ugly look. Ironically, yellow boy comes about as the result of a stream’s ability to limit the process of acidification: as its reddish color indicates, the sludge is mainly made up of iron. This iron had formerly been dissolved in the water, having been carried there from mine tailings. When the metal content and the acidity become very high, however, the rocks on the bottom of the stream neutralize the acidic water that comes into contact with them and iron precipitates out and coats the rocks. Sometimes the coat of yellow boy is so thick and so rich in iron that it can be commercially harvested and used in making paint pigments.(310, 311, 319) (Photos showing yellow boy contamination can be seen here, here and here.)

acid runoff, part 2

The streams that drain the area around the Summitville mine are all tributaties of the Alamosa River, and this river supplies extensive irrigation systems in the area. When the extent of the contamination was discovered, here was concern that the crops grown there would be poisoned. When they were tested, it was found that although there were elevated levels of heavy metals in the soil and in the plants themselves, they were not high enough to represent a danger to human health.

Even if there is no clear evidence that acid runoff can actually poisoned crops, the devastating effect it has on aquatic life shows that its possible effect on agriculture is a reasonable cause for concern. And this is particularly so when affected water is being used for irrigation. Concern about the health of streams in mining areas and, secondarily about the health of adjacent farmland is reflected in the fact that many governmental authorities in the US are willing to spend large amounts of money on clean-up programs in an attempt to halt the runoff or, at least to reduce it to an acceptable level. The significance of such programs is underscored by the governments everywhere — the US included — are generally favorable to mining and to mining companies; opposition to mining companies generally comes from professional ecologists, environmental activists, and the direct victims of pollution, land seizure, and water depletion.

The cost of clean-up programs can be immense. When Pegasus declared bankruptcy in 1998, the government of Montana was left with a $33 million bill for long-term water treatment and reclamation. (302) And when Galactic resources “walked away” from the Summitville mine in 1992 and declared bankruptcy, it was estimated that it would cost the state of Colorado $120 million to repair the damage that had been done. According to another report, several years later, Colorado was spending more than $30,000 a day just to capture and test acid runoff on the Alamosa. (310)

It seems to be generally acknowledged, not just in the United States but everywhere in the world, that mining companies should pay clean-up costs. And it also seems to be acknowledged that these payments should continue as long as is necessary after the mine has closed. However, it also seems to be generally agreed however, that this does not usually happen. What apparently happens most of the time is that mining companies do as little cleaning up as possible while a mine is operating and, after a mine is closed, they do nothing or almost nothing. Often, when a mine has been exhausted, but serious clean up work remains to be done, a mining company will declare bankruptcy and so escape the danger of having to pay. In the United States at least, governments often require mining companies to set aside large sums of money in the form of a bond in order to ensure that clean up costs will be covered even the company goes bankrupt, but even when this is done, the public often ends up having to pay to repair or control environmental damage. Governments also often require mining companies to commit themselves to following safe mining practices before granting them a license. It seems likely, though, that such agreements are often mere window-dressing, For example, according to one report at least, Pegasus Gold, the company that owned and operated the Zortman and Landusky mines between 1979 and 1998, promised when it applied for a license that it would not disturb any of the sulfide ores that are the main source of acid mine drainage.(308) If this report is true, then Pegasus and the Montana government must be suspected of conniving to create a positive public relations image which they had no intention of living up to: It is a well-known fact that it is sulfide ores which are typically exploited in gold mines using the cyanide heap-leaching process. And beyond that it is unlikely that the government mining authorities would not have exacted such a “promise” if they had not realized that there were sulfide ores at the site and that it was not realistic to expect Pegasus to refrain from exploiting them whatever “promises” they might make.

Summitville, Colorado

The story of the open-pit gold and silver mine in Summitville, Colorado, which operated between 1980 and 1992 is another example of mining-induced environmental damage in the US. The Summitville pit covered an area of 500 hectares. Over the twelve year period of operation, more than 9000 kilograms of gold and nearly 10,000 kilograms of silver were recovered from a twenty-nine hectare rubber leach pad.

At its inception, Galactic’s Summitville operation was promoted as being a “zero-discharge system;” in other words there was to be no runoff into the adjacent watershed.(327) As state regulators later discovered, however, during the first ten years or so of the mine’s operation, 325,000 liters of cyanide-laced water flowed into Cropsy Creek, one of the streams that drains the mine site. Some of the polluting liquid came from a tailings pond that overflowed during periods of heavy rain, but the biggest problem was chronic leakage through the leach pad. According to at least one report, the leaking began immediately after the pad was installed, in 1980. Leach pads have to be installed during warm weather. If they are installed in cold weather when the rubber is brittle, there is a danger that the pad will crack, allowing the cyanide solution to leak into the environment. Apparently, Galactic’s owners were so eager to see the mine operating that they went ahead and installed the pad in the middle of winter.(326) One well-documented effect of this chronic leakage was the death, in 1990, of the trout in three farm ponds that were receiving their water from the Alamosa. Fifteen thousand young trout that the government had put into a reservoir downstream from the mine also died around this time. When they looked into these deaths, mining regulators apparently attriuted them mainly to acid to runoff from the mine.(288) It is almost certain, however, that cyanide poisoning also played a role. (It is difficult to assess the relative roles of cyanide, acidity, and heavy metal poisoning in these cases, especially in an area like southwestern Colorado where very high levels of natural acidic runoff are common. Natural acidic runoff comes about when naturally occurring, naturally exposed sulfuride ores are exposed to rain water.) (288, 312)

Then, in 1992, there was a major spill of acidic, cyanide-laced water that killed all non-bacterial life in a twenty-seven-mile stretch of the river. This time there was no doubt that it was the mining company, Galactic, which was responsible. Presumably, the sudden disappearance of aquatic life was the result of cyanide poisoning, but the long-term damage was caused by the acid and the high concentrations of heavy metals that the spilled liquid contained. This is how the immediate effects of the spill were described in a New York Times article:(321)

Eight years ago, Ignacio Rodriguez took his grandson out for an afternoon of fishing near his house on the Alamosa River in the the foothills of the San Juan Mountains in southwest Colorado. The river that runs through the valley was his longtime neighbor, but on this day, he said, it was a stranger.

“The rocks were red and the river had some greenish tinge to it,” Mr Rodriguez said in a telephone interview last week.“The fish were all belly up. Rainbow trout and German browns — all dead. It was sickening.”

Perhaps because the Alamosa Valley is sparsely populated, there were no injuries to humans, but farmers complained that their irrigation equipment was being damaged by the acid water and some people stopped using the water to irrigate their vegetable gardens. Ten years after the spill, the water in the Alamosa was still not clean and it was thought likely it would remain contaminated for many years to some.(321) Before this spill occurred, Galactic had stopped active mining at Summitville and had begun devoting all their efforts to cleanup work. This shift of attention was presumably connected with the fact that since 1990 the company had been under close scrutiny by government authorities. Despite the fact that Galactic had been spilling polluted water into the environment since it began operating the Summitville mine, the company had apparently succeeded in keeping the extent of the damage secret. But, in 1992, the site was inspected by the federal Environmental Protection Agency after they had received anonymous tips about illegal discharges from the mine. (326, 327) As a result of this investigation, another governmental agency, the Water Quality Control Division was called in to take action. Their investigations eventually led to demands, in November, 1992 that Galactic spend $40 million on “environmental stabilization.”(327)

Galactic’s 1992 decision to concentrate on cleanup was presumably made because the company knew the results of the Water Quality Control Division’s investigations and they realized that the environmental damage they had done was leading them into serious financial difficulties. In any case, earlier in 1992, Galactica had set up a new water treatment plant at the mine. They needed the plant because they had more than 650 million liters of cyanide solution stored in a tailings pond waiting to be purified before being released. The plan was to purify the contaminated water by piping it from the pond to the treatment plant and then, once it had been treated, to release it into the environment. But the purification process had not gone as quickly as had been hoped. The water levels in the tailings pond were continuing to rise and — especially after being presented with a $40 million cleanup bill — the company’s executives realized that it was absolutely essential to avoid another spill. By December, however it was becoming clear that another spill could not be avoided. There had been heavy snowfalls higher up in the mountains; the snow was melting and large amounts of extra water were flowing into the pond. The pipe that was carrying the polluted water from the tailings pond to the treatment plant turned out not the be large enough and so more water was going into the pond than was leaving it. To make matters worse,the weather was getting colder and there was a danger that the pipe would freeze, causing an immediate spill. (287)

When they saw that a spill was inevitable, Galactic’s executives declared bankruptcy and fled Colorado. The federal Environmental Protection Agency moved in and, with the help of former mine employees, did what they could. They were unable to pprevent the spill, but they did limit its extent. According to Roger Flynn, at the time Director of an environmental group, Western Mining Action Project, “It would have been a heck of a lot worse if the feds had not stepped in.”(321)

Two lower level mine managers who remained in Colorado eventually received criminal convictions for feeling to disclose the discharge of toxic waste. The state of Colorado and the US federal government joined together to sue the mine’s owners in an attempt to force them to pay cleanup costs. Apparently these lawsuits were unsuccessful, but, in 2001, more than eight years after the mine had shut down, one of the company’s owner Robert Friedland — described by the New York Times as “ a Canadian businessman based in Singapore ” — “agreed to pay more than $27 million over the next ten years to help pay for the cleanup.”(321)

the “end” of Pegasus Gold

Pegasus Gold was incorporated in Vancouver, Canada in 1973. During the years it was operating in Montana however, its head office was in the American city of Spokane. Spokane is in eastern Washington State, about 650 kilometers west of Zortman.(309) During this time, Pegasus was operating mines in two other American states, Nevada and Idaho, and had a mine in Australia as well.

Despite all the environmental damage Pegasus caused during the 1980s, it was just once fined by the Montana mining authorities — and then for only $15,000.308 The company could certainly have afforded to pay bigger fines; gold prices were high and it was prospering. (Prices had reached a peak of $27 per gram ($850 per ounce) in 1980 and remained high for many years. In the 1990s, they began to fall however, and by 1997 they reached a low of $8 per gram ($238 per ounce)).(309)

During the 1980s, because of the long series of cyanide spills, Pegasus’s reckless attitude toward the environment must have been obvious to the residents of Zortman, and to the native Americans living on the Fort Belknap Reserve. The situation must also have been obvious to the mining authorities of the Montana and US governments, but they did nothing to force Pegasus to behave more responsibly. Nor did they alert the public to what was happening. Between 1979 and 1980 Pegasus was given permission for nine expansions of the mine. Each of these required, and received, the approval of both the state health department and the federal Bureau of Land Management. Throughout this period of expansion, the government agencies could have demanded that a full-scale environmental impact study be done, but no such demands were made.308

In 1990, serious opposition to Pegasus finally began. Governmental approval was given for a tenth expansion. A native group, Red Thunder, along with several environmental protection groups, appealed the decision. The appeal was refused. Then, in the following year, apparently acknowledging that there was some justice in the complaints of the natives and the environmentalists — or at least admitting that they saw their opponents as a real threat — Pegasus made an offer to the Fort Belknap Community Council: If the tribes on the reserve agreed to stop opposing the mine, the company would begin environmental monitoring and would also offer scholarships to native students. The tribal council refused the offer. 308

In late 1992, Pegasus applied for permission for an eleventh expansion. In June, 1993, Red Thunder and Island Mountain Protectors announced their intention to file a citizen suit against Pegasus under the federal Clean Water Act. When an announcement of this kind is made, government agencies are required to take action within sixty days, but in this casce action was taken more quickly than that. In July, a heavy storm caused another overflow of cyanide solution and sent a stream of poisoned water rushing through Zortman. The Environmental Protection Authority (¿ check name) investigated and found that the mine was leaking acids, cyanide, arsenic, and lead from seven different drainage points. As a result of this discovery, the agency “cited” Pegasus for illegal discharge of pollution. 308

The government was now under really serious pressure. A month later, in August 1993, it brought a suit against Pegasus and its subsidiary, EMI, a for violation of Montana’s water laws. Nearly two years later, however, in June, 1995, this law suit had still not been settled so the Environmental Protection Authority filed a clean-water suit against Pegasus. The federal suit was settled out of court a year later in July 1996. This is how the settlement was described in a timeline published in the High Country News in December, 1997: 308

Although Pegasus and ZMI make no admission of guilt...The companies agree to follow a detailed plan for controlling pollution, buy a $32 million bond to ensure compliance, and pay $4.7 million to be split among the tribal council, the state and the federal government. This is one of the largest settlements of a federal clean-water suit.

Despite this victory for Pegasus’s opponents, in October, 1996, the government of Montana and the federal Bureau of Land Management approved the company’s request for an eleventh expansion. This decision led to yet another lawsuit. The council of the Fort Belknap reserve and two environmental groups sued the Department of Environmental Quality claiming that the decision was illegal. In court, the lawyer representing the department complained that, in addition to Pegasus, its subsidiary, EMI, should have been named as a defendant. The judge offered to have EMI named. But the lawyer replied, “I don’t want them in now because the case should be dismissed.” The judge then asked him why he was defending the company. 308

In June 1997, although the case had still not been settled, the federal Interior Board of Land Appeals, stopped the expansion of the mine. They explained they wanted, first, to examine an appeal against expansion made by the residents of the Fort Belknap reserve and their supporters. In another case, in September of the same year, Pegasus was fined $25,300 for a spill incident that had occurred in the summer of the previous year. John Pearson, the company’s “director of investor relations ” objected to the fine. He said the spill was an “act of God” caused by “extraordinarily heavy rains.” 308

In November, 1997, Pegasus closed its new gold mine in Australia. They said they were forced to do this by low gold prices. (In one year the value of their stock had fallen from $17 per share to less than $1 per share.) They warned the state of Montanathat, if they were not allowed to expand the Zortman mine, they would have to close it down too. Pegasus reported $400 million in losses in 1997; in December, they filed for bankruptcy in Australia and in January, 1998, they filed for bankruptcy in the US and closed down operations in Montana.(308, 309)

These bankruptcies were the end of Pegasus Gold. They were a catastrophe from the point of view of the government of Montana, which was left with a complicated legal situation and facing the possibility of having to pay part or all of the cleanup costs; it was also, of course, a catastrophe from the point of view of the many mine workers who were thrown out of work. But they were not, it seems, a catastrophe from the point of view of the company’s executives. In bankruptcy court, Pegasus declared assets of $158 million and liabilities of $194 million, but even as these legal proceedings were underway, the company was able, quite legally, to pay large bonuses to its executives. In fact, in the two years leading up to Pegasus’s bankruptcy, 1995-1997 — although gold prices had been low for some time — the company continued to lease a corporate jet; and its seven top executives managed to pay themselves $1.2 million in bonuses. More than half of the bonus money went to Pegasus’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Warner Nennecker, whose base salary was $350,000. (309)

Here is a paragraph report on the proceedings that originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:(309)

“People don’t understand why anybody’s going to be paid any kind of bonus by a company that’s in bankruptcy, ” US Bankruptcy Judge Gregg Zive said to Pegasus’s lawyers at an April 1998 hearing. Still, he allowed the firm to dish out more than $2 million in bonuses after Nennecker said the money was needed to keep Pegasus executives on board as the firm struggled to reorganize.

The report also quotes a remark made by Werner Nennecker. When he was asked about the bonuses in a later interview:

Nennecker said bonuses are a common feature of a bankruptcy. “They made sure enough people stayed in to complete the reorganization,” he said. “It is in the best interest of everyone — the employees, the government, the creditors.” He said lawyers representing the creditors and government agencies agreed to the bonuses.(309)

But even if creditors and government agencies agreed to the bonuses, there were some dissenting voices. For example, although he is generally a strong supporter of the mining industry, Conrad Burns, a Montana senator, criticized the bonuses, saying they were “inexcusable.”

Not only was Pegasus allowed to pay bonuses in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, it was also allowed, after having got rid of the unprofitable Zortman and Landusky mines to create a new company, Apollo Gold, which would be able to continue operating the profitable mines that had formerly belonged to Pegasus. Ron Parker, the CEO of the new company defended the creation of a new company by saying: (309)

Those former entities that survive on their own provide jobs and tax revenues...That’s life in bankruptcy.

Jan Sensibaugh, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality described this arrangement as, “a big, bad deal.”(309)

Commenting on the whole story in a general way, Jeff Barber of the Montana Environmental Center said:

[The] total disregard [shown by Pegasus] for the rape they undertook on the environment here in Montana and elsewhere should not be tolerated by anyone. Why should they and other foreign companies be permitted to take billions of dollars [worth] of precious metals out of public lands and leave it to the states and federal government to come up with the money to clean up their messes.(309)

Not only did the US legal system allow Pegasus to escape paying legal costs and also to continue operating under a new name, there was also a question as to whether the bond Pegasus had posted in 1993 as a surety for future clean-up fees could actually be used for this purpose. The surety company holding the bond argued that, because of the way the bond was “structured,” Pegasus did not necessarily have to use all the money to pay cleanup costs. (309)

In a statement that makes clear his opinion that Pegasus’ 1993 commitment was not sincere, Peter Werner, an engineer in the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said:

That’s one area that the state is working very diligently on to correct for future situations, to make sure we’re not victimized by whatever artful language is inserted by attorneys. (309)

At the end of the Post-Intelligencer article, there is a quote Frank Duval who, they say, was “one of the firm’s founders,” but who was then “trying to open a new mine at Rock Creek near Noxon, Montana.” Despite having left the company Frank Duval was eager to defend it. He said:

Pegasus...produced millions of ounces of gold, employed a lot of people and paid a lot of taxes and salaries.(309)

This type of defense could, of course, be used to defend any activity of any mining company anywhere in the world.

