The animals were the first to die.
“I used to have a small pig farm,” eighty-year-old Mitelia Lima says, sitting outside her modest home located right along the Maimón-Cotuí highway in the Dominican Republic’s province of Sánchez Ramírez. The highway leads to a mine operated by Barrick Gold, a Canadian mining company. She pauses from her speech as a large truck barrels by, drowning out her voice.
“These pigs were my main source of livelihood, along with chickens and growing cacao beans,” she tells me. Things changed in 2012, shortly after Barrick Gold took over operations at the Pueblo Viejo mine, near the city of Cotuí, located about sixty miles north of the capitol Santo Domingo. “But then they started to die. My pigs would give birth to more than a dozen piglets and all of them would die within a few weeks.”
Other residents recount watching their cattle stock rapidly shrink, as cows began dropping dead. Some of the cattle died from bovine anemia, which can be caused by the ingestion of cyanide. As the deaths continued, residents rushed to sell their animals in order to salvage their livelihoods. Limp and lifeless fish floated to the surface of the Maguaca River, located nearby Lima’s home, before washing up on the river’s banks.
What was described by locals as a “bad chemical smell — like a mix of gas and sulphur” began emanating from the mine causing nausea, vomiting, and respiratory problems. At one point, teachers were forced to temporarily close the local school because children were becoming sick.
Lima’s great-granddaughter, Orianny, who is now nine years old, began developing skin lesions after swimming in the Maguaca River. Scars from these same skin lesions, which appear as painful boils and rashes, mark the bodies of scores of residents in the villages around the mine, with varying severity.
Lima says it took two years for Orianny to heal from the lesions. Many other residents have still not healed. The Dominican Republic’s fertile soil and warm tropical climate give birth to bright green vegetation and trees. But for the villages around the mine, shrunken black and moldy fruits dangle helplessly from barren limbs.
“Before Barrick came to this land, we were like millionaires,” Lima says. “We had a lot of water. We farmed and grew fruits. The land provided us everything we needed. But now there is nothing here.”
Lima, along with hundreds of other families, totaling about two thousand individuals, living near the Pueblo Viejo mine, have accused the company of contaminating rivers and polluting the land and air. “If anyone doesn’t believe us then go to the river and wash your feet in that water and tell us what happens,” Lima says, nodding her head in the direction of the Maguaca River. “But there’s nothing we can do but accept what has happened to us here. No one will listen to us because Barrick is more powerful than our president.”
“I wish those foreigners would have just died on their way over here,” she adds.
Barrick Gold’s Human Casualties
These days no one in Cotuí would dare touch the water of the Maguaca River. The river is one out of several in the area that residents allege are being contaminated by Barrick Gold. Mining industry watchdogs have similarly raised alarms over the company’s environmental impact in the area.
Barrick Gold operates Pueblo Viejo, an open-pit mine located on forty-eight hundred hectares of land, through a joint venture with Newmont, an American gold mining company. Barrick and Newmont are the two largest gold mining companies in the world. Before Barrick, the area of Pueblo Viejo was the location of a mining site operated by the state-run company Rosario Dominicana. The state-run mine was in operation from 1975 until Rosario Dominicana went bankrupt in 1999.
About four hundred fifty families from six nearby villages — La Piñita, La Cerca, Los Naranjos, Las Lagunas, Jurungo, and Jobo Claro — have complained for almost a decade that Barrick Gold has completely devastated their lives since arriving in the country.
“We no longer have cacao beans, oranges, mangos, bananas, or any other fruits. Look at the trees here,” ninety-year-old Juliana Guzmán de Martínez says, gesturing to the vegetation around her home in La Cerca, where a few lone chickens scamper around the yard. “They look pretty and green. But nothing grows from them. Right when you think you’re getting cacao or fruit, they will dry up and die. You can’t find even one tree of green bananas here anymore.”
Like the majority of the residents in these communities, Martínez was dependent on cacao production and raising livestock for her livelihood. She says that Barrick Gold’s arrival has caused her to lose everything. Ramón Ventura, a local activist, tells me that cacao production has decreased by at least 40 percent since Barrick began its operations and that many residents have given up on cultivating their lands. Scores of residents have also stopped consuming the local produce, Ventura says, as they worry that the fruits and vegetables have been contaminated.
