Mining company Kinross’s ambitions to create most productive gold mine in Brazil plagued by health risks and threats to activists and opponents
Paracatu, Brazil – Despite her advanced age, Juliana Morais da Costa still retains enough strength in her hands to hold the heavy bateia. “I began to pan gold when I was five. We started at 5am until 4pm. It was tough work, but I did it because it was the only way to be economically independent,” remembers Morais, 86.
Her home city of Paracatu is the epicentre of Brazil’s mining production, in the north of the state of Minas Gerais, which generates almost one-third of Brazil’s total mining production.
The exploitation of gold started in Paracatu as early as 1722. But the days of the garimpeiros, or gold hunters, are long gone. Since the 1990s the hunt has moved from the river banks to underground deposits. Dynamite, excavators and chemicals replaced the garimpeiros, who were pushed out from a business that had sustained hundreds of families.
In 2005, Canadian company Kinross – which is listed in the New York Stock Exchange and owns gold mines in Chile, United States, Russia and Ghana, among other countries – took over the mining concession in Paracatu. During a period in which gold prices rose to historical new heights in global markets, Kinross invested $1.86bn in the site, tripling annual production to the current 15 tonnes and making Paracatu the most productive gold mine in Brazil.
As the gold in Paracatu takes the form of a powder and not grain or nuggets, the company had to greatly intensify mining activities to keep production up. Today as many as 160 dynamite explosions are carried out daily to dig the Morro do Ouro, the Golden Hill, as locals refer to the area where the main deposits are found.
As a consequence, the local geography has been profoundly transformed. As you approach the mining area we witness an immense crater that covers 615 hectares, half the size of Heathrow’s airport, and resembles a lunar landscape. The only signs of life are the imposing bulldozers and the high-wheeled vehicles that transport the rocks to the plant. There, toxic chemicals, including cyanide, are employed to separate out the gold powder, which is later molten in ingots and transported by helicopter to São Paulo for export around the globe.
Arsenic health risks
While the visual impact seems hard to deny – in addition to the mining area, two large dams the size of an extra Heathrow airport are used for toxic waste disposal – many argue that the mine poses a threat to the local environment and to the health of the 90,000 Paracatu residents.
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