The article also mentions that at the time he left Pegasus, in 1987, Frank Duval had just

settled charges brought against him by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC charged that Duval and two Pegasus officers violated the law by selling the company part of a Nevada mine without informing Pegasus managers that they had a financial interest in the company.

Robert Friedland

Robert Friedland was born in Chicago, a large city in the central United States, in August 1950. His parents were immigrants. (337)

After finishing high school Robert Friedland entered Bowdoin College, a prestigious liberal arts college in the east coast state of Maine. In his first year there, he participated in a college ski team, in an experimental art community and in a drama production.

In his second year at Bowdoin, when he was ninteen, he was arrested along with two accomplices in the parking lot of a motel in Portland, Maine. The three were in possession of 24,000 tablets of an illegal hallucogenic drug, LSD. The estimated value of the tablets was $100,000. The arrests came about shortly after one of Robert Friedland’s accomplices, Marc Heinlein, had sold 8,000 tablets to an undercover federal police officer. After being arrested, Robert Friedland resigned from Bowdoin.(328)

As a result of this crime, Robert Friedland was sentenced to two years in a federal penetentiary. He was released on parole after serving a few months.(326)

In 1972, Robert Friedman entered Reed College, in the west coast state of Oregon, another prestigious liberal arts college — and one with a reputation for having a relatively leftwing faculty and student body. (328) Robert Friedland graduated from Reed College with a political science degree in 1974. In his final year there, he became the student president.

While he was at Reed College, Robert Friedland became friends with Steve Jobs who later became the president of Apple Computer Inc. According to Walter Isaacson, the author of a Steve Jobs’ biography, Steve Jobs and Robert Friedland met because Steve Jobs had advertised a typewriter he was trying to sell and Robert Friedland had responded to the ad. When Steve Jobs brought the typewriter to Robert Friedland’s apartment he accidentally walked in on him and his girlfriend having sex. Steve Jobs apologized and began to leave, but, to his surprise, Robert Friedland asked him to stay in the apartment until he and his girlfriend were finished. (328)

For a while, the friendship flourished. After graduating from Reed College, Robert Friedman began working in another part of Oregonas the caretaker of a large apple orchard owned by his wealthy uncle.(337) A kind of “commune” was established in the orchard. A group of people — including Robert Friedman and Steve Jobs — lived there in a simple way and worked together. They had been brought together by a shared interest in “eastern” religion and culture. (At an earlier point, Robert Friedman had spent time in India studying Buddhism and Sanskrit.(375)) The commune didn’t last long, however. According to Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, for one, became disillusioned with the commune when it became clear that Robert Friedland was more interested in making money by selling the orchard’s produce than in developing a spiritual, anti-materialistic lifestyle. (328)

It has often been suggested though, that despite his disillusionment, Steve Jobs did get something of lasting value from his time in the apple orchard — the idea for the name of the company he would later found. And it seems that Steve Jobs definitely got something else, perhaps even more valuable, from Robert Friedman. Walter Isaacson says he was “one of the few people in Jobs’ life who were able to mesmerize him.” He claims that Steve Jobs learned from Robert Friedman how to mesmerize people with a deep, silent stare (¿ check book for exact quote) — and that he used this trick effectively in later life.(328)

Steve Jobs and Robert Friedland remained friends after going their separate ways, but it seem that they finally fell out around twenty years later. When Robert Friedland was in trouble with the Environmental Protection Authority because of the environmental damage done by his Summitville mine in, Colorado, he asked Steve Jobs — who was, by then, famous and wealthy — to intervene. But Steve Jobs refused to do so.(328)

In Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:

It was a strange thing to have one of the people in your young life turn out to be, symbolically and in reality, a gold miner.(328)

After suddenly resigning from Galactic in late 1991, Robert Friedland fled to Canada, and he quickly moved his assets to that country as well. He went to Canada because he believed that, once he was there, the governments of Colorado and the United States would not be able to force him to pay for cleaning up the damage that had been caused by the Summitville mine. Later events showed that he was right in thinking Canada would be a safe haven. There was a moment, however, when it looked as if he had made a mistake.

Voisey’s Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador

In 1994, another company which Robert Friedland was promoting, Diamond Fields Resources began trading shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Robert Friedland, himself, owned fifteen percent of this company. In 1993, two prospectors, Chris Verbiski and AlChislett hired by Diamond Fields spent the summer in Labrador, looking for diamonds. (Labrador is the large but thinly-populated part of the province of Newfoundland Labrador located on the Canadian mainland to the northwest of the island of Newfoundland.) The two prospectors were exploring with a helicopter and were based in Nain, the northernmost town in Labrador. (Nain has a population of around 1000. Its residents are mainly Inuit or people of mixed Inuit-European descent. It is located in Nunatsiavut, one of the four Inuit settlement areas that stretch across northern Canada. The Inuit living in these areas elect their own assemblies and have limited powers of self-government.)

Late in the afternoon of September 16, 1993, Chris Verbiski and Al Chislett were flying back to Nain. They were downhearted because they had found no diamonds and they had only a few weeks left before very cold weather would prevent them from prospecting. Just after flying across Voisey’s Bay, about forty kilometers to the southwest of Nain, they noticed a wide, rust-colored stripe on the top of a rocky hill. They descended and hovered over the spot. They were short of fuel so they couldn’t land, but they could see enough to realize that the stripe probably marked the place where, millions of years earlier, metals had been pushed up to the earth’s surface. (408)

They marked the spot on their map and came back the next day. They took samples of the rock and, when they analysed them, they found they had guessed correctly: the rock on the hill top was apparently rich in nickel and copper. As quickly as possible, they flew out of Nain, back to St John’s the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador. There, acting on their own behalf they bought 288 “claims,” encircling the rocky hilltop. They had to “max out” their credit cards to pay. (408) (Each such claim, in Newfoundland and Labrador, gives its holder the right to explore for minerals in an area of twenty-five hectares. The claims cost sixty dollars each — a fee of ten dollars, and a refundable security deposit of fifty dollars.) (427)

Even though they were working for Diamond Fields when they made their discovery, Chris Verbiski and Al Chislett, owned the mining rights in the area they had claimed. They didn’t have enough money to develop a mine, however, or even to do thorough exploratory work. So they tried to sell their claims to Diamond Fields. At first Diamond Fields wasn’t interested and, so the two prospectors continued on their own with inexpensive exploratory work and research. After studying material written by government geologists they came to the conclusion that the area they had “staked out” contained commercially valuable deposits of nickel, copper, and cobalt. (Cobalt is a metal used in dyes and high-performance allies; in the past it was also widely used in the radio therapy of cancer.) They also felt after doing this research that there were almost certainly other nearby deposits.

Eventually, in 1994, Chris Verbiski and Al Chislett succeeded in convincing Diamond Fields to buy them out. As part of the deal they received a three percent royalty The two stayed on with the company as employees in charge of exploration. The exploration work continued through the winter of 1994-1995. It seems, though, that at this point Diamond Fields was not optimistic about the project because they provided their employees with only a shoestring budget to continue the work.

Although during 1994 and 1995, Robert Friedland, the co-owner of Diamond Fields, may not have been enthusiastic about the actual mining work going on at Voisey’s Bay, he was enthusiastically promoting the company from his base in Vancouver, thousands of miles to the west.

Omai, Guyana

Robert Friedland’s promotion of the Voisey’s Bay deposit and his 1996 sale of the property to Inco for $4.3 billion was not just a financial coup; it was also a public relations triumph. And a better public image was something that Robert Friedland — a promoter earning his living by persuading other people to invest on his projects — was badly in need of. He first came to public attention after resigning from his own company, Galactic, and fleeing to Canada to escape prosecution for the environmental damage caused by the Summitville mine in Colorado. And just a year before the discovery of the Voisey’s Bay deposit, he once again resigned from one of his companies shortly before it caused an environmental disaster. This time it happened in Guyana on the Caribbean coast of South America.

Robert Friedland first showed interest in South America in 1990 when one of his companies, Vengold, set up an operation in Venezuela. He abandoned this project, however, because of difficulties in establishing land ownership and also because preliminary explorations of the mine site had disappointing results. After giving up on Venezuela, Robert Friedland turned his attention to Guyana which borders Venezuela to the east. Specifically, he became interested in a well-known gold deposit aon the Omai River, a tributary of the Essequibo River — the main waterway in Guyana. Gold mining had been going on at Omai for many years but the work was all being done by remote controlled dredges that sucked up mud from the river bottom and then processed it to separate out the valuable metals. The dredges were doing serious damage to the environment by tearing down the river banks and choking acquatic life, but before Robert Friedland’s arrival, there were no corporate mines in the area.(381)

Robert Friedland was convinced the deposit had potential. He went about setting up the sort of well-financed corporate structure that is required to bring a mine into existence. To do this, he used the stock-trading and buying-out techniques that are typical of mining promotion and which, by this point in his life, he had thoroughly mastered. He learned that another “junior” mining company, Golden Star Resources, was already thinking of setting up an operation at Omai. He decided that the best way to start his own mining operation there was to take over Golden Star. He couldn’t simply buy the company outright because it was not for sale. But it was publicly-owned — i.e. its “stocks” were being bought and sold in the stock market. Robert Friedland couldn’t go about taking over Golden Star by buying a large amount of its stock in his own name; Golden Star would have refused to sell to him because he was a well-known competitor. To take the company over, he resorted to a technique commonly used in such situations. He took advantage of the fact that he was a shareholder in another company, South American Goldfields — a fact of which the owners of Golden Star knew nothing. He used his influence with that company to get them to buy — on his behalf — enough shares in in Golden Star to put him in control.(392) The deal stipulated that half of $2 million that South American Goldfields put into Golden Star was to be used exploring for gold in Guyana. (380)

Once he was in control of Golden Star, Robert Friedland approached Cambior, a well-established Canadian company, based in the province of Quebec. He eventually formed a consortium with Cambior and the government of Guyana to set up a mining operation at Omai. The World Bank also participated, and the Canadian Export Development Corporation provided “political risk insurance.” (Political risk insurance provides companies with protection against unexpected political events when they are working in foreign countries. For example, if there had been a revolution in Guyana while Robert Friedland’s mine was operating there and the mine had been seized by a new government, the financial losses would have been covered by the Canadian Export Development Corporation. (The Canadian Export Development Corporation, which later changed its name to Export Development Canada, is an “arms-length” crown corporation, run as an independent business, but wholly owned by the Canadian government.) (443,444)

In January 1993, a new Guyana-based company, Golden Star with a new name, Omai Gold Mines, was formed to operate the mine.(380) It was Guyanese only in legal fact. Its true owners were Cambior Inc., and Golden Star Resources.(379) The government of Guyana acquired a five percent share in the mine, however — negotiated with Robert Friedland’s consortium — before letting the project go ahead. In the years that followed, it was estimated that proceeds from the mine accounted for around twenty-five percent of Guyana’s Gross Domestic Product. This money entered the economy in the form of royalties, taxes, and social security benefits for Guyanese workers.(379)

The mine seems to have operated quite smoothly until August 19, 1995. On that day, the tailings pond burst and several million cubic liters of cyanide-laced water flowed into the Omai River and from there into the Essequibo.(380,392) About a year earlier, Robert Friedland had sold all his shares in Omai Gold Mines. It cannot be certain however, that in doing so he gave up his entire financial stake in the mine: his brother and long-time business associate, Eric, remained with the company at a top executive level.(392)

It is possible that Robert Friedland resigned from Omai Gold Mines when he did because he wanted “to get out while the getting was good.” In other words, in order to escape the threat of prosecution, his plan may have been to use the same tactic he used in Colorado, two or three years earlier. One indication that that might be so is the fact that, in May of 1995, a few months prior to the major spill of August 19, there had been a minor spill at the mine.(441) Robert Friedland had already resigned by this time but nevertheless, the fact that the major spill was not an isolated incident suggests that he may have been aware of a long-standing risk. This possibility is made all the stronger by the fact that the earlier spill was apparently caused by a power failure which prevented the closing of the gates; it would not have been necessary to close the gates if they had not been opened earlier. And they would not, presumably, have been open while the tailings pond was full of cyanide-laced water unless there was some danger of the pond overflowing. There is another piece of evidence indicating that the operators of the mine knew that spills were likely, perhaps inevitable: according to at least one report, at the same time the Guyanese government negotiated a five percent share in the mine, it tacitly agreed to allow tailings pond overflows to be released into the Omai River.(441, 449)

In any case, it is clear that neither the Guyanese government nor Omai Mines anticipated a spill as disastrous as the one that occurred on August 19. This was not a matter of a planned release. The walls around the tailings pond suddenly burst and its entire contents were dumped into the river. The dam had originally been built by a Canadian company, Knight Piesold. The management of this company were embarrassed by their association with the spill. They made a public announcement explaining that they had built hundreds of dams in the past and this was the first time such an accident hhad occurred. They also pointed out that the dam they had built was twenty-five meters in height, but after they had left the mining company itself had extended the walls to a height of forty-five meters.(441)

In a 1995 report on the Web Enquirer website, a UK based journalist, Janine Roberts, interviews a Guyanese, Leon Carrington, who had just returned to London after visiting his hometown. Leon Carrington comes from Baritica, a town with a population of 4000, 130 kilometers downstream from the mine. Here is his description of the situation there in the days following the spill./p>

I saw the waters flowing past my town turn a filthy brown. The cyanide waste came like a great brown slick covering the water ... It was dreadful to see. The gold mine should be stopped from destroying our land. The river was so rich, four miles wide and full of fine fish. It had in it giant otters, dolphins, porpoises. It flowed down between the mountains through the the forest. Jaguars, deer, monkeys, boa constrictors, all came to it to drink and swim as did I myself and all my family.

When I travelled by boat towards the mouth of the river on my way to the airport, there were dead fish everywhere. It made me sick to see it. Others told me they had seen dead pigs floating belly-up down the river and even a dead crocodile, all poisoned by the mine.

Leon Carrington’s report is easy to believe because of its similarity to other reports — from Hungary, Romania, and Colorado, for example — on the effects of a cyanide spill on aquatic life. What he says, however, is at odds with the report of Dr Harry Blakowitz. Dr Blakowitz is “an independent Canadian consultant” who was brought in by the Guyanese government after the spill. According to Dr Blakowitz. In his report — quoted by Janine Roberts — he says

In a distance of approximately 130 kilometers in the Essequibo River, no dead fish were found.

Janine Roberts read this statement to Leon Carrington and he replied:

But even the local and newspaper carried photographs of hundreds of dead fish.

And when Janine Roberts spoke on the telephone with Brennel Archer, the head of a local government which includes both Baritica and the Omai mine. His comment was

This report is not true. I saw dying fish taken from the river by my town.

In light of reports from other parts of the world — Romania, Ghana, Colorado, for example, — on the effect of cyanide spills on aquatic life, it is easy to believe the statements of Leon Carrington and Brennel Archer and difficult to believe the conflicting statements of Dr Blakowitz. It must be remembered however, that although Dr Blakowitz is the president of an environmental impact assessment company — Technitrol Eco-research — whereas Leon Carrington and Brennel Archer are non-experts, Dr Blakowitz was hired by the Guyanese government which had a five percent share in the mine.

Dr Blakowitz’ report did include striking data: it stated that 3.4 million cubic meters of cyanide rich effluent entered the Omai River and that this water contained twenty-five to thirty parts per million of cyanide. (As Janine Roberts points out, according to the World Health Organization the amount of cyanide in safe drinking water can be no more than .07 parts per million.)

The pollution caused by spills from mining operations using cyanide pit-leaching is not confined to cyanide poisoning. There is always also a danger of heavy-metal posoning. When a mine is located in a mountainous region heavy metal poisoning is associated with acid runoff: Large amounts of sulfide ore are exposed to rain, creating a weak solution of sufuric acid. As the rain water drains away it further corrodes the surface of the exposed mine waste. In the process, poisonous heavy metals can be dissolved. They remain in the water as it flows into streams and rivers and accumulate slowly in the bodies of the fish that live in the water and in the bodies of the people that eat the fish. Heavy metals can also accumulate in soil used for farming because of temporary flooding or the use of stream water for irrigation.