“And the noise!” bellows Martínez, whose home sits between Barrick’s open pits and its tailings dam, which stores toxic liquid waste from the mine. “All night it’s boom, boom, boom!” Residents say loud noises from the machinery and detonations at the mine start around 10 PM and continue until 5 AM. While most community members have gotten used to it over the years, the small children often wake up crying and scared from the sounds. Many homes also have deep cracks in their walls and floors owing to the explosions at the mine.
Gabino Guzmán, Martínez’s sixty-nine-year-old son, wanders over near his mother and lifts up his pant leg to reveal scarring leftover from a skin lesion he says was caused by standing in the Maguaca River while he was fishing several years ago. Another man, Jacinto Jacques, seventy, says he developed skin lesions from the water that were so severe that he is now unable to walk. Sitting in front of his home made from wood and metal sheets in La Cerca, just up the hill from the Maguaca River, he has medical bandages wrapped around his feet and legs, bordered by blackened scars.
Some eight years ago, Jacques was standing in the river for only about five minutes, he says, when he felt some itchiness. After a few hours, his skin broke out in boils, eventually spreading from his feet to right below his knee. The skin affected by these painful lesions became so damaged that he could almost see his bones, he explains. He spent at least a month in several hospitals, but doctors could not tell him what was causing the reactions — they could only clean the wounds before sending him home.
“It affected my whole life,” Jacques says. “I haven’t been able to work since that day I stepped into the river. I now live off the charity of others.” The white bandages around Jacques’s legs are stained yellow as a result of constant infections, which he must take antibiotics for every day, causing nausea which leaves him unable to eat for days.
Other residents report nausea and stomach problems, along with itchy and burning rashes — which leave scars — and high rates of asthma, caused by toxic gases in the air. Higher rates of various illnesses, including cancers, and miscarriages have also been reported.
I spoke with several residents with skin lesions on their bodies — all of them claimed that the doctors at the public hospitals were not able to tell them the cause. The residents themselves suspect the lesions were caused by cyanide. While it was not possible to confirm this, the lesions do resemble cyanide rashes.
Jan Morrill, a campaign manager at the environmental watchdog Earthworks, tells me that skin and respiratory problems can also be caused by various types of heavy metals and chemicals, such as arsenic, mercury, and lead. These health issues are common for communities living next to mines, she adds.
These problems, however, as Morrill notes, are hard to diagnose because communities often lack access to medical care, water quality testing, and a government that can respond in a meaningful way to these issues.
Since Barrick Gold arrived, deaths have increased noticeably, which has overwhelmed the communities’ main cemetery. Half of this cemetery, located across from the entrance of Pueblo Viejo, was appropriated by Barrick Gold to build a mostly vacant training center.
“We can’t be sure if these people died from the contamination and toxins,” sixty-five-year-old Eusebia Torres Torres tells me, leaning against the outside wall of her home in Las Lagunas. It is hard for her to make it through a sentence without her lips quivering and tears streaming to her eyes.
“We are a little community and we’ve never seen this frequency of death before Barrick came. The deaths have doubled. We are seeing people die one after the other,” she continues. “Before Barrick, someone would die maybe every several months. But now when we’re at a funeral we will hear about someone else dying before we’ve even finished with that funeral.”
Torres, her cheeks stained with tears, says that because of the frequency of deaths and Barrick Gold’s takeover of part of the cemetery, gravediggers have begun digging up older remains to make room for new corpses. Residents say they have seen bags of old bones placed on the grounds of the cemetery, cast aside after being unearthed.
Barrick Gold’s tailings dam is one of the chief concerns of the area’s residents. Tailings ponds are constructed out of the waste, or tailings, from mines. They are built in stages as more mine waste becomes available. Built in El Llagal valley in Cotuí, Barrick’s dam, also called El Llagal, is 114 meters high and contains fifty-two million cubic meters of highly toxic waste.
According to locals, in the process of constructing the dam, the company consumed the El Llagal River, one of the communities’ main water sources, which joined with the Maguaca River. Even before Barrick Gold began its excavations in 2012, the communities noticed a significant decrease of available water.
The water in the Maguaca River was the communities’ main source of drinking water. “Before Barrick, we always had a lot of water, but right when they started construction it began disappearing,” explains Leoncia Ramos, a sixty-year-old grandmother turned activist in La Piñita. “You could drink from the water in those wells and we used to swim in the Maguaca and El Llagal rivers where they joined together.”
