“I invite you to stop going up and down the valley taking photographs and interviewing people. Be very careful, we could ask for your arrest.” This is how the phone call between myself and Mr Jorge Esteva, head of communications for the Barrick Gold corporation came to a close.
I am in the Dominican Republic, more precisely in Pueblo Viejo de Cotuì where, in 2012, the largest mine on the planet was opened, the number one leader in terms of extraction.
It is Saturday morning, rain is pouring heavily and, despite being February, it is extremely hot. I stop the car to take some photographs of the Maguaca River water. It is yellow/orange with the nasty sulphuric stench of some chemical product. In a matter of minutes my eyes begin to itch terribly and to water; my mouth is so dry that my tongue feels as thick as if I had chain-smoked a whole packet of cigarettes.
I come across a small hut made of wood and metal sheets. It is light blue, two men approach and greet me. “How long has the river water been this color?” I ask curiously. “Since 2012. Since Barrick Gold began mining activities. They wash the metals and all the discharge ends up in the Maguaca”.
It was 2012 when the Canadian mining company Barrick Gold started digging, drilling and extracting gold in what for decades had been a property of the Dominican Republic. Back then the Rosario Dominicana company had found the precious metal deep in the terrain of Pueblo Viejo de Cotuì providing work for thousands of Dominicans. Unfortunately Rosario was not equipped with sophisticated machinery and, above all, did not have the thousands of dollars necessary to continue extraction. They were forced to close down.
“I worked for Rosario”, Mr Juan tells me,”We used shovels and pickets, we would set off dynamite and then dig using our hands 10/12 hours a day.”
Unwilling to give in to the corporations which were pining to invest in this extraordinary adventure, things got increasingly tough and the company finally had to cease operations at the end of the nineties.
In 2006 a tendering procedure was initiated to relaunch the mine and Barrick Gold beat all other competitors. It took six years to move all the necessary machinery from Canada and the United States to the Dominican Republic. Since 2012 (the year work began) to the present-day extraction output has increased three-fold, meaning Cotuì has gone from fourth to first position worldwide. Every two months between 7 and 10 thousand kilos of pure gold are extracted and exported.
All this however has a cost. Not only in terms of millions of dollars but also thousands of human lives. There are approximately 1600 families living in three small communities, Naranco, La Pignita, and La Laguna – nestled on the banks of the rivers Maguaca and Jagal.
“Since 2012 over 200 people have died as well as thousands of animals such as cows and horses.” Over the following two weeks they take me to visit many families who have become victims of environmental contamination. Many of the children who have been swimming in the river have contracted fungi causing patches on their heads similar to alopecia. Many others suffer from light and dark patches covering their bodies, purulent sores and loss of nails from their hands and feet. 80% of women are afflicted by vaginal diseases.
The air in this area is unbreathable: the acid rains have killed off hundreds of coffee, tobacco and orange plants, all of which provided subsistence for the 1600 families. “Water is the most precious element to any living being, whether human or animal,” Maria tells me. “We live off three large bottles of clean water per week which we use to wash ourselves, cook, drink, wash our children and do laundry,” Ramon says.
The families have founded a committee and often rally during political campaigns and organize protest marches to let President Danilo Medina know that they can no longer go on living like this. They are asking loud and clear to be moved to areas further away from the mine, or preferably, for the mine to be immediately shut down for good.
However they are all well aware that considering the millions of dollars available, and hundreds of corrupt politicians willing to be bought, their battle will be a long and hard one and the finale an inevitable one: defeat on all fronts. “We would like to make an appeal to the Pope, to the United Nations and all non-profit organizations; please do something to help us otherwise we will all die.”
On their website Barrick directors speak of respect for the environment and human rights. They say they are trying to cleanse the rivers and reforest areas that had been destroyed and contaminated by Rosario Dominicana. But what I have seen with my eyes is a horrific environmental disaster, destined to destroy and pollute a consistent part of the Caribbean island which from “tourist paradise” is slowly and inexorably plummeting into a true “inferno”.