Because the ore being mined at Omai was dredged up from a river bottom there was no danger of acid runoff there. But there is still a danger of heavy metal poisoning. Roger Moody is the author of several books on the impact of mining on indigenous people. And, at the time of the Omai spill he was the Mining Advisor to the Amerindian People’s Association of Guyana. When he was contacted by Janine Roberts, Roger Moody stressed the danger of heavy metal pollution resulting from the Omai spill. He was critical of the Guyanese government for having instructed Dr Blakowitz’ company, Technitro Eco-Research, to look only for evidence of cyanide pollution. He pointed out that the poisonous metals, lead, mercury, and cadmium, and arsenic are often found in mine effluent, and he added that the fact Dr Blakowitz’ investigators did discover iron and copper cyanide compounds in the effluent showed that the poisonous metals were likely present as well. Janine Roberts quotes Roger Mooday as saying that heavy metals:(441)

are normally trapped in the sludge in tailings ponds, but given the force of the flood wtrs from the breached dam, some are almost certain to have been swept into the river. Any heavy metals so released would inflict greater damage than cyanide for they do not decay over time but are concentrated in the fish and the consumers of the fish.

And, summarizing his assessment of the situation, Roger Moody told Janine Roberts that

The mine was hastily built, ill planned and an example of greed masquerading as the hope of a poor country.

Statistics like these are significant but they are not likely to have as much impact on public opinion as newspaper photographs of dead fish and vivid first-hand reports like Leon Carrington’s. Perhaps that is why Dr Blakowitz was so honest and open about the amount of cyanide that had spilled into the river but apparently not so honest or open about the dead fish that were floating in it. And perhaps the superior propagandistic value of photographs of the damage done by a disaster like the spill on the Omai or detailed descriptions from people who happened to witness the event tend to be found in local newspapers or on obscure and isolated web pages. The desire of mining companies, national governments, and the corporate media to downplay — or even to conceal — environmental damage caused by business activity can sometimes lead them beyond merely hiding the truth and into sheer fabrication. There seems to have been at least one instance of this in the case of the Omai spill. Presumably because he realized how implausible his claim that there were no dead fish in the river, would be to people on the scene, and also to anyone who knows how cyanide spills affect aquatic life, Dr Blakowitz concocted the following story: he suggested that the fish in the river had survived by swimming out of the “plume” of effluent.(441, 449)

Of course, this story is absurd: In the first place, when lethal amounts of cyanide enter an animal’s body, the animal begins to suffocate immediately; the fish, once affected, would not have had enough time to escape. In the second place, even if they had had enough time they would not have known which direction to take; for that they would have needed a “bird’s-eye” not a fish-eye view of the situation. And on top of the intrinsic implausibility of the story, it was belied by the fact that, as Janine Roberts points out, videos shown on British television at the time of the spill showed the plume occupying the entrire width of the Essequibo. What would Dr Blakowitz have said at the time if he had been challenged to defend his story against charges of implausibility and contradiction of the facts? It is impossible to say, but it is tempting to imagine what he might have said to himself: “It doesn’t matter if no one really believes what I’m saying — or if only a few people do The only thing that matters is that the story is reassuring to people who want believe that no serious damage was done and that what I am saying will help to divert the attention of the world as soon as possible.” Some such thoughts were likely also in the mind of Claude Dumont, the Deputy General Manager of the mine who was reported to have described the damage done by the spill as “only peanuts.” [impact: imports, heavy metal] [future: re-opening (449) (indebtedness)]

The most convincing evidence that Omai Gold Mines had no intention of behaving responsibly in the wake of the huge spill, however, lies in a simple fact: They did not even report the spill to the governmental authorities until one week after it had happened. And it seems they took “advantage” of the “extra time” the delay gave them and that like Dr Blakowitz, they had no scruples about going beyond concealment and entering into actual falsification. But the company went even farther than the government-hired expert. He was content with falsely describing reality; they attempted to actually change it: According to later newspaper reports, company employees were put to work burying dead fish so government scientists would not see them when they finally arrived on the scene.(379)

The delay in reporting the accident and the rush to bury the dead fish might both be thought to indicate that the company was at least slightly nervous about how the Guyanese government was going to react. One reason they might have been worried is the fact that Guyana has a democratic system of government — and moreover, at the time the spill occurred it had a socialist prime minister, Cheddi Jagan. It soon became clear though that the company had no reason to be worried. Immediately after the spill, opposition parties demanded in Parliament that the company be forced to leave Guyana. And although the government refused to expel the company from the country it did order the mine closed until an inquiry could be completed. (379) The prime minister did declare a fifty-mile stretch of the river an “ecological disaster zone,”(450) but still, only five months after the spill, the government not only allowed the mine to begin operating again but also agreed to allow them to regularly release a certain amount of cyanide-laced water into the Omai River. (441) And they agreed to this despite the fact that just a few months before the spill the company had told the government that — contrary to their original agreement — they would not be able to pay royalties or taxes for the next seven years. The payments, they said, would not begin again until 2002 — just three years before the planned closure of the mine. (441)

The fact that at the time the major spill occurred, the Omai Gold Mine had already, illegally and unilaterally, suspended payments to the state makes it all the harder to understand why the Prime Minister did not quickly force the company to leave the country after they did so much damage to the environment. Was not the boost to the economy that would come from these royalties and taxes a crucial factor in the government’s original decision to allow the project to go ahead? And did the cleanup bill they were faced with after the spill not make the Prime Minister wonder whether a five percent share in the mine’s profits would justify another ten year’s association with an apparently irresponsible corporation?

A plausible answer to these questions — and an interesting and educational one — is provided by the author of an article on “” — the archive of Word Magazine which was published online between 1995 and 2000. According to the author of this article, the government had little choice but to allow the mine to stay open because

The Guyanese Economic Recovery Program developed in conjunction with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and drafted in 1989 guaranteed forgiveness of Guyana’s debts in exchange for the extensive privatization and the creation of policies receptive to First World management and investment. Guyana currently [i.e. in the period immediately after the spill] pays out as much as 80 percent of its tax revenues to foreign lenders on a $2.1 billion debt.

The environmental damage brought to the Omai and Essequibo rivers and their surroundings by the Omai Gold Mine cannot be wholly blamed on any particular individual, corporation, or national or international institution. Certainly, however, a large part of the blame has to be placed on the two Canadian companies, Golden Star, and Cambior who were the major shareholders in the consortium that owned the mine. They were directly responsible for the hasty construction and the careless operation of the mine. It was they who attempted to downplay and even conceal the damage caused by the major spill of August, 1995. And it was they who continued to release cyanide into the Omai River as a matter of policy even after the disastrous spill had occurred. But still, the Guyanese government must take some of the blame: it was they who granted the mining license to the consortium even though a careful, objective environmental impact study would have shown that the mine was poorly planned and environmentally risky. Moreover, to the extent that Guyana was at the time a genuine democracy, the ordinary citizens of the country must take some responsibility for what happened: It was they who elected the parliamentary representatives who allowed the government to act as it did. And some share of the blame must also be borne by the global financial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. It was they who, in 1989, imposed on Guyana a program of privatization and foreign investment which made it very difficult for the country, in the years that followed, to resist jany kind of “deal” offered by a foreign mining company.

But despite the complicated causation of the environmental damage caused by the mine on the Omai River, it seems clear that any attempt to understand why what happened happened must begin by focussing on one particular individual — Robert Friedland. that, at least is the opinion of someone who has written a great deal about the effects of mining and the environment, Roger Moody. In a 2001, article reviewing Robert Friedland’s career, he ends his section on the Omai mine with this comment:

Once again, Friedland escaped any legal sanctions (indeed it is now unlikely that Cambior or partner GSR (Golden Star Resources will ever have to pay out adequate compensation to families and communities along the Essequibo). Once more, however, Friedland’s moral responsibility — as the main person in charge of the company which financed and initially constructed this treacherous mine facility cannot be in doubt. (392)

A 2005 aerial photograph of the Omai mine can be seen here. According to the caption of the photograph the mine finally closed in 2005. The caption adds that the “the severe ecological disaster was one of the reasons for the closure.”

Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle
the early life of Jean-Raymond Boulle

Jean-Raymond Boulle was born in 1950, on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar. When he was ten, his father died and his mother took him and his four brothers to live in South Africa. When Jean-Raymond Boulle was seventeen, his family moved again, this time to England. When he was twenty, having decided not to go to university, Jean-Raymond Boulle returned to South Africa.(370)

Jean-Raymond Boulle spent the next ten years working for De Beers. De Beers is originally a South African company; its headquarters are now located in Luxembourg. which for more than a hundred years had a near world-wide monopoly on diamond mining and on other aspects of the diamond business. The company owns mines in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Canada, but it buys diamonds from many other mines located throuthe the world. (In the 1980s De Beers was in control of around ninety percent of the diamond business. Since that time, for various reasons, thei(370, 468)

Jean-Raymond Boulle worked for De Beers as a junior “manager.” He spent most of his time in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone. Like many other De Beers “managers,” he spent much of his time carrying cash to independent mines, using it to buy diamonds and then delivering the diamonds to his employers. He also supervised miners jworking in small, crude mines need did “diplomatic” work with local politicians and tribal leaders.(370)

In 1980 Jean-Raymond Boulle emigrated to the United States. He established himself in Dallas, Texas and went into business with a wealthy “oil man,” Denis Hanvey, importing diamonds and selling them to rich Dallas residents. The business went well until 1985, but then the oil and gas market crashed and suddenly no one had enough money to spend on diamonds.(370)

Jean-Raymond Boulle realized he had to branch out if he was going to survive. He decided to look into diamond mining possibilities in the US. He began with the Crater of Diamonds deposit, near the town of Murfreesboro in the state of Arkansas. Diamonds had been discovered there in 1906, and small mines had operated in the area for more than sixty years. None of these mines had really prospered, however, and the last one had shut down in 1969. The Arkansas government then bought the land where the mines had operated — and some surrounding land as well. They created a state park there and charged visitors a few dollars a day for the privilege of sifting through dirt in the hope of finding a diamond.(370)

After looking into the history of the Crater of Diamonds deposit, Jean-Raymond Boulle came to the conclusion that earlier mining operations had failed, first, because they had not been using up-to-date techniques and, second, because they had not had enough financial backing. He thought he could do better if he had the opportunity. Getting that opportunity turned out to be very difficult however. He began by buying a lot of land in areas adjacent to the park on the chance that there might be other diamond deposits nearby. But he had difficulty moving ahead from there.(370)

For one thing, by this point Jean-Raymond Boulle had serious personal and financial problems. Various creditors, including one of his brothers, were suing him, and his wife, an American woman, had filed for divorce. Despite all his problems Jean-Raymond Boulle kept trying. Another problem was that Murfreesboro residents were strongly opposed to the idea of a mine in the park and that opposition had to be overcome if the project was to go ahead.(370)

Over the next couple of years, he entered into short-lived partnerships with several different people; when one of these arrangements didn’t work out, he looked for another. Eventually he got to know a local lawyer named Jim Blair. Jim Blair was a close friend of the state governor — and the future president of the United States — Bill Clinton. Jim Blair knew that Bill Clinton wanted to do something to reduce the high illiteracy rates in Arkansas. (According to the US National Center for Education Statistics, in 2003, the illiteracy rate for Arkansas residents over the age of sixteen was fourteen percent.(470) According to local newspaper, as of 2012, the state had the fourth highest illiteracy rate in the country and forty-five percent of the adult population did not have a high school diploma.(469)) Jim Blair arranged a meeting between Jean-Raymond Boulle and Bill Clinton. He advised Jean-Raymond Boulle to “pitch” his case for the mine so Bill Clinton could see it as something that would boost the state’s economy and allow it to rebuild its educational system.(370)

This meeting seems to have turned the tide. In any case, local resistance to the mining project began to slowly break down and Jean-Raymond Boulle worked hard to keep things moving along as he wanted them to. He set up a media center and brought geologists to Murfreesboro to give talks on diamonds and mining. He was quoted in a long article in the Christian Science Monitor that the Crater Park deposit could “become one of the world’s largest diamond producers.” And Don Hanvey, his old partner from Dallas who had joined him again in Arkansas told a local newspaper that the Crater Lake project could turn out to be “bigger than Disneyland.” (370)

Eventually, local opposition broke down. This was perhaps due to Bill Clinton’s support and the promotional efforts of Jean-Raymond Boulle and his partners, but there was another factor at work. The economic situation in Murfreesboro was bad: the poultry plant and the sawmill had gone out of business and unemployment was high. The townspeople were desperate for work and the diamond mine seemed to offer hope. In 1987, the Arkansas legislature authorized the lease of park property for commercial mining. There was one condition though: a state “task force” would have to give its approval before work could begin. (370)

By 1989, Jean-Raymond Boulle and his partners had still not been able to begin exploratory work in Crater of Diamonds Park. There was activity on another front, however. Jean-Raymond Boulle joined up with a Dallas company, Sunshine Mining to look into the possibility of setting up a diamond mine in Sierra Leone. In the summer of 1989, along with his brother, Franco, he went to that country and entered into negotiations with the government. The result was an agreement with the government of Sierra Leone that gave the consortium a mining concession over the rich diamond fields of Koidu.(370)

When Jean-Raymond Boulle returned to the United States at the beginning of 1990, everything seemed to be going well. Before the end of January, however, he was hit with two major setbacks. First, he learned that because of challenges from environmental groups, the Crater of Diamonds project was likely to be delayed by court battles for several years. Second, he learned that his “partners,” Sunshine Mining were claiming that that owed them large amounts of money and were threatening that, if he did not pay quickly that they would take legal action to seize his and Franco’s share of the proposed Sierra Leone mine.(370)

Jean-Raymond Boulle meets Robert Friedland

Facing a greater-than-ever need for partners with money, Jean-Raymond Boulle decided to make some “cold calls” to mining financiers he knew of. One of these was Robert Friedland whose name was much in the news at the time because of the record number of shares he’d been selling in his Summitville mine in Colorado. When Robert Friedland heard the story of the Sierra Leone prospects he was interested. He invited Jean-Raymond and Marco Boulle to visit him in Vancouver. After learning all the details, he decided that he would be happy to add the Koidu mine to his “portfolio” if he could get it at the right price. He contacted the executives of Sunshine Mining by telephone and tried to talk them into selling their share in the mine, but they refused. Then, while the brothers were living in his basement, Robert Friedland sent the brothers and some of his “advisers” to Sierra Leone to try to persuade the government there to go back on their original deal and push out Sunshine Mining. This didn’t work either, and when the brothers got back to Vancouver, their host had to give them taxi fare to the the airport so they could catch a plane back to Dallas.(370)

By the autumn of 1991, Jean-Raymond Boulle’s situation had improved somewhatj. He had somehow come out on top in his battle with Sunshine Mining. A jury in Dallas had found in his favor in the dispute over the ownership of the concession in Sierra Leone and he and his brother had received $1.5 million from Sunshine Mining in compensation. He was still facing many lawsuits and large legal fees however, and badly in need of money. He struggled on though, with help from his mother, who had become a nun in England and from his second wife who was working as salesperson in a craft store. By early 1992, Jean-Raymond Boulle’s situation had improved further. With his second wife and their new-born son, he had moved to Belize, a small country on the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala. He was still short of money though and still without an actually operating mine. His best hope, it seemed to him, was to use the fact of his Arkansas concession as a way of attracting the capital he needed to develop the Koidu mine in Sierra Leone. (370)

Jean-Raymond Boulle decided the best way to raise the money he needed was to use the Vancouver Stock Exchange — the favorite marketplace for small entrepreneurs trying to raise money for mining ventures. Because he had no experience with the Vancouver Stock Exchange, and because his failures in Dallas were well known in the business world, he decided to go again to Robert Friedland for help. In her book the Voisey’s Bay mine The Big Score, Jacquie McNish quotes Jean-Raymond Boulle as explaining his second appeal to Robert Friedland in this way:

Friedland was in the bloodstream of mining finance and I wasn’t. so I had to learn. He had access to public markets and I didn’t.(370)

Jean-Raymond Boulle contacted Robert Friedland for the second time in the autumn of 1992, and once again he was well received. When he explained his situation and laid out his plans for the future, Robert Friedland responded positively. Jean-Raymond Boulle had, accidentally, picked the right time to approach him on the subject of diamonds. Mining stock promoters in Vancouver had recently been talking a lot about diamond mining prospects in the Canadian north and Robert Friedland had been caught up in the enthusiasm. Still, no one had actually found a commercially promising deposit, and Robert Friedland liked the idea of putting money into a proven resource especially a famous one like Crater of Diamonds.(370)

Despite Robert Friedland’s positive initial response to his proposal, Jean-Raymond Boulle had to make several trips from Belize to Vancouver before a deal could be settled on but, finally, on December 26, they reached an agreement and took their wives to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate, their decision to create a new company “Diamond Fields Resources.” (Jean-Raymond Boulle had chosen this name because, he said, “It sounded environmentally friendly.”)(370)

Apparently, the main disagreement between Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle was over who was to be the head of Diamond Fields. Both men wanted to be in control. Finally Jean-Raymond Boulle came out on top: he become the president of the the new company and the chairman of the board of governors. In addition, he was given the right to appoint. Robert Friedland was not given any official position. All he received was the right to appoint three mbrs of the board of governors. As far as ownership was concerned however, the two men were absolutely equal.Both got a twenty-five percent share. And neiter man paed much for what they got; in other words, neither brought much of his own capital into the company.Robert Friedland paid just a few cents for each of his shares and Jean-Raymond Boulle got his almost for free. All he contributed to the company was his interest in the Crater of Diamonds project.(370)

Bringing Diamond Fields into existence and settling the details of how the new company would operate is only the first step toward creating a profitable business. From a financial point of view the goal of a company like Diamond Fields is to make money for its founders by “float” the company on a public stock exchange and persuading investors to buy shares. If this happens, then all the company’s shares, including those “bought” by the founders, will rise in value and when, sometime in the future, the founders sell their shares, they will make a large profit.