Ramos takes out her phone and shows me old photos of this area, where locals and outsiders would come and swim, have picnics, and organize birthday parties. The scene bears no resemblance to the current state of the Maguaca River, which flows thinly over the riverbed.
In 2012, in response to the communities’ concern that they would be left without sufficient water, Barrick Gold began providing four communities — Los Naranjos, La Piñita, La Cerca, and Las Lagunas — with two shipments of four five-gallon water bottles each week for some three hundred fifty families.
“When we first heard that Barrick Gold was coming here, we thought they would bring good things,” explains Ramos. “The company told us they would bring us jobs, development, schools, and money and that our lives would get better. But the reality has been the opposite. They took everything from us.”
Local families must now use bottled water for all their needs, including drinking, showering, cleaning their houses, dishes, and clothes. The provided water is often not enough, forcing them to purchase additional bottled water.
Poisoning the Water
“It’s something painful to have to tell your children they cannot touch the water in the rivers, even though they can see the water right in front of them,” Ventura, the activist, tells me. He turns to his four-year-old daughter, who has taken a seat next to him, and asks: “Yamilet, why are you not allowed to swim in the river?”
Without hesitation, she replies: “Because Barrick Gold poisoned the water.”
I reached out to Juana Barceló, the director of Pueblo Viejo, for an interview. Although she initially agreed, she did not respond to my questions over email. My subsequent attempts at getting in touch were met with silence.
In the past Barrick Gold has placed blame for the mine’s pollution on Rosario Dominicana, the state company which had operated at the site until two decades ago. Responding to the growing public outcry over local environmental destruction, Mark Bristow, the director and CEO of Barrick Gold, released a statement in May, claiming that the allegations of contamination are “unfounded and untrue.”
While Rosario Dominicana did contaminate local rivers in Cotuí, most notably the Margajita, residents around Pueblo Viejo say that the contamination has become exponentially worse under Barrick’s management. Rivers from which the community once drank are now dangerously toxic.
Barrick acquired the Pueblo Viejo site in 2006 and invested about $4 billion to update their extraction method. Employing the world’s four largest autoclaves — special processing machines — the mine uses a process called pressure oxidation. Sulfur of sulfide ores are oxidized in order to reach the gold trapped within them. This technology was not around when Rosario Dominicana operated the site.
In the natural world, it would take millions of years for this sulfur to oxidize. But using its technology to achieve pressure oxidation, Barrick Gold is able manage this process in a matter of hours, explains Victor Santos Suriel, a local geologist and mining expert. This procedure necessitates use of industrial quantities of cyanide and produces excessive amounts of waste.
Both the government and Barrick agreed to a cleanup of Rosario’s leftover contamination and to ensure clean water courses in the area, which included cleaning the Margajita River, before granting mining concessions to the company.
But according to residents, Barrick Gold has continued to contaminate — and in some cases has made worse — local water sources. These waterways include Margajita and the Hatillo dam, which is the country’s largest. The Hatillo dam provides irrigation to the Lower Yuna Basin, a major rice-producing area of the country.
A 2012 report by the Dominican Academy of Sciences concluded that Barrick’s operations were indeed contaminating the Hatillo dam. Locals say that other rivers, like Maguaca and Arroyo El Rey, previously unaffected during Rosario, are now highly contaminated. In 2014, tests on residents in Las Lagunas, Los Naranjos, La Piñita, and La Cerca found high levels of cyanide and other heavy metals in their urine and blood. The report from the study noted that this was the result of residents absorbing toxic metals through respiration and ingestion of contaminated water.
But Bristow claims that the company has kept its side of the cleanup agreement and is “responsible for the largest in-country environmental clean-up,” and remediation of “environmental damage left by previous operations at the mine.” He maintains that “such actions have significantly contributed to the improvement of the environment and especially the water quality.”
In his statement, Bristow points to data that shows the water quality in the Margajita has improved from 2004 to 2020, and says the allegations of contamination from surrounding communities have been “extensively reviewed by us and the government authorities and it has been found that these were not attributable to Pueblo Viejo.” Barrick claims that it does not discharge treated excess water from its tailings dam — which is necessary to avoid an overspill or degradation of the dam’s stability — into the Maguaca River.
I was brought to the Maguaca River, which borders the El Llagal tailings dam, by Ventura. He grabbed a stick and began moving it in a circular motion on the riverbed, resulting in a whitish substance coming to the surface. Ventura says he believes this is the result of Barrick Gold adding a chemical to the water that settles the toxins into the riverbed.
