Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gold Fever: Artisanal and Industrial Extraction in the Mining Triangle

Municipalities of Bonanza & Siuna. North Atlantic Autonomous Region, Nicaragua.
February 20th, 2010.
Issue: Mining

Since 1880, güirisería, or artisanal mining, has been the main economic activity in the municipalities that make up the so-called mining triangle in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN).

Enormous extensions of tropical forests cover most of the RAAN in northeastern Nicaragua.

Currently, population density hovers around 17 residents per square kilometer. Human presence has always been scarce in this part of Central America.

In 1880, a gold rush unleashed the colonization of the geographic center of the RAAN, giving birth to the three municipalities that make up the mining triangle: Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza.

Industrial mining has come and gone on several occasions, but multiple generations of güiriseros have been extracting gold in this region for 130 years.

The Process of Güirisería:

Artisanal gold extraction begins with the gathering of auriferous mineral from abandoned mines, external outcrop, or river sediments. This is done manually, sometimes with the aid of explosives. (1)

The material collected is called broza and it contains small particles of gold. Broza can be sold to a mining company, or the miner can transport and process it in an artisan workshop called rastra. (2)

The first treatment of broza consists of grinding it with mallets and separating futile particles that do not contain gold. (3)

A rastra always has a mill to grind the broza. These mills can be either manual or minimally motorized. (4)

Automobile engines are commonly used in the rastras to propel the mills.

Most motorized mills spin around large sized rocks that grind down the broza as they rotate.

This group of güiriseros in Siuna helps propel a mill motorized by an actual car.

“Once it's ground, broza is ‘cleaned’ and its muddy water is driven to a woody canal with drawers where heavier particles are deposited. Obviously, particles of gold are included.” (5)

Mercury is used in order to extract, or capture, the gold from this type of sand. The mercury blends with the gold particles creating an amalgam. (6)

The amalgam is poured into a handkerchief and thoroughly rinsed, giving way to an amalgam pearl.

Mercury has numerous negative effects on humans that include: disruption of the nervous system, damage to brain functions, DNA and chromosomal damage, allergic reactions, skin rashes, fatigue, headaches, sperm damage, birth defects and miscarriages. (7)

In order to separate mercury from gold, the amalgam pearl is heated in a common pan or pot. This process poses a great health risk to the miner and those nearby due to the inhalation of mercury-containing fumes.

The heat evaporates the mercury which, once in a gaseous state, adheres to the leaves placed above the amalgam pearl in the saucepan.

In order to recuperate the mercury for later use, the leaves are submerged in water to separate the heavy metal. Over time, however, traces of this very dangerous metal are lost due to its constant transformations from solid, liquid and gaseous states. This loss of mercury affects the local air, water and soils, posing a serious hazard to the health of the local population.

Afterwards, a blow torch is applied to evaporate the last traces of mercury.

“In this way, at the end of the process, a small quantity of gold is obtained and sold.” (8)

Usually, the owner of the rastra keeps 40 to 50 percent of the price of the gold, while the rest goes to the miner who brought in the broza.” (9)

Industrial Mining in the Triangle

Between 1909 and 1979, U.S. and Canadian companies extracted the mineral quarries in the three municipalities through industrial methods. “In 1979, the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, combined with the drop in the international value of gold, prompted the North American companies to abandon the mines. Employees were not appropriately compensated” nor were responsible closure procedures carried out to mend environmental damages or prevent future ones. (10)
This image shows a panoramic view of the former Rosario Mining Company mine in Rosita.

In 1980, the revolutionary Sandinista government nationalized the abandoned industrial sites in the mining triangle. But due to low yields and the internal armed conflict involving U.S.-backed Contras, all mines were eventually closed. In 1994, exploration and exploitation licenses were once again privatized and put up for bidding. “On May 9th, 1994, the Minister of Economy signed off a 12,400-hectare and 50-year mining concession for a Panamanian company called Hemco Nicaragua S.A. (also known as Hemconic).” (11)

During the past 15 years, Hemco has been a subsidiary of several Canadian mining companies: from the now bankrupt Greenstone to RNC Gold to Yamana Gold. Today, Hemco operates as a subsidiary of a private U.S. company. (12)

On July 2009, Calibre Mining Corporation, a Canadian company, acquired from Yamana Gold the license to extract gold, silver and copper from the so-called NEN Project. Renamed Borosi Project by Calibre, this vast concession reaches all three municipalities for a total of 710 square Kilometers. (13)

Current Socio-Economic and Environmental Situation:

Even though the large-scale mining industry has always promised work, development, and progress, the reality has been an endless and prolonged trail of poverty, social conflicts, and environmental degradation. This image shows the tailings pond in Bonanza, where the waste product from the open-pit Hemconic mine has accumulated over time. Besides cyanide and heavy metals that accrue in this type of artificial waste pond, this particular one also contains dozens of barrels used to transport the cyanide needed to separate gold from the rock.