In order to be able to attract investors however, a small mining company has to be able to claim plausibly that it owns promising properties — either already existing mines that can be renewed and made profitable or fresh deposits with proven commercially viable resources. So, before they could “show” their company on a Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle had to enlarge their portfolio. They began by buying diamond properties in the state of Minnesota in the northern US, and then, just a few days before Diamond Fields went onto the Vancouver Stock Exchange, working through contacts in Texas, Jean-Raymond Boulle arranged the purchase of an undersea diamond concession off the coast of Namibia. The partners were sure that because Namibia had a long and well-known history as a diamond producing region that this acquisition was sure to increase their chances of success at the stock exchange.(370)

Diamond Fields had made itself more attractive to investors by aquiring new properties, but Robert Friedland knew there was something else that had to be done before the company could be launched on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. In April and May of 1993, there were two private sales of Diamond Fields shares. These shares were sold for fifteen cents each, far less than the company hoped to get for its shares when they eventually went onto the public market. And the total amount of capital acquired by these sales was only around $6 million far less than the company hoped would be invested when its shares were sold on the Vancouver Stock Exchange. What was most important from Deamond Field’s point of view, however, was not how much money they were getting but who they were getting it from.

The people who bought Diamond Fields stock in those private sales were all prominent Vancouver businessmen — mining “brokers,” mining newsletter writers, mining promoters, mining analysts, and owners and employees of mutual fund companies. Jacquie McNish gives the names of several of these businessmen in her book about Voisey’s Bay. And she makes it clear that privately buying cheap shares in a promising company before it went on the market was a normal activity for such people. Speaking of three of them, Robert Disbrow, Eric Savies and Frank Giustra, she says :

In the 1990s these brokers amassed enormous personal fortunes by quietly obtaiing cheap stock in dozens of junior mining companies before the stock was pithed to clients at inflated prices (370, p45)

She also makes it clear that Diamond Field’s strategy was typical:

The company’s distribution of early stack issues offers a textbook casej of how to launch a risky penny stock on the VSE [Vancouver Stock Exchange] in the ealy 1990s.(370, p44)

It was not, of course, simply a coincidence that the private buyers of Diamond Fields shares were wealthy businessesmen involved in the mining business. These were precisely the people who Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle wanted to sell shares to — and they were probably the only ones who would have known that such an opportunity was available. The point of the whole exercise was to produce a corporate image that could be used as a sort of advertisement. As Jacquie McNish puts it:

With friends like this it was virtually guaranteed that Diamond Fields’ debut on the VSE would be a hit.,,(370, p46)

Diamond Fields shares did go on sale on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and the price did go up [Check and get details], but despite its early promise the company did not do well in the following year. In the year that followed it languished, and Robert Friedland even seemed to have forgotten it. He was looking for new prospects in Asia and Eastern Europe and and he was busy with projects in Venezuela and Guyana. Jean-Raymond Boulle was devoting himself to Diamond Fields during this period. He entered into long negotiations with a car dealer from Idaho who was trying to persuade Diamond Fields into investing in another gold mine in Venezuela, but in the end no deal could be agreed on. He did succeed in buying two old diamond mines in South Africa but that seems to have been his accomplishment during 1993. And to make matters worse, his former partner, Denis Hanvey was trying to find financing on the Vancouver Stock Exchange for a competing diamond mining project in Arkansas. Jean-Raymond Boulle went, himself, to the Vancouver Stock Exchange to try to stop Denis Hanvey, but the two Vancouver businessmen whose help he got turned out to be criminals.(370)

At the beginning of 1994, however, Robert Friedland got interested in Diamond Fields again. Apparently, he came to feel that the neglected company was the only way out of his difficulties: He was still in legal trouble in Colorado because of the environmental damage caused by the Summitville mine. And because of a legal fight over ownership he was no longer confident about the prospects of the Vengold mine in Venezuela.(370) He had a large interest Golden Star whose gold mine on the Omai River in Guyana, was getting underway, but apart from that he had no very certain prspects. In fact, prospectors working for Diamond Fields in Labrador had already made the discovery which within a few years would make him and Jean-Raymond Boulle very rich men but, at the beginning of 1994 no one had any idea of the true value of what had been found.

Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle decided to use their African prospects to save their struggling company. They spent $300,000 of their diminishing funds to put on a lavish tour of their diamond mine in Namibia and the two mines in South Africa that Jean-Raymond Boulle had bought earlier. The “guests” they took on this tour were mainly businessmen who had invested heavily in Diamond Fields when its shares were being privately sold a year earlier. One of these investors was Paul Stephens, a mutual fund manager. He was so impressed by what he saw in Namibia that he decided to put $8 million of his company’s money into Diamond Fields. Several other fund managers who respected his judgment decided to follow along and in the end Diamond Fields collected $15 million from the investors they took to Africa. They they were making a solid investment in a well-financed and sensibly managed company. They had no idea that if they had not invested, Diamond Fields would have been almost penniless and of course, they had no idea that the African properties they were shown would all turn out to be worthless.(370)

The owners of Diamond Fields must have realized however that the Namibian and South African prospects were not as good as they had made them out to be. For Diamond Fields, at that point, everything seemed to depend on things working out well in Arkansas but progress there was still being blocked by competitors and environmentalists. It must have been clear to the partners that if they wanted to maintain the price of Diamond Fields shares and to attract more investors, they had to quickly find something more promising and more solid. Their best bet, it seemed was j where Jean-Raymond Boulle had had a great deal of experience as a young man.(370, endnotes)

Robert Friedland in Sierra Leone
The vanishing trail

The early years of Robert Friedland’s life are fully described in newspaper and magazine articles, and in at least one book. The authors of this material are happy to emphasize events that put their subject in a bad light. The story of his time in jail after being convicted on drug charges, for example, is told again and again, as is the story of how he fled to Canada just before the US environmental authorities descended upon him in Colorado. And in her book about Voisey’s Bay, The Big Score, Jacquie McNish provides an enormous amount of detailed information about Robert Friedland, his family, his dealings with his business associates, his money-making strategies, and his temperament and personality.

The story of the Voisey’s Bay mine is not a typical Robert Friedland story. there, it seems, he broke no laws, told no lies, and cheated no one. And he certainly caused no pollution: his company, Diamond Fields, sold the mine site to a large corporation, INCO, long before mining actually started. Even at that stage, however Robert Friedland had apparently decided to keep his distance from curious journalists: Jacquie McNish’ book was based on many hours of recorded interviews with a very large cast of characters, some of whom played only a small role in the story. As Jacquie McNish explains in her book however, the most important character, Robert Friedland himself, refused to be interviewed. It was only in 1997, just before the book was published — and after having repeatedly been asked to confirm details — that he finally asked to be interviewed. (In her note on her sources, Jacquie McNish mades this comment: “Friedland provided a number of invaluable facts and revelations about his life and the Voisey’s Bay story during the interview.”)

It seems likely that Robert Friedland’s reluctance to be interviewed was not simply a matter of his wanting to avoid questions about embarrassing events of his youth or about more recent brushes with the law. Quite possibly, it was also a matter of his having realized by the mid 90s that if he was going to continue to prosper as a mining promoter, he was going to have to work as secretly as possible. Voisey’sBay had been good luck — a genuine discovery made in a country with a stable government and a stable legal system and without intractable conflicts with native populations. Moreover, the deposit had turned out to be valuable enough that it could be sold quickly at an enormous profit. By that point in his career, Robert Friedland must have had enough experience to realize how lucky he had been and that he could not expect ever to be so lucky again. He must have realized also that in the future he would have to depend on his talent as a practitioner of the “classical”methods of mine promotion: find a prospect (more often than not a site that had already been mined) that could be “talked up” however unpromising it might actually be, and then after creating a new company, attract enough investors to make the company look good and finally, after selling large amounts of stock to yourself and other professional investors, place the company on the public market and hope that prices would soar.

the attractions of the “third world”

Robert Friedland’s experience of being chased from the US by the environmental authorities and his realization that they could continue to pursue him even in Canada presumably have made him leery of more North American “plays.” And the opposition from local citizens, environmental authorities, and government that he and his partner, Jean-Raymond Boulle, faced in their efforts to get a mining operation going in Arkansas must have strengthened his awareness about the drawbacks of mining in his own part of the world. In any case, after his triumph at Voisey’s Bay, Robert Friedland did not launch any new North American projects: he turned his attention to other parts of the world. He began to operate exclusively in relatively “undeveloped countries” — in other words, countries in which a large percentage of the population lives in deep poverty and whose governments and legal systems are weak or corrupt.

In order to operate in those countries, however, Robert Friedland and other mining promoters need countries like Canada which promote their overseas activities through diplomacy and, in various ways, offer them protection against financial loss caused by political upheaval. They also need the relative obscurity that comes from operating far away from the financial centers where the large mining companies are based — and from the relatively sharp scrutiny those companies are subjected to by the “Western” media when they are actually doing their mining in countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia. This remoteness from scrutiny is just what Robert Friedland learned the value of through his early experience at Summitville.And it is, of course, what explains the near disappearance of a “paper trail” of his activities in the mainstream press. Since he sold his share of the Voisey’s Bay mine he seems to have almost completely escaped public attention. His major financial moves are reported in mining journals, and, occasionally his promotional speeches are covered in major Canadian newspapers, but anyone who wants a more detailed and less biased has to depend upon usually quite brief reports of anti-mining advocates such as Roger Moody or dispersed references in books on broader subjects. ((See for example, Roger Moody, “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “The Mercenary Miner” and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests by John Peter Pham.

the complications of Sierra Leone

In 1989, Jean-Raymond Boulle and his partners, Sunshine Mining, formed a consortium and entered into negotiations with the Sierra Leone government. As a result of these negotiations, the consortium received a commitment from the government to the effect that they would be allowed to go ahead with the project. The details remained to be worked out, however, and negotiations continued. It was a complicated matter: the consortium had difficulty raising the money they needed; the partners quarrelled and Sunshine Mining sued Jean-Raymond Boulle in an American court. By 1994, five years after the original agreement had been reached, the financial problems at least had been partly solved: Jean-Raymond Boulle had won his court battle with Sunshine Mining; the consortium no longer existed; Diamond Fields had taken over Sunshine Mining’s share; and Robert Friedland had become a major shareholder in the Koidu site.(370, 392, 393)

But even though the financial situation had improved, in another respect things were worse: by this time, Sierra Leone had become embroiled in a chaotic civil war. In 1991 a small rebel force, known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) had entered the country from neighboring Liberia. They met little resistance from the Sierra Leone army and by 1994 when Diamond Fields took over the Koidu site, the rebels were in control of large areas of the country. In 1995, the year following Diamond Field’s takeover, the town of Koidu was captured by the rebels and the mine site fell into their hands. In 1996, Koidu was recaptured and turned over to its former “owners.”

By that time the company called “Diamond Fields” had ceased to exist. It had been closed down after the Voisey’s Bay deposit had been sold to the Canadian nickel mining company, INCO, and Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle had become rich men. Another company with a similar name, “Diamond Works” had been formed shortly after and it was to that company that the Koidu mine site was returned after it was taken from the RUF. Robert Friedland was a major shareholder. Apparently, Jean-Raymond Boulle was not. He was still involved in mining in Sierra Leone, however: In April 1995, he had invested $10 million in another Sierra Leone mine, Sierra Rutile. The Sierra Rutile mine in southwestern Sierra Leone is the largest rutile mine in the world; rutile ore is a major source of titanium. (393, 481, 496)

The Koidu mine site was not “recaptured” by the Sierra Leone army. It was taken from the rebels by a mercenary force, Executive Outcomes, which, ostensibly at least, had been hired by the Sierra Leone government and was fighting on their behalf. The truth of the matter is rather different, it seems — or at least considerably more complicated. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that — behind the scenes and indirectly — Executive Outcomes was hired, and paid by foreign mining companies.” And it seems likely as well that both Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle played a major role in bringing the mercenaries to Sierra Leone.

Roger Moody on Robert Friedland in Sierra Leone

Roger Moody is an investigative journalist and a longtime advocate for the victims of mining activity. He is also the founder of the website, “Mines and Communities.” Here is how, writing in 2001, he described the course of events:

DiamondWorks’s main interest is now the potentially highly valuable Koidu diamond field in Sierra Leone. Originally acquired by Friedland in 1994, this deposit was later overrun by anti-government forces. In early 1996, the notorious South African private army, Executive Outcomes, teamed up with another company called Branch Energy, to recapture Koidu and hand it over to DiamondWorks.(392)

Even in the business world, the fact that Robert Friedland was a major owner of a company called DiamondWorks, was not, perhaps, as widely known as was his ownership of the earlier company, Diamond Fields. (In fact, if were not for the work of non-mainstream journalists like Roger Moody the general public might know nothing at all of Robert Friedland’s activities in Sierra Leone.) While the discovery and development of Voisey’s Bay was in the news, Diamond Fields could present itself as the noble entrepreneurial force behind a completely legal, environmentally benign, and extremely profitable project. At that time, that company had much to gain from positive publicity. But an honest description of DiamondWorks’ operations in Sierra Leone, would almost certainly have had a negative effect on its public image. It would have shown that Diamond Fields was willing to take sides in the Sierra Leone civil war and that it was willing to employ an army in order to continue operating in the country.

It seems that Robert Friedland may not only have been eager to hide the fact that his Koidu mine was lost to a rebel army and then won back by mercenaries, but also eager to hide the fact that he ever owned company called DiamondWorks. That at least is the impression given by Roger Moody in a 1997 article, in the Multinational Monitor, “The Mercenary Miner.” After speaking of Executive Outcomes’ activities in Sierra Leone and Angola, he says:

A company called Branch Energy...had technically managed the Executive Outcomes successes in Africa.(393)

And in his next sentence he makes an crucial claim:

Branch Energy now owns some of the West African diamond fields it captured in 1995.(393)

This statement, although vague, might seem to contradict others that Roger Moody makes about the Koidu site being “turned over” to DiamondWorks, but to draw that conclusion would be a mistake. In the first place, the “ownership” of mining companies is typically shared by several individuals or corporations, and, second, as Roger Moody points out, DiamondWorks and Branch Energy were so intertwined with each other that they had, for practical purposes, become a single company.

Branch Energy and Sandline [another mercenary company] have now concentrated much of their existing finance and lines of management control in a new company called DiamondWorks. And DiamondWorks is indisputably a Friedland company.(393)

A few paragraphs later on, as if to quell any further doubts his readers might have about his claims that Robert Friedland’s was involved in these events, he says:

Although Friedland’s Vancouver media officer, Bob Williamson told Australian researcher Stan Correy that [Robert Friedland] owns only three percent of the company, the London Mining Journal has discovered otherwise.“Robert Friedland is a major shareholder in DiamondWorks through his control of Madras Holdings which holds a 21.2 percent interest,” declared the world’s leading mining publication, and...And Friedland’s brother, Eric, is DiamondWorks’ president.(393)

In the same paragraph, Roger Moody also mentions two other men, Tony Buckingham and Tim Spicer. Both of these men were, at the time, well known mercenaries. And they had worked together on an attempt to persuade the government of Papua New Guinea to hire them to wrest a gold mine from rebel forces in a remote part of the country. Tim Spicer was the “commander” of mercenary corporation called Sandline. And Tony Buckingham was the head of Branch Energy — which Roger Moody identifies as “a Friedland company” and which, as Roger Moody also says, had “technically managed ” (392, 393)

In summary: Roger Moody offers convincing evidence that (1) Robert Friedland is, or was, a major shareholder in both Branch Energy and DiamondWorks; (2) that Branch Energy arranged the entry of Executive Outcomes into the Sierra Leone civil war; and (3) that once Executive Outcomes had taken control of Koidu, the mine site was handed back to DiamondWorks.

Elizabeth Rubin on Executive Outcomes’s entry into the war

Elizabeth Rubin is an American journalist. She writes regularly for The New York Times Magazine and has written for many other US magazines and reviews such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Vogue and The New Yorker. In 1997 one of her articles, “An Army of One’sOwn” about the Sierra Leone civil war appeared in Harper’s Magazine. She doesn’t mention Robert Friedland or Jean-Raymond Boulle or DiamondWorks, but she does say a lot about Executive Outcomes. And she also writes about Koidu where the DiamondWorks mine was located and about the surrounding province of Kono.

