‘It’s a barbarity’: why are hundreds of families asking to be moved away from this Dominican Republic goldmine?

Last Updated: June 16, 2024By

Living in the Shadow of the Goldmine: Casilda Lima’s Story

A Home Under a Giant Dam

Imagine waking up every day under the shadow of a massive, 114-meter-high dam that holds tons of waste from one of the world’s largest gold mines. That’s the reality for Casilda Lima, who lives in the Dominican Republic near the Pueblo Viejo goldmine. Her house, painted pink and yellow, has a sign that says “God bless this home,” but it sits right next to this enormous dam.

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Behind this dam is a lake filled with waste from the gold mining process. The mining company uses a lot of machinery, chemicals, and water to grind up rocks and extract gold and silver. This waste, called tailings, often contains harmful substances, some of which can be deadly or even radioactive.

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Casilda’s Health Battles

Casilda, 47, found out in 2014 that she had high levels of lead and heavy metals in her blood. She believes the pollution from the mine and the dam caused her health issues, which include heart problems, headaches, nausea, and fevers.

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“I never had any health problems before Barrick came,” Casilda says. Barrick is the Canadian company that started operating the mine in 2013. Now, she struggles with constant headaches, kidney issues, difficulty breathing, and dizziness.

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A Family’s Struggle

Casilda’s home in Las Lagunas is shared with her five children and two nephews, who also suffer from health problems. Her 23-year-old son frequently gets headaches and feels dizzy.

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Las Lagunas is one of six communities near the dam, home to over 450 families. Many of these residents say the mining operations have severely harmed their health, livelihoods, and environment.

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The Mining Giant and Its Plans

Barrick, along with US-based Newmont, operates the mine through a joint venture. They plan to expand the mine and build a new tailings dam, which would be three times larger than the current one.

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A report by Steven H Emerman, an expert on mining impacts, criticized Barrick’s environmental impact study for being incomplete and underestimating the potential dangers. However, Barrick’s president, Juana Barceló, countered that Emerman’s report lacked data and analysis.

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Both the existing and proposed dams are rated as “extreme,” meaning that if they fail, over 100 fatalities could be expected.

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Community Voices

Fernando Peña, who leads a coalition of over 100 organizations monitoring mining in the Dominican Republic, says, “It’s a barbarity.” The local Comité Nuevo Renacer (New Rebirth Committee), representing the affected communities, has been vocal in their opposition. Their headquarters are marked with skulls, crossbones, and messages like “Yes to life” and “Relocation now!”

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Leoncia Ramos, a spokesperson for the committee, explains, “People are suffering from respiratory problems, vision loss, skin lesions, heart problems, and depression. People are dying.”

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The community has repeatedly raised concerns about water contamination, but Barrick and the Dominican mining ministry deny that the mine is to blame.

The Historical Context

Before Barrick, another company started mining at the site in 1975. The Dominican government took over in 1979, and operations stopped in 1999, leaving significant environmental contamination. Barrick has since invested $75 million to clean up outside its boundaries and treats water to meet regulatory standards before releasing it.

Local Impact and Economic Realities

Despite these efforts, some locals have noticed a drop in cacao production and fruit yields. They now rely on the town market for food, which is five miles away. Ramos points out, “We could be living well, but there are people here who only eat once a day because they have nothing.”

Barrick claims to have invested $7 million in community projects, including cacao plantations, and asserts that cocoa production has generally increased since 2008.

Calls for Relocation

Plans to relocate the affected families have been discussed but never implemented. Barceló and the mining ministry deny any such plan’s existence. Barceló argues that many people have moved into the area hoping for financial gain through resettlement, and claims that the mine does not discharge into their water sources.

A letter sent to Barrick and government ministries by various organizations alleges that the community’s complaints suggest violations of Barrick’s international commitments and standards. Barceló, however, insists that Barrick prides itself on being a responsible corporate citizen.

Growing Attention

The plight of these communities has caught the attention of the Dominican Chamber of Deputies’ human rights committee. Juan Dionicio Rodríguez Restituyo, its president, visited the area and later told parliamentarians that the situation filled him with horror. He emphasized that relocating the 450 families is the only solution.

He passionately declared, “It is not possible that there is no authority in the Dominican Republic that can tell that company (Barrick), ‘We are going to find a way for these people to live and have a future.’”

Struggling for a Future in the Shadow of a Goldmine

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