After about a minute, I felt itchiness and stinging on my arms and neck — red rashes then broke out on my skin.
Experts tell me that without adequate data of historical and current water quality it is not possible to determine details of the contamination — what exactly was caused by who, and when. “There are certain questions that are just not answered because of the lack of transparency from the companies and government,” says Morrill, from Earthworks.
Bristow states that “an extensive network of more than 100 monitoring wells and ninety surface water quality stations ensures compliance with [Dominican discharge] standards,” referring to discharging treated excess water from the tailings dam into the local environment. He also points out that results from testing are reported every six months to the Dominican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
This data, however, has not been made public. I reached out to Barceló and the ministry to request these documents, but did not receive them. According to Steven Emerman, retired professor of earth science at Utah Valley University specializing in tailings dams and mining, the Dominican standard for discharging mining effluent is “very weak.”
Anil Hira, a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University in Canada, was invited by the Dominican government to do extensive research in the communities around Pueblo Viejo in 2019. The resulting report — which was supported by the Canadian International Resources Development Institute (CIRDI) — was subsequently censored by the Dominican government. Hira tells me that he was not able to access necessary data on the water quality from Barrick Gold or the government, receiving only limited data on Margajita.
In his report, based on surveys and interviews with hundreds of local households, dozens of stakeholders, and public documents, Hira notes that “people just don’t trust what Barrick is doing and they don’t trust what the government is doing.”
Bristow’s statement claims that since 2012 Pueblo Viejo has “invited communities to participate in quarterly environmental monitoring which includes water sampling and analysis by a certified laboratory.”
But Hira tells me this monitoring is “basically a tour of their facility with lunch for a handful of chosen community members who had to apply.” While this might “superficially reassure some members of the community,” Hira says that “taking a small sample of water as part of a tour does nothing to assuage the community concerns.”
“There’s no hard data or hard statistics to really evaluate [the pollution and environmental concerns] in any scientific way,” Hira says, referring to the information made available to him from the government and company. “There’s an unwillingness to investigate the health issues so it’s impossible as an outsider to get to the bottom of the problem,” he explains.
Barrick Gold, meanwhile, has often promoted their “sustainable” economic initiatives in the communities around Pueblo Viejo, with Bristow stating that the company has “undertaken more than six hundred projects for the benefit of the communities surrounding our operations which include investment in health, water, and electrification.”
Five percent of Barrick’s proceeds in Cotuí are supposed to be returned to the region through the government, which community members say is not happening. I reached out to the Ministry of Energy and Mines for comment, but did not get a response. Residents say Barrick has done very little that has benefited local development, which Hira confirms in his research.
When I asked Martínez if she could respond to Barrick Gold’s claims that it has positively benefited the communities through its mining operation, Martínez, along with several other community members who had gathered at her home to listen to her interview, broke out into howling laughter.
When the laughter died down after a few seconds, Martínez said: “Barrick doesn’t care if we die here. They know we’ve been living in this contamination for years. They have given us nothing. I would have preferred if Barrick had come here and offered me poison in a cup of coffee over how I’m living now.”
Steal, Kill, Poison
Since 2013, the communities have led a sustained protest movement to demand the government relocate them from the land. The years-long protests have included hundreds of residents creating road blocks leading to the Pueblo Viejo mine, chaining themselves to chairs, wearing pollution masks, and waving protest placards outside the mine’s entrance.
“It was very hard for us to come to this decision,” says Ramos. “It’s not easy to give up on the land you’ve lived your whole life.”
But, one by one, the hundreds of families came to the painful conclusion that their lands were no longer livable. “This used to be a healthy and safe place to live,” Ramos says. “Today we have nothing to leave behind to our children — only poison, contamination, and misery.”
The bottled water Barrick provided to the four communities became a symbol of their protest movement, with hundreds of demonstrators often holding up the empty bottles during marches as proof that Barrick Gold was aware of the contamination of their water. The company, in turn, halted their provision of bottled water. According to residents, after a week, the government stepped in and resumed delivering the water to the communities.
Ramos says Barrick Gold has since attempted to divide the community. “Barrick started paying one person from each of the communities to provide the company information on what was being planned,” Ramos tells me. “When we had meetings [between activists], Barrick would pay people to come and disrupt it.”
“You can’t trust anyone here anymore,” Ramos adds. “We now have to be careful about who we tell about our organizing because sometimes the people who you least expect are paid by Barrick Gold.”