Elizabeth Rubin approaches the story of how Executive Outcomes came to be involved in the war from a slightly different angle than does Roger Moody, but her version of what happened is completely compatible with his. According to her account, Branch Energy, which she identifies as a “mining firm,” was able to directly approach Valentine Strasser, then president of Sierra Leone, and working along with another company managed to persuade him to hire Executive Outcomes.

Describing the background against which the talks between Valentine Strasser and the mining companies took place, Elizabeth Rubin writes:

By 1995...rebels and renegade soldiers had overrun Sierra Leone’s diamond, bauxite, and titanium dioxide mines — locals and expatriates had been taken hostage; foreign investors had pulled out; tens of thousands of people had been maimed or killed; and one quarter of the prewar population of 4.5 million were living in overcrowded refugee camps.

Then she continues:

Strasser had heard about Executive Outcomes from articles in Newsweek and Soldier of Fortune recounting the company’s successful exploits in Angola a year earlier. But it was the British directors of Heritage Oil and Gas that had brought Executive Outcomes into Angola, and Branch Energy, a mining firm with interests in Sierra Leone and contacts within the presidential palace, who encouraged Strasser to hire Barlow ’s army. [Eeben Barlow, was the owner of Executive Outcomes] (478)

To this, Elisabeth Rubin adds a statement that will not be surprising to anyone who has read Roger Moody’s articles on mining in Sierra Leone or who is generally familiar with the practices of small mining companies.

The directors of the Heritage-Branch group and Executive Outcomes have managed to cloud the exact nature of their relationship behind a web of interlocking companies whose ownership is difficult to trace. Even Heritage-Branch officials have a hard time keeping the story straight: they claim that there’s no coporate link but constantly refer to Executive Outcomes in conversation as “we.”(478)

According to Elizabeth Rubin, in late April, 1995 a contract was signed by Valentine Strasser and “the founder of Heritage and Branch, an English entrepreneur named Anthony Buckingham.” She does not explain how Tony Buckingham came to have — apparently — the authority to represent Executive Outcomes, but she is clearly implying that he and “his” companies were intimately connected with the mercenary army. The government of Sierra Leone agreed to pay Executive Outcomes $15 million.

Almost in passing, Elizabeth Rubin mentions a fact which has to be of significance to anyone who is interested in the financial power of the mining industry and its willingness to use that power in any way necessary to gain access to mineral resources. She writes:

Strasser couldn’t pay the fee, so Buckingham agreed to bankroll the operation in exchange for future mining revenues.

Elizabeth Rubin offers a quite detailed statement of just what “services” they were paying for. The way she puts it makes it clear that in her opinion it was not the defense of the country but the protection of the mining companies that was the primary reason for the hiring of Executive Outcomes. Executive Outcomes, she says, agreed to

combat and destroy the “terrorist enemies of the state”; to restore internal security; and to help build and maintain an economic climate where new investment could be attracted and allowed to flourish.(478)

Once the contract had been signed, things happened quickly. In May, the first contingent of 170 Executive Outcomes soldiers arrived in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

Harper’s Magazine article contains a detailed description of just who the “soldiers of fortune” were.

The Executive Outcomes fighers were mostly black Angolans and Namibians...with an officer corps of white South Africans and a white Rhodesian brigadier; a collection of former spies, assassins and crack bush guerrillas, most of whom had served for fifteen to twenty years in South Africa’s most notorious counterinsurgency units. The soldiers were paid between $2000 and $7000 a month. Many were airlifted straight out of Angola where Executive Outcomes was still active. No passports were stamped, no customs procedures needed.(478)

Elizabeth Rubin provides some details about just what the soldiers brought with them.

The force came equipped with two MI17s and a M124 Hind-Russian helicopoter, gunships similar to American Apaches, an Andover casualty-evacuation aircraft, and fuelair explosives, bombs that suck out oxygen upon detonation, killing life within a square-mile radius. The men were outfitted in Sierra Leonian uniforms and supplied by the Sierra Leonian military with three armored personnel carriers fitted with 30-mm cannons and six Land Rovers mounted with antiaircraft guns, as well as ammunition, artillery, and Kalashnikovs.(478)

BDespite giving these details about materiel and personnel, Elizabeth Rubin says very little about what Executive Outcomes actually did in Sierra Leone. The information she does give creates the impression the mercenaries achieved their goals quickly and easily and that they were able to do this because of their greatly superior “firepower” — and also because of their extremely ruthlessness.

Elizabeth Rubin on Executive Outcomes’ actions in the Freetown area

When Executive Outcomes arrived in Sierra Leone, the RUF had advanced as far as the outskirts of the capital, Freetown. Their first job was to drive the rebels back. Here is what Elizabeth Rubin says about one aspect of that operation:

Albert Walker and Carl Alberts, two of South Africa’s most highly decorated air force pilots, who had been lured away from the South African army in 1993 by Executive Outcomes’ salaries (about $6,000 a month), paired up to fly air strikes that would fluch the rebels from the dense bush outside of Freetown. Before each mission, Arthur and Carl would flip a coin to see who got the more exciting job of manning the guns — fourbarreled 12.7 I’m Gatlings tucked away under the chopper’s turret. When the pilots told the Sierra Leone military commander that they were having difficulty distinguishing between the rebels and civilians camped under the impenetrable canopy of vines and trees, the reply was, “Kill everybody.” So they did.(478)

This anecdote is the only bit of real detail about Executive Outcomes actions that Elizabeth Rubin offers her readers. And, because it is just dropped into a rather vague and disjointed narrative, it doesn’t really help much to create a clear picture of how the mercenaries went about beating back the rebels. It does create the impression, though, that the Executive Outcomes soldiers were cruel and bloodthirsty — and that the commanding officers of the force were not the slightest bit concerned about large numbers of innocent civilians being machine-gunned from above.

The fact that this is the only piece of narrative detail makes it seem as if Elizabeth Rubin wants to paint a negative picture of Executive Outcomes’ role in the war. And such an intention also seems to be indicated by her citing the words and the opinions of an American woman, who was in Freetown, working with an aid organization, when Executive Outcomes arrived.

Martha Carey, an American who worked for Doctors Without Borders, recalled that during the early days of Executive Outcomes’s presence in Freetown she had only to see the helicpoters flying over her house to know that it was time to rush to the hospital and prepare or an influx of wounded. The pilots, she said, were racist killers with no interest in the country. Like Carey, the majority of aid workers in Sierra Leone believed that the South Africans’ actual mission was to extract and export the country’s diamond wealth.

Elizabeth Rubin on Executive Outcomes’s actions in Kono

After reading what Elizabeth Rubin has to say about Executive Outcomes’s actions around Freetown, her readers might feel she wants to portray Executive Outcomes in a negative light. Any such expectations would be quickly dispelled, however, by the tone and the content of the later parts of her article.

The only part of the country Elizabeth Rubin visited, apart from Freetown, was the eastern province of Kono, the major diamond mining district. And there, she focuses on the main city, Koidu, where Robert Friedland’s mining site was located. Here is her description of what Executive Outcomes did after securing the area around Freetown:

Executive Outcomes then headed for Kono, to cut off the financial pipeline the Foday Sankoh [the leader of the RUF] was using to support his rebel forces. (Throughout the war, rebels and soldiers had collaborated in slipping diamonds out along the decades-old smugglers’ trail that winds through the mountainous jungle into Guinea and Liberia.) To camouflage their identity, white soldiers on the ground blackened their faces, and at first Foday Sankoh’s rebels didn’t know what had hit them. Once Sankoh discovered who was killing so many of his men, he offered a reward to anyone who took a South African hostage or downed one of their helicopters. But the rebels were overwhelmed by Executive Outcomes’s superior firepower, and by the time the South Africans rolled into Koidu in June 1995, the rebels and renegade soldiers had scattered into the hills and all that remained in the town were dogs and vultures feeding off the corpses strewn about the streets.(478)

The first four sentences of this paragraph could make it seem as if the RUF were defeated and forced to abandon Koidu only after a prolonged struggle in the streets of Koidu and the surrounding jungle. Air support is mentioned but the suggestion is that the crucial fighting took place on the ground. The impression that that is how things went is quickly belied, however, by the final sentence. There, it is strongly suggested that Executive Outcomes continued, in Koidu, to use the same strategy that they had used around Freetown: flying over the rebel-held areas with helicopter gunships and killing everything that moves until there is no more movement. The use of the verb “roll in” certainly implies that Executive Outcomes met with no opposition when they finally entered Koidu, and the mention of the “corpses strewn about the streets” and being eaten by dogs makes it clear that the reason there was no opposition was that there was no one left alive.

Elizabeth Rubin’s description of the horrific scene this greeted the Executive Outcomes soldiers as they triumphiantly rolled into Koidu might have made some of her readers wonder if perhaps the mercenaries had made such quick work of Koidu with one of the fuel air bombs they had brought with them from South Africa. (Presumably these weapons do no damage at ground level to anything but the humans and animals who suffocate from a lack of oxygen.)

A. J. Venter on Fuel Air Bombs

In a book published in 2010, War Dog: Fighting Other People’s Wars: The Modern Mercenary in Combat, Al J. Venter, states that fuel air bombs were not used by Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone. He makes it clear, however, that the mercenary force was perfectly willing to use these weapons. In the context of a discussion of Executive Outcomes’s earlier involvement in the civil war in Angola, he writes:

In August 1993, Eeben Barlow [the founder and owner of Executive Outcomes] signed a multi-million dollar contract to train five thousand [Angolan] troops. Part of EO’s deal with the government was to help it acquire some of the more sophisticated items of weaponry which included thermobarics, or more commonly, fuel air explosives...

Several sources have since indicated...that the Luanda government employed enhanced blast/fuel air bombs in some of their battles against Savimbi [the leader of the Angolan rebels]...In all probablity, this was achieved with the remnants of an EO presence.

Certainly Executive Outcomes subsequently intended using thermobaric weapons against rebel strongpoints in the mountains near the Liberian border in Sierra Leone. I was present in Freetown when the implications of using fuelair bombs was discussed. But before that plan could be implemented, Executive Outcomes’ contract in Sierra Leone was cancelled. (504, 383)

Al Venter on the Sierra Leone civil war
•1• the value of Al Venter’s “War Dog”

The tidbit of information about the role — or the potential role — of thermobaric weapons in the Sierra Leone civil war would be of little importance if fuller, more reliable accounts were available. But it seems that no detailed reliable history of Executive Outcomes’ 1995 campaign exists and, so even these few sketchy, anectdotal sentences are valuable as an indication of what the truth of the matter might be.

There is also a great deal of other, related information in War Dog which has the same kind of value. Perhaps other accounts of the campaign will be written in the future; perhaps earlier ones will come to light; but for the moment this first-hand report seems to be all we have. At one point in his book Al Venter himself acknowledges the lack of information about the campaign. Writing about a later Executive Outcomes campaign at Soyo, in Angola, and drawing a comparison with the Sierra Leone campaign, he says:

While the battle for Soyo ranks right up there with Executive Outcomes having pushed Sierra Leone’s rebels from the precincts of Freetown, not much has appeared in print about either of these events, even though a lot of lives — the majority of them enemy — were lost in the process. (504, 387)

To this statement Al Venter adds the following sentence:

What has been published so far about this extended African campaign has either been fragmentary or inaccurate, or in one notable instance, plagiarized.(504, 387)

He seems to be suggesting here that war writing — especially writing done during the war or shortly after — is bound to be, in a way, a part of the war itself: a matter of taking sides, distorting the truth, perhaps even “violently” seizing someone else’s work and using it for one’s own purposes. If that is true, War Dog may be as good a source of information as one can expect.

There is another problem though, from the point of view of anyone mainly interested in the Executive Outcomes campaign of 1995: in War Dog, Al Venter focuses almost exclusively on the later stages of the Sierra Leone civil war. He mentions the earlier campaign frequently, but it is never his main subject. It is clear enough though that, in general terms, much can be learned about the earlier campaign by reading about the later one. In both cases, mercenaries were using the same tactics and the same weapons against the same enemy. And Al Venter’s “hero,” the South African helicopter pilot Neal Ellis, fought in both campaigns. Some passages from War Dog dealing with tactics and weapons are quoted and discussed in Section (2) below.

In War Dog Al Venter also has a good deal to say about the role played by business — in particular the mining industry and the arms trade — in provoking and sustaing the Sierra Leonean civil war. Passages containing this type of material are quoted and discussed in Section (3) below.

Even more generally there is a good deal of material in War Dog which suggests that the mercenaries fighting in Sierra Leone typically adhered to a racist “ideology” and were quick to appeal to it in an attempt to justify their own violence. Passages from War Dogs which reveal this mind-set are quoted and discussed in Section (4) below.

•2• the mercenaries’ tactics and the weapons they used

Al Venter was, as he says, in Sierra Leone during the first phases of the civil war. Apparently, however, he did not then have the sort of contact with day-to-day fighting that he had during later stages when, working as a reporter, he regularly rode into combat in a helicopter gunship. That was long after Executive Outcomes had left Sierra Leone. But Al Venter does tell one revealing story about how Executive Outcomes dealt with the RUF in 1995 — a story which also gives an indication of the complex and far-reaching involvement of international elements in the war. (The two “machines” he mentions in the first sentence of the following quote are both Rusian-made helicopter gunships).

Compared to the ubiquitous Mi-17 Hip, the Soviet Mi-24 Hind — obviously intended for a totally different combat role — is a superior machine. It is more versatile, more aerodynamic and, with a maximum speed of roughly two hundred miles an hour ... a good deal faster than the Hip. Those who know the machine are aware that, like the American Apache, its aviators sit in tandem under a pair of front bubbles, the pilot positioned behind and slightly above his gunner...

Executive Outcomes’ salvation arrived in the shape of the former Soviet pilot Nikolai Kagouk, a much-decorated veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. He’d spent years at the controls of Mi-24s hammering Islamic fundamentalists in the mountains adjacent to Pakistan. However, the hard-drinking Kagouk could speak no English and the best that the South Africans could muster in Russian were “nyet” and “Stolnichnaya,” though never consecutively or immediately before a flight.

A solution was found when a diplomat arrived at Cockerill accompanied by the Russian-speaking wife of a Lebanese trader. She immediately offered her services as an interlocutor. As far as Executive Outcomes was concerned, the woman was a godsend.

Originally hailing from the Ukraine, this unusual woman was immediately dubbed “Madam Cherobyl” because her home was in that area. The crews would joke that when she walked past a television set the screen would go fuzzy because of the amount of radioactivity in her body.

With steely determination, Madam Chernobyl surprised everyone by getting the library of Moscow’s Embassy in Freetown involved in the exercise. In no time she was able to master the intricacies of Russian aeronautical dynamics and interpret results in a way that the South Africans could understand. In a sense, she’d assumed the roles of both flight instuctor and engineer. She also translated into English all the factory manuals that had arrived from Moscow in Cyrillic script. It says something that they were still on Nellis’s [the nickname of the helicopter pilot, Neal Ellis] desk years later. Long after Executive Outcomes had departed, he’d call her whenever he was stumped and she’d come down to Cockerill and sort it out. (504, 490)

Al Venter’s claim that Nikolai Kagouk was the “salvation” of Executive Outcomes perhaps explains how it was possible for Executive Outcomes to drive back the RUF so quickly in 1995. It seems that one helicopter gunship, operated by a skillful and relentless pilot, unconcerned about how many civilians he is killing, is enough to win a war — or at least to control the course of the battle for an extended period.

There are other remarks in War Dogs which add weight to the possibility that, in Al Venter’s mind at least, helicopter gunships were the key weapon in the war. At one point, for example, describing Neal Ellis’ exploits in the later years of the war, he says:

For two years Nellis’ lone helicopter gunship was about all the majority of the population had on which to precariously pin their hopes. (504, 28)

And Al Venter also offers some quite detailed descriptions of the particular tactics used by the gunship pilots. These details help to understand how such small mercenary forces were able to have such a large effect on the course of the war. For example:

The crew soon settled into something of a routine. Either Nellis would spot for targets, or Hassan or Schenks [the crew members] would report something suspicious below [and then the shooting would begin] ...

Following a tradition that has become standard in many Third World wars, this South African pilot [“Nellis”] rarely moved about the operational area at anything but treetop height. Traveling just above the foliage at [300 km per hour] was routine, though he would often raise the nose of the machine slightly once the scrap was on. This tactic could be hairy. A British Special Forces observer based at Cockerill’s operations center went up several times in the Hind and he surmised that going into action with Nellis was a bit like flying into Germany with the Dambusters during World War II. The same officer returned to base after one particularly hectic foray over Makeni to inform us that the altimeter had almost constantly reistered zero. (504, 44)

Nellis did not always fly low at high speed however. That was presumably his technique when he was hunting down rebels in the country-side. When he was attacking a rebel-held town, he apparently hovered instead, even when there was a risk of being shot down by shoulder launched surface-to-air missiles. Al Venter was so frightened by on one mission in which Nellis hovered for a long time over the town of Makeni that he refused to go along on any further missions into that area. Commenting, somewhat critically on Nellis’ personality, he says:

Nellis was hardly a braggart; he simply wasn’t that sort of person. British pilots who flew with him and spent time in his company would tell you that Nellis was among the most self-effacing individuals they’d met. As one of them commented, “He’s a very atypical war hero...”

