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In Haiti, concern over gold rush

In country still struggling to recover from 2010 earthquake, citizens are hesitant to trust foreign mining companies.
Last modified: 31 Jul 2012 10:28

It's a Haitian Gold Rush - that's the rumour we were hearing as we made our way to Trup du Nord in the northern part of the country.

After an eight hour car ride on mainly dirt roads, we finally arrived at our destination.

Or at least that's what we thought. Once we got to the small town we realised that few locals were willing to take us to the rivers where people panned for gold. It turns out that over the past year dozens of foreigners - mostly Canadians and Americans had been poking around the same area trying to convince Haitians to allow them to drill on their land to take samples.

For centuries, Haitians in these parts have panned for gold and it's a secret they don't want to get out. One local woman told us that she's worried the white people will steal her gold. "Since I was a kid I have been panning for gold. I don’t want any company to come here and take our gold away. Gold is my life!"

It took about an hour to convince her to show us the river where she pans, so worried was she that we would reveal the location to a mining company.

According to an investigative report by Haitian Grassroots Watch - a Haitian organisation which works with journalism students from the University of Haiti - foreign mining companies have already invested more than $30 million dollars collecting samples, building roads and digging.

Nearly 15 per cent of Haiti’s territory is now under license to North American mining firms and their partners.

In the neighbouring Dominican Republic, mining companies believe they’ve found the largest gold reserve in the Americas: 24 million ounces.

They are hoping the gold rush extends to Haiti – a country where the average person earns about a dollar a day.

Laurent Lamothe, the country's prime minister, is hopeful that a gold rush could help his country, which is still struggling to recover from the devastating earthquake in 2010.

"It gives us the opportunity to have our financial independence with programmes against extreme poverty and programmes to create jobs. "

Keeping those potential profits in the country, however, will be a challenge - Haiti has one of the lowest royalty rates in the western hemisphere — only 2.5 percent of the value of each ounce of gold extracted.

The question of who will benefit from a potential windfall of profits if large quantities of gold are found is one that worries Jane Regan, a professor of journalism who is involved with Haiti Grassroots Watch.

"There is absolutely no transparency and in the meantime Canadian and American companies now control more than 1,100 square miles (2,849 sq. km) of Haitian territory and I think that would make anybody nervous. "

Environmental impact from possible future open pit mining projects is also a major concern.

It's still a question whether or not a country which ranks in the bottom ten of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index can provide the necessary oversight to ensure that both profits and the environment can be preserved.

Many Haitians we spoke to are divided on the issue. Some locals like Jean Igo, who has been unemployed for months, says he would welcome a job working in a mine. However, after he allowed a Canadian company to drill on his land he is now having second thoughts about doing business with foreigners.

"I don’t trust doing business with them. They did not give us a good guarantee. They gave us a little cash but it was nothing. They promised they would give people jobs operating the machines and they did not fulfill any of their promises."

The reality, however, is that big companies will most likely create thousands of jobs for locals. A fact that might just convince many that it's worth taking the risk.