Pedro Guzmán, sixty-one, sits at the protest camp in La Cerca about a mile from the entrance of the Pueblo Viejo mine, during a recent visit. Activists call this protest installment the campamento de los encadenados, or “camp of the chained” located along the Maimón-Cotuí highway, which leads to the mine. Almost every electricity pole on the way to the camp has reubicación, or “relocation,” painted down its length.
Protest banners and signs are draped and posted to the side of the road — all demanding relocation for the communities. A large Christmas tree, made from wood, bamboo, and a green sheet, is ornamented with protest slogans and the flag of the Dominican Republic is the tree-topper. Beside the tree a sign reads: “Barrick Gold: Steal, Kill, Poison.” The company is depicted as the grim reaper dressed as Santa Claus, while the demands for relocation are personified in images of rebirth and renewal.
In 2019, hundreds of residents marched for three days from Cotuí to the national palace in Santo Domingo, about sixty-five miles away, to demand relocation. Guzmán, who is Catholic, dressed as Jesus Christ and carried a protest placard attached to a wooden cross during the days-long march.
Guzmán says that he was awoken by a voice one night. “It wasn’t a man’s voice; it was a kind of voice that came to me like a dream. I believe it was God and the voice told me to make a cross and carry the cross with me during the march,” he explains. Guzmán tells me that his two-year-old grandson died of sudden asphyxiation caused by the mine’s toxic fumes several years ago.
“People call this company Barrick Gold. But here we call it the devil. When I’m carrying this cross the devil cannot hurt me because God is on our side,” he says.
Locals tell me that the government has since agreed to relocate the families and has conducted a census to count the number of individuals in need of relocation. Most of the homes around Pueblo Viejo bear an official Ministry of Energy and Mines sticker that confirms their houses were counted.
But the residents do not know when the relocations will be carried out or where they will be relocated. Many community members have also become suspicious over whether the government will actually keep its word.
In his statement, Bristow alleges that the majority of the families demanding relocation “moved into the area with the intention of being relocated and to resultantly benefit financially from the process.” However, he does not clarify what evidence he has for this allegation or why the government would have agreed to relocate these families if this were the case.
Leaky Dams Holding Back Oceans of Toxic Sludge
Living conditions near Pueblo Viejo are unbearable now. But it will likely get worse before it gets better. The mine’s tailings dam — an embankment used to store mining byproducts — is cause for profound worry. The need for locals to be relocated could soon take on a more dire sense of urgency.
In response to concerns about the company’s tailings dam, Bristow stated that “Barrick has significant experience managing Tailings Storage Facilities which are carefully monitored and maintained to ensure the stability of the dam walls and prevent seepage of contaminants into the local environment.”
But according to Emerman, these dams are a “matter of concern under all circumstances.” Since constructing tailings dams does not earn the mining company revenue, and is only a loss for the business, there is an incentive to minimize costs.
For these reasons, tailings dams fail over a hundred times more frequently than conventional dams, even in countries like Australia, Canada, and Brazil, which have more stringent environmental regulations. According to Morrill, the consequence of a failure at El Llagal Dam has been categorized as “extreme” as its collapse could kill more than a hundred people and cause major environmental damage and economic consequences.
Tailings dams can also never be dismantled. When Barrick Gold finishes its operations in the country, its tailings dams will remain forever. “There’s nothing that you can abandon and not have it fail eventually,” Emerman says.
Steven Vick, the world’s leading expert on tailings dams, has said that system failure is inevitable. He notes that after a hundred years the chances of failure is fifty-fifty and after several hundred years the failure probability is 100 percent. “The people in this area will have to worry about the collapse of that tailings dam for many generations,” Emerman says. “It will remain as a permanent threat.”
Bristow claims that the company has ensured the careful design and monitoring of the tailings dam to prevent acid mine drainage and the contamination of the groundwater and local environment. But Emerman says it is not possible for a mining company to guarantee the prevention of acid mine drainage, which most commonly occurs when contaminants leak from behind the dam and enter the groundwater. Such drainage is extremely common worldwide, especially at gold mines.
“The truth is that all sulfide mines cause water pollution,” Emerman explains. “There’s never been a sulfide mine that didn’t cause water pollution. These are simply trade-offs that the world makes. If you want gold, which nobody needs, this is what you accept in return: the permanent threat of tailings and water pollution.”