Some of the things he did frightened me, and in the end there were operations that I preferred to sit out. Questions lingered about the way Nellis operated, like when he went in repeatedly against a variety of targets at Makeni and elsewhere. He did so without regard for Manpads [shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles], which military intelligence had repeatedly warned us the rebels had acquired. Still, he’d sometimes hover interminably over rebel concentrations, some of whom must have had us in their sights.(504, 68)

Reading this, it becomes easier to understand how, several years earlier, Executive Outcomes was able to drive the RUF back from Freetown within a few weeks and then go on to quickly recapture Robert Friedland’s diamond mine in Koidu — as well as the “Sierra Rutile” titanium mine belonging to Jean-Raymond Boulle. [¿ check dates, locations, etc] Elizabeth Rubin reports that “rolling in” to Koidu, just two months after arriving in the country, Executive Outcomes soldiers found no one alive, but saw only corpses and the dogs that were eating them. She makes no attempt to explain this situation however. And so, it is natural for a reader — especially a reader unfamiliar with the typical tactics of modern mercenaries — to wonder whether the mercenaries did, perhaps, explode one of their fuel-air bombs over Koidu and then somehow manage to conceal their outrageous use of this terrible weapon from the rest of world. However, a slightly less ignorant reader who came to Elizabeth Rubin’s article after reading Al Venter’s War Dog would make no such mistake. Executive Outcomes had no need for a fuel-air bomb at Koidu and no reason to risk its reputation by drawing the attention of the rest of the world to what was happening in Sierra Leone. One helicopter gunship hovering persistently over the town and shooting everything that moved could surely have emptied Koidu of living human beings within a week. And it could have done so without any fear of detailed reports appearing in Western media.

And here is a passage which contains disturbing hints about just how these tactics of flying low and hovering worked so well against the rebel soldiers. (It also provides revealing details about the guns that the gunship carried. And it gives further evidence of the awe-inspiring power of a single helicopter flown by a skillful mercenary; it suggests, in fact, that the Sierra Leone government may have cancelled Executive Outcomes’ contract, not so much because they couldn’t afford to pay their high fees as because they realized that, with the right weapon, “Nellis” and his two-man crew were just as effective as an entire Executive Outcomes “army.”)

And the war dragged on. On two occasions the rebels fought their way to within spitting distance of the gates of Freetown. Both times RUF forces were beaten back by a single helicopter gunship flown by Nellis, the government’s lone South African mercenary pilot. Far from their own supply lines running out of Liberia — but protected by enough heavy weapons to start another war — the rebels did not have the proper weaponry to counter Nellis’ airborne firepower. Our gunship had a 57mm rocket pod under each of its winglets together with a four-barreled 12.77mm Gatling Gun System mounted in the nose. The latter could fire nearly four thousand rounds a minute. It was impressive to behold such a weapon from a distance, as we sometimes did when we’d touch down in a town and Nellis would have us stay on the ground while he “cleaned up” outside. His favorite tactic was to fire tquad in half-second bursts. That alone was enough to tear-up everything in its path and a good reason why the Gatling was always the most feared weapon dominating Sierra Leone’s skies.(504, 32)

Al Venter does not say anything about just what this “cleaning up” involved, but, in light of other information in War Dogs, it is reasonable to assume it means that once he was out of sight of the sympathetic journalist, and his own crew members, he flew low over the area surrounding the town systematically slaughtering everyone, friend and foe alike, who had fled while the helicopter was hovering over the town itself.

•3•  the role of the mining industry

Al Venter says nothing in War Dog about Robert Friedland or Jean-Raymond Boulle, the two Canadian-based mining promoters whose properties were lost to the RUF in 1995, then recaptured and returned to their former owners by Executive Outcomes in 1995. In fact, he says nothing specific about any mining companies or mining promoters. [¿ check this] There is much in his book, however, that attests, in a general way, to the enormous role played by the mining industry in starting the war and keeping it going. For one thing he emphasizes the role played by the Liberian government and the Liberian president, Charles Taylor. He also emphasizes the extent to which individual mercenaries were involved in the diamond trade. Moreover, as Al Venter makes clear, these mercenaries came from many parts of the world and were willing to fight on either side. All these themes are touched on in the following quote.

We now know that the RUF employed Russian, Ukrainian, South African and other African mercenaries. Deployed operationally, many of these people were responsible for combat command and control as well as logistics and communications... The “hired guns” were not working their trade for free. Virtually ever mercenary wielding a rifle or piloting a craft was also into diamonds, which was what the fighting was about. President Taylor’s cut was about one half of the gemstones carried, flown or shipped across the border. His take was so large it explains why, within the comparatively short time of three or four years, Liberia emerged in London, Johannesburg, Antwerp, and Tel Aviv as a diamond exporting country of some significance.(504, 31)

The foregoing passage might suggest that the mercenaries were dealing in diamonds in an individual, free-lance way, buying or stealing when the opportunity presented itself, then selling them discreetly to dealers in Freetown or Monrovia or taking them home to sell in South Africa or Europe. It is likely that such things were happening, but as the following passage makes clear, large-scale “legitimate” business was flourishing at the same time

While the rebels attached to Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) did not have an air force of their own, they made do with what they could cadge from those who supported their cause. As we were to constantly observe from radio intercepts, there were a number of foreigners who backed Sankoh’s revolt and they were not averse to using their more sophisticated hardware when it suited their purposes. An occasional Mi-8 flown by South African and Russian mercenaries would slip into Sierra Leone airspace from Liberia, usually headed for rebel outposts in the northern part of the country.(504, 26) (504, 26)

The ostensible object of these flights [by mercenaries] was to haul men and materials, but the real reason behind [the presence of the mercenaries] was diamonds. Tens of millions of dollars in raw stones were being illegally mined under rebel supervision in the northern Kono region. The rebel-backed helicopter gunships zipped in and out of the country, fast and low, to snatch large diamond parcels. The existence of Sierra Leone’s precious stones was the primary reason Liberian President Charles Taylor provided the RUF with military support. A cunning and ruthless operator, Taylor — who had come to power after a lengthy civil war — had but one purpose in mind: helping the rebels to take Freetown. By doing so, all of Sierra Leone’s diamond fields would eventually come under his control.(504, 26)

The statement that “tens of millions of dollars in raw stones were being illegally mined under rebel supervision in the northern Kono region is bound to raise questions in the mind of anyone interested in the fate of Robert Friedland’s diamond fields in Koidu. It is not clear, for one thing, whether or not the area Al Venter refers to as “the northern Kono region” actually includes Koidu. But even if it does not — and Koidu is considerably closer to the northern border of the state than to the southern — what Al Venter says raises the possibility that Robert Friedland’s diamond fields were once again captured by the rebels after Executive Outcomes left Sierra Leone but that he somehow continued to operate his business, by conniving with the rebels and by shipping their diamonds to Liberia and selling them there. This is only a conjecture of course, but, if Al Venter’s claims about the extent of diamond extraction during the war are true, it is not an implausible one. Obviously the rebels did not have the expertise or the infrastructure that would have been required to set themselves up in the mining business; the natural way for them to support their struggle would have been to allow the foreign miners to continue working and to collect “taxes” from them. To considerations like these, one more must be added: after the war finally ended in 2001, Robert Friedland’s company, DiamondWorks was mining diamonds in Koidu — and continued to do so at least for a few years longer. [¿ check facts and make more precise, add note]

•4•  racism

There is a definite undercurrent of racism in War Dog. That doesn’t mean that the book itself, or its author, could fairly be described as “racist.” It is not a book about race; in fact, that subject is not even one of its minor themes. War Dog is about the post-colonial wars in Sierra Leone and Angola, and about the mercenaries who fought on both sides. Moreover, its author, Al Venter seems to be an honest, moral human being; he certainly shows no sign of wanting to persuade his readers, explicitly, that white Europeans are intellectually and morally superior to black Africans. The racism in War Dog is implicit. Its author’s racism is not something specific to him as an individual; it is a consequence of his being the sort of person he is, of the sort of life he has led. And the racism of the book itself is a consequence of its being the kind of book it is, of having the subject matter that it has: It would be impossible to write a book which glamorizes the mercenaries — as War Dog does — and which is intended — as War Dog is — to appeal to readers who are susceptible to that sort of glamorization, without to some extent adopting a racist outlook.

Al Venter’s racism and the racism of the mercenaries he writes about is most clearly revealed in passages where he attempts to justify the mercenaries’ violence by claiming that the RUF rebels were guilty of much worse and that therefore killing them as quickly and efficiently as possible was justifiable and necessary:

In retrospect, the Sierra Leone experience was neither as odious nor as repulsive as I might have expected, even though, on a day-to-day, sortie-by-sortie basis, we were able to account for sizable numbers of the enemy. It is also true that none of us felt anything for those who came into our sights, if only because Nellis was eliminating the same bloody cretins who were systematically mutilating children. In this regard it was telling that when we’d return to Freetown after a flight and people asked us whether we’d been successful, they would embrace us no matter how we answered. Each one of them was aware of the dreadful stories that emerged each day from the jungle that encroached to the edges of this huge suppurating connurbation. (504, 27-28)

In this paragraph, racism is revealed, in the first place by taking the “mutilations” as emblematic of the entire decade-long rebellion. The implicit claim that the amputations typified the rebels tactics is unmistakenly suggested by the reference to “the same bloody cretins:” The only way a mercenary helicopter pilot could be sure that he was killing the people who had been cutting off arms and legs — and only those people — would be if he believed that all the rebels were guilty of such outrages. It seems, though, that the amputations were mainly restricted to two outbursts: the first took place during the election campaign of 1996 [¿get reference and check date, ]; the second, later in the war when out-of-control soldiers and civilians who joined them rampaged through the countryside near Freetown [¿get reference and check date, ]. In the first case, the amputations had a political “point” — the RUF was opposed to the holding of elections which they saw as an attempt on the government’s part to legitimize itself and so weaken support for the rebels. In the second case, the amputation campaign emerged from a background of urban chaos and the perpetrators, many of whom were teenagers, were driven by hunger and fear. Of course, the facts that the amputation campaigns were sporadic and touched off by extreme circumstances do nothing to reduce their horror, but they do show how suspect is the idea that they typify the whole long and complex struggle — and therefore, how suspect is any attempt to use the amputations to justify the mercenaries’ ruthlessness.

The racism of the paragraph appears most blatantly, however, in the description of the rebels as “mindless cretins.” This is clearly an instance of a standard racist slur— a matter of light-skinned “Europeans” claiming that dark-skinned Africans are congenitally of low intelligence. (Medically speaking a “cretin” is a person who is mentally handicapped because of a congenital thyroid deficiency. In informal English, though, the word just means “a stupid person.”)

The statement that “none of us felt anything for those who came into our sights” — in other words those who were being killed — is also revealing. It indicates a degree of callousness that is hard to understand as anything but a sign of the racist conviction that those of another race are so profoundly inferior that they do not really qualify as human beings. (According to the “enlightened” European tradition at any rate even murderers who have been tried and convicted are worthy of respect and pity simply because they are human beings.)

Al Venter’s use of the word “suppurating” — it refers to a wound or sore that is giving off pus — is also noteworthy. In using it, he is suggesting that the capital of Sierra Leone is disgusting in some way that goes beyond the poverty and disease that would be expected in the war-torn capital of a poor country. And, given the more or less explicit racism that is sprinkled through War Dog, it is natural to interpret the choice of words here as an indication of the belief that, simply because of their race, the natives of Freetown were “infected” with intellectual and moral weaknesses.

There is more explicit racism in the paragraph that follows:

By the time that I became involved, the ground war had been going on for several years. Casualties had been heavy on both sides ... We had little doubt about the nature of the enemy. As one UN observer succinctly explained in an off-the-record briefing. “The majority of the rebels are mindless cretins who make a fetish of cutting off the limbs of children.” He went on to declare the rebels “simple-minded bastards,” some of whom, he explained, believed such actions were appropriate when they needed to amuse themselves during a slow day in the jungle.(504, 28)

The sentence “We had little doubt about the nature of the enemy,” taken in isolation would be innocent enough; it could refer merely to the “enemy’s” tactics or their courage or their motivation. But taken in combination with what follows, it becomes clear that the “nature” being referred to is racial inferiority. Once again the RUF fighters are called “cretins;” and this time, as if to rub in the charge of stupidity, not “bloody” cretins but “mindless” ones. This time, though, the racism is not presented as being Al Venter’s; it is attributed instead to an unnamed “UN observer.” Was there really such a UN observer? If so, did he, or she, really hold an “off-the-record briefing” and really such openly racist language? Would not someone holding such a responsible position — whatever his or her private views — be afraid of damaging their own reputation and the reputation of the august institution that employed them by making remarks so sharply at odds with the spirit of the United Nations? Is it possible that Al Venter has invented the observer and the meeting to give himself an excuse for repeating something he has already said — and perhaps to justify his own outlook by showing that it has official support?

Whoever is actually speaking here, there is no doubt that these remarks exhibit the same brand of racism that is found in the preceding paragraph. But it is now expressed in such a raw manner as to make it seem almost sexual, or at least “libidnal.” Certainly, it is difficult, reading this paragraph not to suspect that the writer — whether he is expressing his own ideas or someone else’s is deriving some sort of pleasure from imagining the violence he describes and imagining, perhaps that what the RUF did to its victims justifies doing even worse things to the RUF. The word “fetish” is also perhaps symptomatic, not just of racism but also of the sexual tinge it seems to take on in these passages. The word “fetish” has several senses; loosely it is used to refer to any object or activity that has a strong non-rational grip on someone. We can speak, for example, of someone having a fetish for getting up early in the morning or listening to the six-o’clock news ever evening. More specifically and more usefully, however, the word is used to refer an activity or object that becomes a substitute for ordinary sexual activity. Allegations of sexual excess and depravity are another standard racial slur and so when the word is used here, so casually and unnecessarily, it seems to be yet another imputation of racial inferiority.

The strongest hint of racism in this paragraph is perhaps in the word “majority.”Here we do not need to make any conjectures to the effect that Al Venter is “implying” that most, if not all, the rebels were guilty of cutting off children’s arms and legs. He actually says — through the words of the UN observer, that that was so. Even, as is almost certainly not the case, the amputations continued at a steady pace throughout the long war, it is beyond belief that the majority of the rebels participated (let alone one hundred percent as was implied by the earlier allegation): the estimates of the number of victims vary between 2,500 and 6,000 [¿ cite NewYorker article get number of RUF]. Apparently Al Venter is so determined to show that willingness to engage in insane savagery was an inherent characteristic of the of the “enemy” that he willing to support his argument with obviously false statements.

And then,the paragraph ends with a final touch: It is suggested that the rebels habitually went about mutilating people just because they were bored and needed some amusement. Apparently Al Venter wants his readers to believe that, on top of being stupid and evil, the rebels were mainly interested in having fun. And here we come up against an especially vicious version of another standard racist slur: the idea that black Africans are good at singing, dancing and playing games, but nothing else. For native speakers of English at least the phrase, “a slow day in the jungle” is also likely to be seen as containing a hint of racism. For someone who works in a shop, “a slow day” is a day with few customers; so in making his point in this way Al Venter is suggesting that the rebel soldiers had no idea of the seriousness of what they were doing. And he heightens his facetious and contemptuous tone by his unnecessary reference to the jungle where the fighting was taking place. For some reason racists making jokes about black Africans like to picture them as being truly at home only in a jungle.

In all the examples discussed so far the racism is implicit. It requires interpretation to bring it to the surface — and interpretations can always be questioned . There are several points in War Dog where the unquestionably racist lable “gook” is used to refer to the RUF soldiers. There are occasions in War Dog, however where explicitly racist vocabulary is used in a way that leaves no room for misinterpretation. Al Venter doesn’t actually use the word himself but he repeatedly puts it into the mouths of the mercenaries in a way that creates the impression he would happily use it themselves in their company. One telling example is in the following passage which describes an action over the town of Mange where Ellis had taken his helicopter to give support to government the troop who were being attacked by heavily armed “Kamajors” — traditional hunters whom the government had armed and enlisted to fight on their side.

In his debrief Nellis explained the action: “I had a good idea where all this was happening. Headquarters had indicated that it was somewhere along the road to Mange”... the truck [which Ellis had spotted a moment earlier]... stood our sharply against the red gravel road, throwing up dust as it raced down. “You couldn’t miss it.”.

Apart from two or three people sitting in the vehicle’s cab with the driver, another rebel with an AK [an auitomatic rifle] was balanced perilously on the hood, right up front. There were a half a dozen or more of them clustered around the anti-aircraft gun in the back.

“That promised trouble,” said Nellis. “I had to get us in and out again quickly. Fortunately, I saw them before they spotted us.”