This past January 30th, 2010, an earthquake measuring 4.3 in the Richter scale cracked part of the containment wall that is supposed to keep the toxic waste product from flooding the town and contaminating a local river. “Seventy-four people from thirteen families who reside on the edge of the tailings pond in Bonanza had to be urgently resettled, as they were in serious risk of being flooded and buried alive inside their humble homes.” (14)

“Alexander Alvarado, Mayor of Bonanza, stated that the toxic lagoon was built very close to the town itself and poses a serious threat to the urban population. If one side of the containment wall were to give in, it could flood and seriously affect several of the town’s barrios. Alvarado also mentioned that the water in the local river was being tested to make sure cyanide had not spilled into it.” (15)

“The current situation in the mining triangle, where industrial mining and güirisería coexist, clearly confirms grave levels of poverty, severe social deficits, terrible health and environmental deterioration, and an important loss of natural resources.” (16)

Barrels of cyanide are used as public trash bins in Bonanza.

In Siuna, the cyanide barrels-turned-trashcans are proudly sponsored by the Mayor’s office (Alcaldía in Spanish), Hemconic and Yamana.

This family resourcefully, yet dangerously, used barrels of lethal cyanide to build a fence around their home.

“Neither the companies nor the governments have cared for the protection of the local population. There have been, and continue to be, great deficiencies in basic services, such as potable water, hygiene services, electricity, sewage, schools and community centers.” (17)

“The extraction of gold has created wealth for the North American companies and has provided a precarious way of life for the local miners and güiriseros.” (18)

The current market price of gold has reached astronomical levels never before imagined. In February of 2000 the ounce of gold sold for around US $300. Today, ten years later, an ounce sells for over US $1,120. “According to market experts in specialized web sites, within the next few years, the ounce of gold could reach a record price above US $2,000.” (19)

This outrageous fever to acquire gold, worsened by the speculation driven by powerful economic sectors, insures that the dangers behind its extraction, be it industrial or by güiriseros, continue to affect populations not only in Nicaragua, but also in dozens of countries in our fragile planet.

Version en español aquí.

All images were produced with the support of Oxfam America and are co-property of Oxfam America and If there is interest in republishing this photo essay, we ask that you please receive consent from both organizations first.

Several images first appeared in the publication: Mining in Central America: Pain and Resistance.

2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
14 López, Fermín. “Ante peligro de derrame de laguna de oxidación: Reubican a 13 familias en Bonanza”. El Nuevo Diario. Managua, Nicaragua. Thursday, February 11, 2010. Edición 10597.
15 Ibid.
18 Ibid.


Barby Ulmer said...

Excellent job..Both photos and essay show a disaster that should be widely known but unfortunately isn't.

Raymond said...

Happy to see that it's not just American companies that exploit third world nations.

Anonymous said...

All you whiny liberals turn in your computers that contain this very gold that these people mine. Secondly, what do you think these people were doing before they got their jobs here? Hunting rats in garbage dumps probably.

Anonymous said...

Someone is angry and hates latinos, sigh.

Timspin said...

Anonymous - your a twat, this has nothing to do with 'whiney liberals' this is the systematic poisoning of an area for the massive profits of North American companies (probably being run by people like you, only more intelligent) at the expence of the health of indigenous people.

Put this into perspective if your small mind can hold such a large word, a company comes to your home town, provides ver poorly paid jobs for all the homeless, but poisons the entire town, making the very ground a danger to people for the next 50 years. Kids get sick, they didnt anything wrong, but now they have industrial disease, maybe one of these kids would be yours, and having someone come an get on your side and make a show of this disgrace, would you call them whiny liberals then?

People, real people, lives, children, feelings, pain, all real. Its a shame this hasnt happend in your town, maybe then you would not be such a dick.

Corporate watch said...

This is a really good essay. thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nicaragua is an outstanding nature by it self, but the International and local politics, the private sector and local careless people have destroy this little but lovely land on earth. Stand up Nicaraguans, don't be fool by local politics and international companies, get the right and correct laws to protect you and family from been expose to bad minerals, just for few pennies, is not right, remember that all these people make lots of money, and you only get few cents, and that includes, Aleman and Ortega whom they get a lot of money, no matter what they say...So please get your rights, go on and turn into a big wave, so that the whole world can hear you…

Nicaragua es una gran nacion por naturaleza, pero las politicas internacionales y locales, el sector privado y la gente local interesada, sin cuidado han destruido esta pequenha pero bellas tierras en nuestro planeta tierra. Levantense Nicaraguenses, no se dejen enganhar por politicas locales y por empresas internacionales, busquen sus derechos y leyes para protegerse usted y su familias de estos minerals, solo por unos cuantos centavos, no esta bien, recuerden todas estas personas hacen mucho dinero por medio de ustedes, el cual ustedes son los mas afectados, con poca plata y expuestos al mercurio, solo por unos cuantos centavos. Estoy incluye a Ortega y Aleman, quienes obtienen mucho dinero, no importa lo que ellos digan, no crean, Por favor busquen sus derechos, hagan un gran oleaje, para que el mundo entero los escuche…