Most — if not all — residents in Cotuí were completely unaware of the dangers associated with tailings dams and say they were told by the company that the stored waste would not pose any environmental or health risks to them.
Barrick Gold’s El Llagal tailings dam is twenty-eight meters taller than the Brumadinho dam in Brazil, which stored tailings from an iron ore mine, and stores 40.3 million more cubic waste than at Brumadinho, which in 2019 collapsed, causing the deaths of at least two hundred seventy people and releasing twelve million cubic meters of tailings into the environment.
The spill likely polluted more than 186 miles of river and will affect the region’s entire ecosystem.
Alba Lopez, thirty-eight, is out of breath. “I’m very tired,” she tells me, as she takes a seat on the porch of her small wooden home in La Gina village in the Yamasá municipality, located on the other side of the mountains from Cotuí. A protest banner is draped over the side of her blue colored home, reading: “The village is united against Barrick.”
“I thought there was a Barrick vehicle in the area so I was getting ready to find it and burn it down,” Lopez says, flustered and wiping sweat from her forehead. In reality, Barrick Gold officials would not risk entering Yamasá, part of the Monte Plata province, without armed police escorts.
In 2019, Barrick Gold proposed an expansion of Pueblo Viejo, which would include an additional tailings dam in the Cuance river basin in Yamasá, which Barrick says is necessary for them to continue their gold production in the country. This expansion of operations could extend the life of the mine into the 2040s. Through local media, the company has warned that without the expansion, they would have to freeze their operations, which would bring serious economic consequences to the country.
This time, however, the communities do not believe the company’s promises of jobs and development; instead, Barrick Gold is being met with fierce local resistance.
Residents, like Lopez, have connected with community members in Cotuí, working together on a campaign to warn the residents of Yamasá of the dangers the tailings dam poses to the area. They have invited sick and ailing residents of Cotuí to come speak to villagers in Yamasá.
They have also held demonstrations and organized protest caravans from Yamasá to Monte Plata city, in an attempt to spread awareness of the threats posed by mining to the rest of the province and to reject Barrick Gold’s plans in the area. Barrick Gold, for its part, has worked to win hearts and minds throughout Yamasá, including an invitation to villagers to participate in tours at Pueblo Viejo. According to those who took the tour, Barceló, the director of Pueblo Viejo, assures the residents that the claims of contamination in Cotuí are untrue.
Residents tell me that Barrick Gold has attempted to build local support for the proposed expansion by offering jobs to residents in Yamasá. They have strategically targeted the youth of the communities with promises of jobs and gifts. About a hundred residents in Yamasá now work for the company, which, like in Cotuí, comes with a high social cost, and has already split apart entire families.
Lopez says her older brother took a job with Barrick Gold several months prior and she has since stopped speaking with him. “This pained me a lot,” she tells me. “But we do not have patience for the ones working for Barrick. The moment they begin work for Barrick, they become enemies of our community. They become enemies of our children’s future.”
“They take these jobs for money and short-term opportunities,” she adds. “They don’t look at the future consequences and how it will eventually hurt their own children and the ones they love.”
Despite the company’s attempts to bolster support for the expansion, local opposition remains strong. Activists tell me that the overwhelming majority of residents in Yamasá are against Barrick Gold’s plans in the area. Barrick officials have been met by crowds of angry residents about a dozen times when they attempted to enter the area to collect soil samples or get consent forms signed.
The activists have ripped documents from the officials’ hands and destroyed soil samples they took from the land, while forcing Barrick officials, along with members of a Dominican NGO working with Barrick Gold, out of the communities. In April, the national police shot tear gas at protesters in Yamasá demonstrating against a Barrick Gold meeting. Bristow says the event was part of the company’s “public participation process” to share information about the proposed tailings dam in Yamasá. Activists blocked the movement of fifteen buses of people who were en route to the meeting.
Bristow says in his statement that the expansion project is being opposed by a “minority group of detractors,” who have been “spreading misinformation to the communities and preventing us from conveying the facts and undertaking the studies required,” adding that the majority of these people do “not represent the community.”
However, I spoke with various residents and leaders from the Catholic Church and the Monte Plata municipal government — all of whom confirmed that the rejection of the proposed tailings dam was widespread in Yamasá. Leaders from the Catholic Church and the municipal government are also heavily involved in the movement against Barrick Gold and have acted as central organizers for several protests against the company.