The gunship fired first. Nellis could see that the driver — suddenly aware of our approach — reacted smartly by slamminng on his brakes. Unexpetedly, it had the effect of hurling the man on the hood headlong into the road ahead. Then in what must have been a moment of panic, the driver put his foot down hard and drove over the prostate figure. Nellis recalled seeing the truck lurch twice as two sets of wheels went over his body. By now both our gunners were firing independently.

The enemy — “gooks” as the guys referred to them — kept emerging from the bush below, desperate on escape...

For more than an hour we were in the air exchanging fire. Nellis would often carve a wide arc with the Hind, gaining a bit of height to better observe the terrain below before taking us in again low and fast. Depending on priorities, he would turn, level out and send in a line of rockets or perhaps use the heavy machine gun. The boys at the back would follow up with their GPMGs [an acronym for “general purpose machine gun”]each time we banked and the routine would be repeated two, three or more times depending on circumstances...Nellis would hammer away until he was satisfied that whatever he was targeting was destroyed.(504, 43-44, bolding by

The Oxford online dictionary gives two definitions of “gook:”

(1) a person of Philippine, Korean or Vietnamese descent

(2) a sloppy wet or viscous substance

This dictionary labels the first use as informal and offensive and says its origin, dated in the 1930s, is unknown.

The American Heritage Dictionary also gives two definitions:

(1) A dirty, sludgy or slimy substance.

(2) An Oriental. An offensive term used derogatorily.

This dictionary suggests that the the origin of the second meaning of “gook” might be a Scottish word “gowk” referring to a simpleton.

Here are two more occurrences of “gook.” On both occasions the words of a mercenary are being quoted:

Another time we came on some gooks with their weapons lying on one side tending to their buddies who had been wounded. There were no survivors from that bunch. (504, 520)

Neither dictionary suggests any connection between the two meanings of “gook,” but it is natural to suspect that its use to refer to an undesirable “ foreigner” is a metaphorical extension of its use to refer to something slimy or viscous. Such substances are often disgusting — especially when associated with dirt or decay. And, likewise, racists often portray the objects of their hatred and contempt as being disgusting. (The word “scum,” which literally means — according to the Oxford Online — “a layer of dirt or froth on the surface of liquid,” is commonly used in English with the meaning of a contemptible or disgusting person or group of people.)


But somehow the bastards got wind of the strike and the gooks had fled. (504, 506)

And finally a quotation from the hero of War Dog himself:

For his part in the action, Nellis admits to killing “a shithouse full of gooks” with his Hind. (504, 135)

• 5 •  the political context

The racist content of War Dog is real enough, and it presumably reflects the racist mentality of the mercenary soldiers and the executives of the companies that employed them. However, the underlying racism of the book may not be inspired so much by a genuine belief that black Africans are morally and intellectually inferior to ethnic Europeans as by a desire to conceal the economic and political roots of the war. The real purpose of the government/mercenary forces, which eventually triumphed , may not have been so much to protect “Western civilization” and its “values” from the “savages” who were trying to take over the country as to gain control over natural resources. Certainly, there is a good deal of evidence indicating that this is so. In particular, there is the fact that the idea of hiring Executive Outcomes was originally suggested by mining interests closely connected with Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle. [¿ footnote to Elizabeth Rubin article ] There is also the fact that the powers backing the RUF — the Liberian president Charles Taylor and the diamond dealers and arms traders that surrounded him — were obviously fighting for money and power. It would be surprising to discover that the two sides in such a war had completely different goals. So it seems reasonable to suspect that the element of racism on among those opposing the RUF was largely a matter of “camouflage.” If so it seems to have been effective: the greed and power-hunger of the RUF and their Liberian supporters was well publicized in the Western press during and after the war, but the role played by the foreign mining companies supporting the pro-Western side seems to have gone unnoticed.

At one point at least, however, Al Venter does at least hint at the possibility that there were factors motivating the mercenaries other than the admirable desire to stop “ savages” from mutilating other savages. In writing affectionately about “Nellis” he digresses for a moment to speak of fighting in Angola twenty years earlier.

We had flown together twenty years earlier during the bloody Angolan War. In those days he [Ellis] flew a French-built Alouette helicopter... In those days the gunships were flown [by pilots who had] made a name for themselves in a conflict that escalated several notches beyond a simple counterinsurgency. Their goal was to oppose the aggressive activities conducted by communist forces led by Fidel Castro’s Cuban Army and Air Force. The operations in that remote southern African theater took the form of irregular battles that one rarely read about in news reports of the day.(504, 25-26)

When he is writing about the fighting in Sierra Leone Al Venter is ready to state quite bluntly that both sides were mainly motivated by greed. When he is writing about the earlier Angolan War, however, he seems ready — on this one occasion at least — to accept the old Cold War idea that all military conflicts can be explained in terms of the struggle between communists and the defenders of freedom. By the time the Sierra Leone civil war began, however, in 1991, the Cold War had ended and that explanation was no longer plausible.

Matthew McClearn of Canadian Businsess on the later history of DiamondWorks

In an article appearing in Canadian Business in June 2003, Matthew McClearn discusses the history and the future prospects of DiamondWorks, the company Robert Friedland and Jean-Raymond Boulle founded in 1996 after having sold Diamond Fields to INCO.

January 2000, Baia Mare, Romania

At 10:00 p.m. on January 30, 2000, there was a rupture in a reservoir dam near the village of Bozinta Mare close to the city of Baia Mare in northern Romania. As a result, approximately a hundred thousand cubic meters of cyanide-laced water flowed into the countryside and from there into the Szamos River. Measurements taken at the time when the “plume” of poisoned water reached the river showed amounts of cyanide levels that were more than 700 times the permitted levels. Farther downstream, in Hungary, the plume passed into the Tisza River, a major tributary of the Danube River which flows across central and eastern Europe and into the Black Sea. Along the Tisza, the effects of the cyanide spill were catastrophic. Within a few days, the whole ecosystem of the river was wiped out. Six hundred and fifty metric tons of dead fish were pulled from the river. Other animals that eat fish — foxes, otters, ospreys — also died. Jozsef Feiler, a Hungarian environmentalist was quoted by the BBC as saying:

Everything down to the bacteria is dead. There’s more life in a sewage channel than in this river now. Nothing is alive. Zero.

According to the same article sixty-two species of fish were affected. Among these were twenty protected species, unique to this particular environment. There were fears that some of these had been made extinct.

Apart from the damage done to the natural life along the river, the spill also had a direct affect on human beings. The water supplies of two-and-a-half million people were affected and the 15,000 people who had been working in the river’s fishing industry suddenly found themselves unemployed.

Before the accident, the Tisza River had been one of the cleanest rivers in Europe and plans were underway to have the area placed under The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, an international treaty whose purpose is the preservation of wetlands of international importance. But after the accident that plan had to be abandoned: biologists estimated that it would take between ten and twenty years for the river to come back to life.

A stretch of the Tisza River also flows through Serbia. The environmental damage there was not as severe as in Hungary, but even so eighty percent of the aquatic life was destroyed.

A mining company called “Aural” — jointly owned by the the Romanian government and an Australian mining company, Esmeralda, was responsible for the cyanide spill. Aural was not engaged in normal mining activity. They were operating in the city of Baia Mare in northern Romania. There is a long history of gold mining in the Baia Mare region and there were abandoned mine pits and tailings on the edge of the city. They were an environmental hazard: the tailings were giving off small particles of poisonous heavy metals that were floating through the air and getting into people’s homes.(277) Esmeralda had been hired by the Romanian government on the understanding that they would solve the pollution problem. In return, they were given the licence to use the pit leaching method to recover the remaining gold from the tailings. Their procedure was to build a reservoir in the nearby countryside, move the tailings into the reservoir and then treat them with cyanide. It was the dam around this reservoir that ruptured and allowed the laden water to escape.

The Romanian government and Esmeralda apparently attempted to keep the spill a secret. In any case, according to a BBC report the story only became international news when Hungarian fishermen on the Tisza River began to notice more and more dead fish. (277) Even after the spill became an international news story, Aural refused to admit that they were to blame for what happened. They insisted that the bursting of the dam around the reservoir had been caused by an extraordinarily heavy snowfall which they could not possibly have anticipated. Even after meteorologists pointed out that although there had been a very heavy snowfall just before the reservoir ruptured, the company refused to take responsibility.

When the Hungarian government realized the seriousness of the situation in their country, they demanded compesnsation from the mine’s owners and the Romanian government. Despite this demand, despite all the evidence that the cyanide had killed all aquatic life in the Hungarian stretch of the Tisza, despite the ban on drinking water from the river, the Romanian government and the Australian owners of Esmeralda, played down the link between the spill and the dead fish downstream. Brett Montgomery, the chairman of Esmeralda, was quoted as saying that the reports of the numbers of dead fish were a “gross exaggeration.” He said that he did not expect that any compensation claims would be successful and went on to make the following statement.(278)

To date we have no evidence to suggest that reports of dead fish in Hungary, some 75 kilometers from the company’s plant in Romania are attributable to the overflow. These claims cause me considerable scepticism. It is most unlikely that given the volume of water and the distance travelled the cyanide levels would be such to cause poisoning. In fact it’s quite possible that a number of unrelated events could be responsible.

In mid-February, slightly more than two weeks after the spill, Margot Wallstrom, who was at that the time the Environment Commissioner of the European Union, visited the affected areas in Hungary. While she was there she made a statement criticizing Esmeralda for trying to play down damage. She said: (279)

[Esmeralda has] to be prudent in what they are saying. This is a serious environmental accident. For the people who depend on this water, it is a catasrophe.

Despite this criticism from such a high-level authority, Brett Montgomery continued to refuse to admit that his company had any responsibility for what had happened. He was quoted as saying: (279)

Quite clearly there has been contamination of parts of the river system in the region, and my heart goes out to those who may be suffering. I stress, however, that there is no evidence to confirm that the contamination and the damage said to have been caused is as a result of the tailings dam overflow.

The Romanian government seemed even more determined to avoid responsibility. Petre Marinescu, the Director of the Romanian Water Commission was apparently willing to deny that any fish had been killed. He insisted that the fish were merely suffering from the attempts of some “authorities” to neutralize the cyanide with bleach. He said: (279)

They poured a certain amount of sodium hypochlorite into the Lapus river to neutralize the cyanide. Now this substance contains also unbound chlorine, and it was the latter, probably, that made the fish dizzy and look as if they had been poisoned.

According to a report on the Toxipedia website, updated in March 2011, eleven years after the spill, fish had slowly returned to the Tisza and, by that point they were almost as numerous as they had been before the accident. There were still fewer species than there had been however, and no commercial fishing was allowed. Aural had continued to operate but under a new name, “Transgold.” The company was still using cyanide to harvest gold from the old tailings. The residents of Bozinta Mare, the village adjacent to the reservoir, had received some compensation, but the residents of other affected areas had got nothing. This report also gives a more detailed explanation of the cause of the accident than was available earlier. It makes it clear that, weather conditions were the immediate cause of the disaster: there had been an unusual amount of precipitation, including snow, throughout the winter, and then, in the days before the accident, the weather suddenly turned sunny and warm, causing a great deal of water to accumulate in the reservoir and a great great deal of pressure to be applied to the dam around it. The report also makes it clear, however, that, if the reservoir had been properly built, the dam would have been able to withstand the pressure. 286

October 2010 and January 2012: the Ahafo mine, Ghana

Newmont’s Afaho gold mine is located in central Ghana, about (290 kilometers) northwest of Accra. It began operating in 2006. In 2010 it produced more than 15,000 kilograms of gold and at the end of that year, it claimed to be holding more than 280,000 kilograms of reserves at the site. Newwmont is the sole owner of the Ahafo mine.(78)

On October 8, 2010, an “operations pond” containing cyanide-laced water overflowed into another pond which was already full because of ongoing maintenance work. At first Newmont believed that they had managed to “contain” the spill on the site. The next day, (&iqs;)however, it was discovered that some of the cyanide-laced water had escaped into a “diversion channel” that led to “environmental control dams.” These dams were presumably being used, during the rainy season, to hold back clean water that had been released from the mine site. The diversion channel passes through some low-lying areas that become swamps during the rainy season and it was in those swamps that, on October 10, hundreds of dead fish were found. The swampy areas ore on public land — or at least on land that had been made accessible to the public. Newmont agreed that the fish had been poisoned by cyanide from its mine and paid $4.9 million in compensation to the Ghanaian government.(291) Newmont explained the cyanide spill as the result of an instrument malfunction. They insisted that apart from the dead fish. The company also reported that, starting on October 11 they had tested the water downstream from the dam and found that, although there was some cyanide present, it was “below laboratory detection limits.” The company also announced that it had “implemented a number of corrective measures to ensure an accidental release of this nature does not happen again.”

However, despite the compensation payments, the promises, and the fact that there were apparently no further damage to the environment or to human life, the Ghanaian government was not willing to let the matter drop immediately. In a report completed on December 31, 2009 they criticized Newmont, first, for using several water-holding ponds at the same time and, second, for not having promptly notified either the downstream communities or the regularly authorities of the spill. (291) In a separate report from the Ghanaian Environmental Protection Agency, Newmont was also accused of not having informed their own environmental manager of the spill, an oversight which led to the failure to properly test downstream water immediately after the spill. Furthermore, according to this report:

The company’s inability to inform the regulatory bodies and the downstream communities immediately after the incident was inappropriate, unacceptable, and is tantamount to a cover-up irrespective of the claim by the company that the incident did not qualify to be reported as per its Internal Classification Criteria. (291)

The incident also provoked formal complaints from a non-governmental group, the Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining. A spokesperson for this group, Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, said:

The incident brings home the fact that Ghana needs very strong laws to regular mining operations.

And Scott Cardiff, a spokesperson for a US-based environmental group, Earthworks, said:

The accident and its aftermath are cause for concern, especially given the company’s plans to develop additional gold mines in Ghana. Much greater scrutiny and caution before mines are approved [is required.](291)

According to and article on the website of the Environment News Service, the incident raises doubts about an in agreement known as the International Cyanide Management Code. In 2008, the Ahafo mine became the first in Africa to receive certification under this agreement in 2009.— As the author of the article suggests, if Newmont is telling the truth in saying that it was operating in compliance with the code, then the fact that the spill occurred shows there is something wrong with the code.

On January 3, 2012, according to reports in Ghanaian media, 3000 fish were discovered dead in a reservoir — a “water storage facility” — at the Ahafo mine. This reservoir was apparently accessible to residents of the area and the fish in it were regarded by them as a food source, both for their own use and for sale in markets. Some of these media reports attributed the fish deaths to a cyanide spill at the mine. In a statement issued on January 19, 2011 Newmont emphatically denied any responsibility for the spill. According to the company, it was absolutely impossible that the fish had died as a result of a cyanide spill. A written statement from the company, released on January 19 stated:

Newmont Ghana unequivocally asserts that there has been no incident, spill, or accidental release of any process solutions containing cyanide or any other chemical agent from the Ahafo Mine or its associated facilities that caused the fish mortality.(294)

The report went on to offer an explanation of the fish deaths which allegedly proved that Newmont could not have be responsible because

The Water Storage Facility is located upstream from all Ahafo Mine infrastructure including the process plant site, mining areas, and the tailing storage facility.(294)

The report made the same point again later on:

Unfortunately a number of media outlets are reporting that stakeholders and community members claim that the incident is due to cyanide spillage from the Ahafo tailings storage facility. The reservoir is located adjacent to but up-gradient from the tailings storage facility so it is not possible for any mine process water to flow uphill to the water reservoir. The location in the tailings storage facility where the process solution collects is situated 800-1000 meters away from the reservoir. The two facilities are also separated by an embankment (dam) with has been designed and constructed to internationally-accepted standards and are regularly monitored internally and independently. Monitoring of the dam has shown no seepage from the Tailings Storage Facility into the Water Storage Facility.(294)

The report — which is brief — ends by enlisting the support of the Ghanaian government and promising that a full report would soon be submitted to the government and made available to the public.

The Ghana Environmental conducted on-site detailed investigations, independent water quality samplng and interviews with surrounding community members during the last week. In addition, the company has completed a detailed water quality sampling program. As results collected to date do not indicate any evidence or occurrence of an incident related to the Ahafo Mine or its associated facilities. A report will be released and shared with all participating government agencies once laboratory analyses are received and reviewed. Newmont Ghana will continue to update all stakeholders based on new information and developments relating to this incident as they become available. (294)

Apparently Newmont did not keep its promise to keep the public up to date on developments. Nor it seems did the Environmental Protection Agency ever make public the results of its long-term testing of the water in the reservoir and the surrounding area. This at least is the impression given by a news story published by the Ghana News Agency on August 7, 2012, just over eight months after the spill occurred. This article discusses a report into the incident made by a West African non-governmental organization, The Centre for Environmentat Impact Analysis. According to that report

Toxicological analysis of water in the dam where the dead fishes were discovered indicated the present of large concentration of cy and other heay metals, by-products of gold mining activities.

