World

Gold! Haiti hopes ore find will spur mining boom

Its capital is blighted with earthquake rubble. Its countryside is shorn of trees, chopped down for fuel. And yet, Haiti’s land may hold the key to relieving centuries of poverty, disaster and disease: There is gold hidden in its hills — and silver and copper, too.

A flurry of exploratory drilling in the past year has found precious metals worth potentially $20 billion deep below the tropical ridges in the country’s northeastern mountains. Now, a mining company is drilling around the clock to determine how to get those metals out.

In neighboring Dominican Republic, workers are poised to start mining the other side of this seam later this year in one of the world’s largest gold deposits: 23 million ounces worth about $40 billion.

The Haitian government’s annual budget is $1 billion, more than half provided by foreign assistance. The largest single source of foreign investment, $2 billion, came from Haitians working abroad last year. A windfall of locally produced wealth could pay for roads, schools, clean water and sewage systems for the nation’s 10 million people, most of whom live on as little as $1.25 a day.

“If the mining companies are honest and if Haiti has a good government, then here is a way for this country to move forward,” said Bureau of Mines Director Dieuseul Anglade.

In a parking lot outside Anglade’s marble-floored office, more than 100 families have been living in tents since the earthquake. “The gold in the mountains belongs to the people of Haiti,” he said, gesturing out his window. “And they need it.”

Haiti’s geological vulnerability is also its promise. Massive tectonic plates squeeze the island with horrifying consequences, but deep cracks between them form convenient veins for gold, silver and copper pushed up from the hot innards of the planet.

Prospectors from California to Chile know earthquake faults often have, quite literally, a golden lining.

Until now, few Haitians have known about this buried treasure. Mining camps are unmarked, and the work is being done miles up dirt roads near remote villages, on the opposite side of the country from the capital.

But U.S. and Canadian investors have spent more than $30 million in recent years on everything from exploratory drilling to camps for workers, new roads, offices and laboratory studies of samples. Actual mining could be under way in five years.

On a rugged, steep Haitian ridge far above the Atlantic, brilliant boulders coated with blue-green oxidized copper jut from the hills, while colorful pebbles litter the soil, strong indicators that precious metals lie below.

The workers periodically pull up samples and knockethem into boxes. The first 40 feet yielded loose rocks and gravel. About 160 feet down, cylinders of rock came back peppered with gold. At 1,000 feet down, rocks were heavily streaked with copper.

Geologists extrapolating from depth and strike reports estimate at least 1 million ounces of gold at two sites. In April, prospectors found the first significant silver ever reported in Haiti: between 20 million and 30 million ounces. And in the end, it may be copper that is the most lucrative: geologists suspect that more than 1 million tons lay in just one of many areas under exploration.

The prices of precious metals have been volatile in recent years, with copper selling for about $8,000 per ton, silver at $30 an ounce, and gold at $1,600 per ounce.

Gold was last gathered in Haiti in the 1500s, after Christopher Columbus ran the Santa Maria onto a Haitian reef. Spaniards enslaved the Arawak Indians to dig for gold, killing them off with harsh conditions and infectious diseases. When the Spaniards learned of even more lucrative deposits in Mexico, they moved on.

In the 1970s, United Nations geologists documented significant pockets of gold and copper, but foreigners weren’t willing to risk their cash in a country where corruption and instability has long discouraged outside investment.

Ironically, it was only after the catastrophic 2010 earthquake that investors saw real opportunity. Fifteen days after a seismic jolt brought down much of Port-au- Prince, a Canadian exploration firm acquired all of the shares of the only Haitian firm holding full permits for a promising chunk of land in the northeast.

“Investors want to get in at the bottom,” said Dan Hachey, president of Majescor Resources, the Canadian company, “and I figured after that earthquake, Haiti was as low as it could get.”

Hachey was also betting that the $10 billion in foreign assistance promised for earthquake recovery would force change and accountability.

Three firms are considering mining in Haiti, but so far only SOMINE has full concessions to take the metals out of the mountains. Those permits, for 50 square kilometers (31 square miles), were negotiated in 1996 under President Rene Preval and require the firm to hire Haitians whenever possible.

In exchange for minimal permit fees, SOMINE committed to spend $2.25 million in the first two years. In addition, it will pay $1.8 million after a feasibility study, according to the contract.

Bottom line: Haitians should get $1 out of every $2 of profits, compared with about $1 out of $3 that most countries get from mining firms.

Discoveries of rich resources, whether diamonds, oil or gold, often prompt great economic booms but come with great risk of environmental, health and social problems. Chile, one of the wealthiest nations in Latin America, is the world’s largest copper exporter, deriving a third of its income from the metal.

Peru, with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, has privatized most of its mines in recent years, and now gets about 20 percent of its total revenues from the industry.

Though the contractual terms are generous for Haiti, there is plenty to be cautious about. Haiti’s government is repeatedly rated as one of the most corrupt in the world. The mines would ostensibly be regulated by government officials responsible for enforcing environmental, mining and corporate laws, but at this point those officials don’t exist and there are neither plans nor budgets to hire them.

Further, open pit mines, common around the world, are crater-like holes made up of a series of massive terraced steps that drop thousands of feet into the ground. When the resources are exhausted, usually after about 25 years, the pits can be refilled or converted into reservoirs. In many cases, the mines leave serious problems – environmental contamination, displaced communities and mountaintops torn asunder.

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