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Archive for June, 2012

Originally published in High Country News (June 12, 2012). Reprinted with permission.

By Ben Long

Two of my favorite western cities, Tucson, Ariz., and Boise, Idaho, share some common blessings and one common curse.

The blessings include lovely mountain backdrops, vibrant universities and increasingly diverse economies.

The shared curse: badly misguided mining claims upstream.

Photo courtesy Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Why, in the 21st Century, should communities like Boise and Tucson be shackled to an antiquated federal mining policy dating back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant?

I was a newspaper reporter in Boise for a short spell and when I return, I am drawn to the Boise River and its marvelous greenbelt. It’s a rare city where the trout fishing and kayaking are so good within city limits.

Folks in Boise are rightfully concerned about a Canadian company that has proposed a cyanide-leach gold mine upstream from the Boise River. Besides fishing and floating, the Boise provides about a fifth of drinking water for the largest metro area in Idaho. The battle cry there is: the Boise River is more precious than gold.

That scenario might sound familiar to folks in Tucson. There, the mining company Rosemont Copper recently unveiled plans for a giant, thirsty copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains on the outskirts of town. Water is even scarcer and more precious in Tucson than it is in Boise.

When the Montana winters start to wear us down, my family heads to Tucson and surrounding Sky Island mountain ranges.  We love to bird at local hotspots like Madera Canyon.

Mining has been, and will continue to be, important elements in both the Gem State and the Copper State economies. But it’s long past time to recognize that just because there is gold in the hills, it’s not always worth ripping the hill apart to get it.

When Karen and I visit Madera Canyon, we hope for a glimpse of a rare bird like an Elegant Trogon or Flame-colored Tanager. We are not alone. The two counties near Tucson bring in nearly $3 billion/year from tourism and recreation. What’s more, the natural settings and outdoor opportunities near cities like Boise and Tucson help attract investment and jobs in small business, light industry and technologies.

But forget all that. The 1872 General Mining Law mandates that mining is always the highest priority for our public lands, from the Boise National Forest to the Coronado National Forest. Local rangers may modify, but are not allowed to reject a mining proposal, even when it runs squarely against local sensibilities or modern economic interests.

That evidently made sense in the 1870s, when Col. Custer and Sitting Bull clashed over prospectors’ intrusions into the Black Hills. But those days are done. It’s time to give local communities a voice in determining the future of public lands that offer so much value, far beyond minerals. Even if that means sometimes saying “no.”


Image: The natural setting around Tucson, Ariz., such as the Santa Rita Mountains, are more precious than gold. Photo courtesy Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Ben Long is an outdoorsman, author and conservationist from Kalispell, Mont.,  who has yet to add the Elegant Trogon to his life list. He is senior program director for Resource Media.

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Mining Gold, Undermining Democracy

Reprinted from Other Words

Neither foreign investors nor unelected tribunals deserve the power to trump democratically elected leaders.

By Robin Broad and John Cavanagh

A tribunal in Washington, D.C. that nobody elected recently issued a verdict that potentially hinders the democratic rights of millions of people. Its three members ruled that a foreign company may continue to sue El Salvador for not letting the company mine gold there. The impoverished Central American country could potentially be forced to pay a Canadian mining company called Pacific Rim $77 million or more in damages. This anti-democratic ruling has ominous implications for all of us.

We visited El Salvador last year to learn more about this landmark case. A wide vein of gold lies alongside the northern portions of a large river that flows down the country’s middle. This river provides water for more than half its population. The gold remained relatively undisturbed until about a decade ago, when foreign companies began to apply for mining permits.

Farmers and others told us that they were initially open to gold mining, thinking it would bring jobs to ease the area’s deep poverty. But as they learned more about the toxic chemicals used to separate gold from the surrounding ore and about the massive amounts of water used in the process, they began to organize a movement that opposed mining. Their simple cry: “We can live without gold, but we can’t live without water.”

By 2007, polls showed that close to two-thirds of Salvadorans opposed gold mining. In 2009, Salvadorans elected a president who promised he wouldn’t issue any new mining permits during his five-year term. He has kept this pledge.

But Pacific Rim didn’t sit idly by as democracy worked its way from El Salvador’s northern communities to its national government. The company sought a mining license. When the government didn’t approve its environmental impact assessment, the Canadian company resorted to lobbying Salvadoran officials. And, when its lobbying failed, Pacific Rim lodged a complaint against El Salvador at the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington under a U.S.-initiated trade agreement and a little-known investment law in El Salvador.

Laws and trade agreements like these grant corporations the right to sue governments over actions — including health, safety, and environmental regulations — that reduce the value of the corporation’s investment.

To the surprise of many observers, the tribunal ruled on June 1 that Pacific Rim can proceed with the lawsuit against El Salvador. Even if the cash-strapped Salvadoran government wins in the end, it will likely have to shell out millions on legal fees to defend an action taken after lengthy democratic deliberations. If it loses in the tribunal’s next ruling, it will cost even more.

Laws and trade agreements that allow corporations to sue governments should worry us all. No international tribunal should have the right to punish countries for laws or measures approved through a democratic process, be it in the United States, El Salvador, or anywhere else. President Barack Obama said this himself in 2008 when he promised to limit the ability of corporations to use trade agreements to sue over public-interest regulations.

Yet the Obama administration is currently negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership with several countries. And it’s pushing for provisions that would allow companies to sue governments under this trade pact. But an expanding coalition of labor, environmental, religious, and other groups opposes giving Big Business this privilege. A similar coalition in Australia, another country negotiating this trade deal, has convinced its government to oppose such corporate “rights.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership may well prove an opportunity for this outrageous assault on democracy to be defeated.

Democracy belongs to the people. Those of us standing up to defend democracy and counter corporate abuse should strongly oppose any new “rights” for corporations being written into new trade pacts as we try to overturn the existing ones.

El Salvador’s government has the right to act upon the will of its people — and should be expected to do so. Neither foreign investors nor unelected tribunals deserve the power to trump democratically elected leaders.


Robin Broad is a professor at American University’s School of International Service, and John Cavanagh directs the Institute for Policy Studies.

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