The news story mentions that the results of the Centre’s investigation were presented, on August 1, 2012, to “farmers living in hamlets and cottages surrounding the dam at Damso.” This statement is noteworthy because, if true, it is somewhat at odds with the January statement from Newmont; at the very least, it casts a different light on the situation. According to that document:

The reservoir [i.e. the “water storage facility”] is designed to collect natural runoff from existing drainage basins located up-gradient from the reservoir. The water runoff is stored in the reservoir and utilized as needed by the Ahafo Mine for mining and processing activities. The reservoir is not utilized by local communities as a potable water source. The communities and hamlets that are in close proximity to the reservoir have been provided with eight boreholes and seven wells to meet their potable water needs. The fish were put into the reservoir by Newmont to assist in controling malaria larvae as part of the company’s overall malaria management programme.

The statements from Newmont and from the “Centre” are not actually incompatible with one another. However, at least when they are read casually they paint rather different pictures. Newmont’s statement with its references to “sign posts” marking a “restricted area” which have the effect of “prohibiting entry” create the impression that, despite the “close proximity” there was no direct contact between the local residents and the water storage facility. The statement from the Centre, on the other hand, with its references to “farmers living in hamlets and cottages surrounding the dam” makes it seem as if there was a great deal of contact between the local residents and the reservoir. In fact it raises the possibility that the “families living in the hamlets and cottages” are living where they are because they were attracted to the reservoir as a source of water and food.

It is impossible without much more information to come to any conclusions as to which of the two “pictures” is closer to the truth. It does seem possible though, to say, confidently, that the Centre’s picture is more plausible than Newmont’s. Would a company with so much expertise in mining and with such a long history of clashes with local populations in various parts of the world, not realize that if they created a large pond stocked with fish in a populated rural area of West Africa that it would be used? Would they not realize that the only way to keep people away from such a pond would be to build a high fence around it and havee it patrolled by security guards?

The implausibility of Newmont’s picture is increased by the fact that during the seven months that elapsed between the publication of their statement and the publication of the Centre’s report, they published no information that would have made it possible for them to have refuted the charges made by the Centre. If they had completed a program of thorough scientific tests on the water in the reservoir and downstream from it — and if they had tested the surrounding land for unusually high concentrations of the poisonous heavy metals that are common produces of leach-pit mining. They would have been in a position to dismiss the Centre’s report as inaccurate — and it is almost certain that they would have had the Ghanaian government on their side. But it seems that neither Newmont nor the Ghanaian government carried out such tests — or, if they did, for some reason they did not publish the results.

Thsi failure is all the more striking cause, whether or not the Centre’s report is science scientifically sound, it does make scientific claims which could easily be refuted if conflicting data were available:

Mr Samuel Obiri, a researcher at the Centre for Environmental Impact Analysis...said the cyanidein the dam water sample was 1,400 percent above the World Health Organisation’s level for safe water while that in the fish sample was 80 percent above it. Mr Obiri said the presence of arsenic in the water was 5,830 percent above the World Health Organisation’s level while that in the fish was 383 percent above the safety level. He said cadmium was 190 percent above the World Health Organisation’s level while that in the fish was 575 above the safety level.

The apparent rigor of the Centre’s report is strengthened by the inclusion of the data about the presence of the poisonous heavy metals arsenic and cadmium. These are typical by-products of leach-pit mining and are perhaps more dangerous than the cyanide itself. This is because, although cyanide is a potent poison, it is volatile and by the time affected water has seeped into the soil most of it has oxydized and become harmless. Heavy metals are much more stable, however, and, once the water containing them has seeped into the soil, they can poison farmland for many years.

In Ghana, in January 2012, 3000 fish were found dead at a dam near the Ahafo mine, which is owned by Newmont. Newmont insisted that the fish had died as the result of over population but an analysis by a Ghanaian environmental agency has shown that the level of cyanide in the water behind the dam was 1,400 per cent above the limits recommended by the World Health Organization. (125) (WHO) And in an “environmental audit” done by Newmont itself at the Yanacocha mine in the early 2000s, it was found that one nearby stream, Quebrada Honda which had had 13 fish per kilometer in 1997, had none in 2000. Again the suspected cause was runoff from cyanide-laced mine waste.

Moreover, despite the claims of open-pit mining companies like Newmont, there are indications that the effects of cyanide do go beyond short-term damage to aquatic life and extend to human beings and plant life as well: According to one undocumented report, for example, between 2009 and 2011, farmers in the Yanacocha area reported many livestock deaths and a 40% drop in crop yields. (115)

water depletion

There are few places on earth that have so much fresh water that 1000 cubic meters a day could be used for commercial purposes without damaging the environment — and the Cajamarca region is certainly not one of them. Cajamarca, a city with a population of nearly 300,000, is located high in the Andes mountains, about 2700 meters above sea level. It has average rainfall but it is not near to any large rivers or lakes. Its water supply comes entirely from small rivers flowing out of the gently rising mountains that surround it. In the early years of mining at Yanacocha, the city’s water supply was not badly affected; in 2005 water was available twenty-four hours a day, by 2012 it was available for only three hours a day. (101) Robert Moran, an American hydrologist, who has written a report on water supplies of the region, expressed his concern about the situation in this way: if Newmont is allowed to expand Yanacocha, “ the company will control local access to water. They can turn off the spigot. They can start charging for it.” (101)

In the past, at least, the city water system provided a good water supply to the residents of Cajamarca, but most people living in the smaller towns and the many villages of the area depended on wells. This has happened because not only has Yanacocha’s insatiable thirst for water reduced the amount of water in the streams and reservoirs that supply city dwellers through underground pipes, it has lowered the “water table” of the whole region. (The water table is the border between the dry layer of soil or rock on the earth’s surface and the water saturated layer that lies beneath it. Wells are holes dug beneath the water table.) Recently in an attempt to replenish dried out wells, Newmont has been pumping some of the water used in pit-leaching back to a higer level in the mountains. But even this method works, the farmers say they would not be satisfied: They say it is a waste of energy and, apart from that, they have no guarantee that water recovered in this way would be uncontaminated.(97) (Mining activity causes water tables to go down in other places too, and in countries where water is not abundant and sources are far from the mines, the companies can be forced to look for solutions much more drastic and expensive than those attempted at Yanacocha. In Chile, pressure from environmentalists has forced BHP Billiton owner of the world’s biggest copper mine, Escondida, to stop using fresh water and begin pumping in desalinated water from the ocean, 170 km away.) (95)

An American reporter who visited the area in July, 2012 was taken to visit a farmer and his wife who were living just outside the Newmont concession. The farmer showed him how, many years earlier, he had dug out a wide meter-deep hole and lined it with concrete to make a sunken tank; then he had dug two narrow canals from a nearby spring to carry water into the tank. For many years, the tank had filled up during the rainy season and kept the farmer and his family supplied with water during the long dry season that followed. But about six years earlier, at a time when Newmont had been drilling exploratory wells nearby, the spring had begun to go dry. The reporter made his visit at the beginning of the dry season and even then the tank was almost empty. A dead frog lay in the algae-covered water in the ten centimeters of water at the bottom of the tank. “There used to hundreds of frogs here, the man told me. Now there were hardly any.”

And using large amounts of water from streams high in the Andes mountains can have an effect even on distant areas. Peru’s coastal area is arid and depends for its water supply on streams like those that flow through the Yanacocha concession. So when Newmont removes large amounts of water from the streams and lakes around Yanacocha, it is affecting the water supply not just of local residents but of people living hundreds of kilometers away. (10)

the mercury spill

The most spectacular case of mine-related environmental damage, however, was caused not not by cyanide but by another poisonous substance, mercury. Mercury — a metal which is liquid at normal temperatures — is present along with the gold in the ore Newmont digs up at Yanacocha. When the water and cyanide solution trickles down through the crushed ore, just as the cyanide bonds with the gold, it also bonds with the mercury. Mercury has commercial value so, just as for gold, Newmont uses chemical processes to separate the mercury from the cyanide solution.

On June 2, 2000, a truck carried a load of Newmont’s mercury from Yanacocha to Lima. From there it was to be shipped to Spain for use in thermometers and other medicinal instruments.(128) Two of the containers of mercury were improperly sealed and, as the truck approached Choropampa, 85 kilometers from from the mine, they began to leak. As ithe truck passed through the village of Choropampa and two nearby villages, it spilled 150 kilograms of mercury along the road. When the driver finally realized something was wrong he stopped the truck, got out, and saw what was happening. But then he got back in the truck and drove on.

The toxic effects of exposure to mercury are well established. The organs most commonly affected are the brain and nervous system, the lungs, and the kidneys. Mercury poisoning is the cause of several specific diseases. The best known of these is Minamata disease which was prevalent in a coastal region of Japan during the 1950s. It was caused by the discharge of mercury into the ocean from a chemical plan which resulted in high concentrations in fish and sea food. More than 800 people died from Minamata disease and almost 3000 were certified as having the illness. Pregnant women who had eaten contaminated fish gave birth to severely handicapped children.(141) The early symptoms of mercury poisoning include impaired vision, hearing, and speech, rashes and itchy skin. Kidney impairment may also occur. All of these symptoms were reported by the residents of Choropampa in the months following the spill.

The people who live in Choropampa — the population is around 3,000 — had never seen mercury. Mercury is a liquid at ordinary temperatures, but, in small quantities at least, it doesn’t spread out like water or sink quickly into the ground. Instead it forms small clumps or balls that can be picked up and moved. The residents of Choropampa had never seen mercury before, or heard of it. They thought that it might be extremely valuable, or that it might be useful as medicine, or that they could use it to protect their children from evil spirits. So many of them scooped up bits of mercury with their bare hands, put it into paper bags or other containers and stored it away in their homes.

Although everyone who works at an administrative level in open-pit gold mining must be aware of the dangers of mercury poisoning, Newmont took no steps to warn the villagers of the danger they faced, or to clean up the spill quickly and safely. In fact, the first measures they took probably increased the damage. When Newmont learned of the spill, it sent representatives to Choropampa to buy the mercury back from the people who had collected it. The villagers were happy to sell their mercury and some of them went looking for more so they could make more money. The next thing Newmont did was to bring some brooms and hire some villagers to sweep the remaining mercury off the roads and into ditches. At no point were the villagers who did this work for Newmont told of the danger they faced, nor were they given protective clothing of any sort.

Soon many villagers began to suffer from symptoms such as rashes, deterioration of vision, nosebleeds, and kidney pain and bowel problems. A few were affected badly enough to be hospitalized in Cajamarca. The village authorities complained to Newmont and Newmont sent doctors to the town. The doctors reassured the sick people that any problems they had that were related to the mercury spill would soon disappear. They insisted that this were not responsible and, in any case, there would be no long-term affects from the mercury. In a Newmont public relations video, Michael Kosnett, a toxicologist under contract with the company said:

Once someone is removed from exposure, we would expect that their symptoms would resolve within a matter of weeks, maybe at most within a month or so. If they’re not ill now it’s not the case that they have a risk of becoming ill in the future. (111, 8:11)

An excerpt from this video appears in the documentary, Choropampa: The Price of Gold. What Michael Kosnett says, however, seems to contradict a statement by the World Health Organization (WHO) which is quoted by the documentary makers:

When elemental mercury is inhaled, 80% of the mercury remains in the body where it can damage the lungs, kidneys and central nervous system. Chronic exposure may cause birth defects and miscarriages.

Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru at the time, also appears in the video. He lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of Newmont. He says that they must take financial responsibility and that they will be subject to legal sanctions. It seems however, that behind the scenes the government may have been working to help Newmont escape responsibility. The President’s statement is followed by another from Josú Luis Quequejana, a member of a Ministry of Health commission which was sent to Choropampa to assess the spill shortly after it happened. He says:

The Ministry of Health’s first evaluation in which I participated concluded that the entire population should be immediately evacuated. The population was not evacuated because the ministry used other reference values to compare the levels of mercury in Choropampa. The ministry and Yanacocha set these values arbitrarily and the level of risk came out lower.

The illnesses persisted and in some cases worsened. Newmont continued in its refusal to acknowledge that the villagers’ health problems were caused by the mercury spill. Many villages felt that their complaints were not being taken seriously. They claimed that the doctors in Cajamarca were working for Newmont and therefore notin a position to criticize the company. This seems to have been true in one case at least: In The Price of Gold the director of the Cajamarca hospital acknowledges doing “consulting” work for Newmont.

Later on, Newmont tried to compensate the villagers by remodelling the town square, building a new school, expanding the “medical post,” and making improvements to village streets, and to the water and drainage systems. The cost of this work was approximately $1 million. (133) The villagers felt the work was shoddy and, in any case was not the sort of compensation they wanted because it did nothing to help them with their medical problems. They continued to protest and eventually, more than nine months after the spill, they blocked the highway to all mine vehicles. Despite attempts by riot police to disperse them with tear gas, they kept up the blockade for four days until Newmont agreed to formal negotiations.

The negotiations took place, but they did not lead to lead to a satisfactory conclusion. The villagers demanded a permanent medical center and life-long, international medical insurance for all, but these demands were not met. Newmont did make individual compensation payments of between $570 and $6000 to several hundred villagers, but many others rejected this type of compensation. (130) About 1000 joined in a class action lawsuit and, after a long struggle succeeded, in 2007 (?) in having the case heard by a court in the US — in Denver, Colorado where Newmont’s headquarters are located. An out of court settlement was reached, but with the agreement of both sides the amounts awarded were not revealed.

Even after many of the villagers — about one third of the whole population — had benefited from this American settlement, some residents of Choropampa continued to fight for more compensation. Among other things, they demanded life-long health insurance for the people who were still ill, and that the health clinic in Choropampa be turned into a real hospital. Apparently, however, apart from keeping the whole issue alive, they achieved little. For example, when Alan García, who was president of Peru from 2005-2010 was campaigning for election, he visited Choropampa and promised that, if he were elected, he would make sure that people whose health had been permanently affected received proper treatment. He also promised to turn Choropampa into an “ecological district.” After Alan García became president, however, he did nothing for Choropampa.(138)

By 2008 it had become clear that Newmont’s original insistence that there was no danger of long term health effects had been self-serving and probably dishonest. One article written at that time mentions several residents who were still seriously disabled as a result of the spill.

Rosas Álvarez Leyva is bedridden and unable to move his arms or the upper part of his body. Farmer Petronila Hoyos is also bedridden and the doctors are unable to identify her illnessChildren, such as brothers Elkin and Daris Muñoz suffer from skin conditions. Many adolescents also have learning disabilities (138)

The same article also contains a quotation from a biologist, Nilton Deza who states that mercury does, indeed cause life-long damage. He says:

It can be eliminated via urine, as the mine said, but it leaves behind after-effects. So they’re lying. If today they were to test people, it might be that they won’t find any mercury in their orgaanisms, but their organs have already been affected irreversibly.(138)

In January 2009, Marco Arana, the founder of the environmental and social justice organization GRUFIDES wrote a letter to the Premier of Peru, Yehude Simon and the the Ministers of Health and Environment, demanding a “humanitarian solution” to the health problems in Choropampo.

In his letter he wrote that some doctors in Choropampa,

will tell you, off the record that people are ill because of the mercury, but they don’t dare speak publicly or write anything in the clinical history. They don’t want to risk losing their jobs or their professional reputation because Yanacocha will find 20 scientists that will prove otherwise.

And commenting on his letter in a radio broadcast around the same time, Marco Arana said he hoped it would result in the government’s showing some signs that it was listening to the population and he added

Industrial activity, though it plays a role in the economic development of our country, can’t affect the population’s rights.

Perhaps Marco Arana’s letter and his appearance on radio were, in part at least, the result of a disturbing news story that had come out of Cajamarca a short time earlier, in November 2008. It was announced then that the mayor of Choropampa, a 34-year-old teacher, Vincente Zarate Minchán had died in a hospital in the city of Chiclayo about 100 kilometers from the village. He had been taken there a few days earlier after his arms and legs had suddenly become paralyzed. After an autopsy, it was announced that he had been suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is a rare auto-immune disease that affects the central nervous system. It is not known to have any connection with mercury poisoning, but for a lengthy period before his death, the mayor had been suffering from typical Guillain-Barré symptoms such as vomiting and weakness and numbness and tingling sensations in the legs. In fact, according to the President of Choropampa’s Defense Front, Juana Martinez Sáenz, 90% of the residents of Cajamarca have similar symptoms and (136)

The Wikipedia article on Guillain-Barré states that the illness is usually caused by a bacterial infection, but adds that in 60% of cases, it is not possible to discover the cause. The article also states that in most cases it can be completely cured if the proper treatment is received quickly. However, Vincente Zarate Minchán’s disease was not diagnosed until he was taken to Cajamarca at the time of his final attack. Presumably, it would not have been possible for the one doctor in the Choropampa, Edgar Atalaya Merino to have made such a diagnosis in his simple clinic. In any case he probably would not have had any reason for doing any special tests on the mayor. He sees 120 patients every week, many of whom have the same symptoms as the mayor had. When asked by a journalist, whether these symptoms were caused by mercury poisoning, he said: “ It’s probable, but that must be supported on scientific grounds.” (136,138)