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analysis: Midas’s gold —Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur

by Mir Mohammad TalpurDaily Times
March 1st, 2010

The powerless provincial government in Balochistan, if it has a modicum of decency, should quit immediately to absolve itself of the responsibility of exploitation and destruction of Balochistan’s resources and environment.

Nawab Aslam Raisani, Chief Minister (CM) Balochistan, announced last year that the provincial cabinet had unanimously decided to cancel an agreement with Tethyan Copper and Gold Company (TCC) for exploration of copper and gold in the Reko Diq area of Chagai district and not to lease out the land to the company for further work. He said, “Cancellation of the Reko Diq copper and gold project agreement is a step towards getting control over provincial resources in accordance with the wishes of the people.” He added agreements undermining the rights of indigenous people would be cancelled. Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp and Chilean Antofagasta’s have a major share in TCC.

It turned out that he had not consulted the real masters and, ironically, the day he said that that the FC was running a ‘parallel government’ he also disclosed that the federal government had rejected the scrapping of the Gwadar Deep Sea Port and Reko Diq project agreements; which in fact means that his government does not really exist. However, he bravely added, “the Balochistan government would not allow any agreement that undermined the rights of the people of Balochistan”. I wonder what ‘rights’ was he talking of because his cabinet’s unanimous decision had been rejected out of hand without even a face-saving gesture.

The CM’s bubble of defiance and of the federal government, if any, was pricked the moment Anne Patterson, the US envoy, had said, “Multinational corporations will not invest in a country where deals are cancelled in one hour...two major international mining companies were recently burned when the Balochistan provincial government recently announced the cancellation of their long-negotiated contract to build a copper and gold mine in Reko Diq.” Adding, it had cost Pakistan a loss of $ 3.5 billion investment for one of its least developed regions. After this no government here would have the courage to stand by its cancellation decision. We indeed are sovereign.

Many interests are at work in Balochistan. The Baloch people have primary interest. Their so-called representative, the provincial government, is as toothless as it is ineffectual. Its resolutions and decisions are not even worth the paper they are written on. Then there are the mining multinationals, the modern Midases, their mentor the US, then China that is milking Saindak dry and would love to do the same to four times bigger Reko Diq, and lastly the interests of powerful and corrupt politicians and bureaucrats in Quetta and Islamabad.

A question arises why would the US Envoy be interested in the cancellation of this deal in particular? The real reason is the support for Barrick Gold, the foremost gold mining corporation in the world, founded in 1983 by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. It produced 7.42 million ounces gold in 2009 and expected to increase to 7.6-8.0 million in 2010. It is as rich and influential as it is notorious. Remember Halliburton in Iraq? Moreover, the US seeks to limit China’s role in Balochistan.

Barrick’s track record is pathetic. Credible international surveys indicate and suggest that Reko Diq is home to one of the biggest copper reserves in the world with over “12.3 million tons of copper and 20.9 million ounces of gold”. With an estimated life span of more than 50 years and four times larger in copper ore tonnage than Saindak, it is a modern day Midas’s dream. Allowing a mining company like Barrick Gold is like welcoming disasters of unparalleled magnitude for the people and environment because mind boggling amounts of water and cyanide would be needed.

Marcel Claude, of environmental group Oceana, says, “Gold mining dumps 79 tonnes of waste for every 28 grams of gold, and produces 96 percent of the world’s arsenic emissions.” So extraction of a tonne of gold produces 28,214,285.72 tonnes of waste; just imagine how much waste and arsenic emissions would result in extracting 20.9 million ounces of gold (650 tonnes) at Reko Diq. The gold here will be more cursed for the people than it was for Midas.

A few facts about cyanide would not be out of place here. The discoverer of cyanide Carl Wilhelm Scheele found that it could dissolve gold in 1783 but it was not used until 1887. Though there are alternatives to cyanide, including starch and sulphur dioxide, cyanide is preferred as it readily bonds with gold, etc. Approximately 1.4 million tonnes of hydrogen cyanide is produced annually worldwide; with approximately 13 percent, i.e. 182,000 tonnes, being used to produce cyanide reagents for gold processing. Recent studies show that residual cyanide trapped in the gold-mine tailings may cause persistent release of toxic metals (e.g. mercury) into the groundwater and surface water systems. Cyanide poisoning can occur through inhalation, ingestion, and skin or eye contact. One teaspoon of a 2 percent solution can kill a person.

Though cleaner and safer methods exist but multinational mining companies, the modern day Midases, more concerned with profits, use cyanide freely because in any case neither they nor their public are affected; the host areas are ravaged irreparably. Chagai has already had more than a fair share of disasters. It was an unwilling victim of two nuclear explosions that turned a black coloured mountain to ashen grey.

The powerless provincial government in Balochistan, if it has a modicum of decency, should quit immediately to absolve itself of the responsibility of exploitation and destruction of Balochistan’s resources and environment. But then the lure of power and pelf, however demeaning it is, is deemed acceptable by those to whom self-aggrandisement is a priority. Had they shown spine and resisted the Centre on the Reko Diq issue, they would have got a groundswell of support all around.

Considering the environmental consequences, all licenses to Reko Diq should be cancelled. In Sindh it is said that, “Gold that begets grief is better forsaken.” The hunger for gold is seemingly insatiable. Till 2009, 161,000 tonnes of gold had been mined in human history but that failed to satiate. A hundred more Reko Diqs will not satiate either. With gold prices at above $ 1,100, to expect the modern Midases to be compassionate to the people or environment in their ruthless quest for gold is futile, unless of course the people take matters into their own hands.

Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur has an association with the Baloch rights movement going back to the early 1970s. He can be contacted at mmatalpur@gmail.com

 

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