Rights groups, mining experts, and geologists have also expressed concerns with the proposed expansion. The Ozama River, one of the most important rivers in the country and which provides water to a large portion of Santo Domingo, originates from Yamasá, while eleven more rivers originate from the province of Monte Plata. The province is also home to many of the country’s most vital watersheds.
The Cuance River, where the proposed tailings dam would be built, is a tributary of the Ozama River and also joins with other rivers and creeks, according to Suriel, the local geologist. “If that [proposed] dam breaks or leaks, it will reach the Ozama River,” Suriel says, putting the entire region in danger.
The Dominican Republic, meanwhile, is one of the world’s main exporters of organic cacao beans and the Monte Plata province is the country’s biggest producer. The communities fear that this industry will collapse if the land becomes contaminated like it is in Cotuí.
According to Morrill, climate change also intensifies the current and proposed risks of Barrick’s operations in the country. The Dominican Republic is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and is among the countries most exposed to natural disasters in the world — ranked eighth out of 183 countries that experience high frequencies of hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, and other extreme weather events. These are all serious risk factors for the failure of tailings dams, Morrill says.
Economic Development — But at a Terrible Cost
But the Dominican government is largely dependent on the revenues from the company. According to Barrick Gold, its mining at Pueblo Viejo averaged around 31 percent of the country’s national exports from 2013 to 2020. During the same period the company paid more than $2.6 billion in direct and indirect taxes, averaging 19 percent of the total income tax paid by corporations in the Dominican Republic. It also employs thousands of Dominicans.
The Dominican government accepted an advance of $108 million in taxes and royalties from Barrick Gold last year to help the government address the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Antonio Almonte, the Dominican Republic’s minister of energy and mines, has stated that the acceptance of this money was not connected to the approval of Barrick Gold’s expansion.
Critics, however, fear this acceptance of advance payments from Barrick will bind the government into welcoming Barrick’s expansion — at the expense of local communities. Almonte expressed his support for the company’s expansion earlier this year.
“It’s ecological suicide,” says Ezequiel Echevarria, a professor at the School of Natural and Exact Sciences at Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra. The Dominican Republic is an overpopulated island nation, whose 10.8 million inhabitants will have nowhere to go if mining continues to eat up the country’s resources and contaminate its ecosystems. While hundreds of families are waiting in anxious anticipation to be relocated from Cotuí, soon there will be no more habitable land left for relocations.
“Mining is the single biggest threat to life in the Dominican Republic,” Echevarria says. “The economic benefits the government receives from Barrick, or other mining companies, are nothing compared to the costs of the environmental damage caused from this mining.”
This is not lost on the activists in Yamasá. “We are not just fighting for Monte Plata. We are also fighting for Santo Domingo, for Haina, and Sans Souci,” Lopez tells me, naming other cities in and around the capitol. “We are fighting for our lives and for the future generations in this country. Barrick Gold wants to turn our entire country into one big Cotuí.”
Big and brightly colored bananas, plantains, and cacao fruits hang from the trees around Lopez’s home. The environment looks like how residents in Cotuí described their lands before Barrick Gold arrived.
“We have clean rivers we can drink from and where our children can swim. We have plenty of cacao trees. Our air is fresh here in Yamasá. We don’t need gold to live. We already have the richness that God gave to us.”
“If you ever hear on the news that Barrick constructed the tailings dam here, that means we’re all dead,” she adds, lifting her index finger and waving it back and forth in a warning gesture. “Any mine that wants to come here, the first thing they will need to do is build a big cemetery because they would have to kill us first. This is our position. We will fight them until death.”
Back in Cotuí, Torres continues to wipe away tears trailing down her cheeks, as her eyes scan her surroundings in Las Lagunas. “When I look at the community and the land now, I feel like I’m looking at a cemetery,” she tells me.
On her chest is that familiar scarring she says was caused by toxic gases in the air. Her trembling voice sounds like an echo reflecting the stories of all the residents around Pueblo Viejo, as she describes an itchy and stingy rash that broke out on her skin years ago, and which continues to keep her up at night from the itchiness and discomfort.
“Every day I wake up and all I see around me is pain and sadness because Barrick killed everything here. Everything is dead. Now our only chance at life is to be relocated,” says Torres, whose family also has lived in Las Lagunas for as many generations as she can remember.
“Barrick Gold is worse and more dangerous than Christopher Columbus,” she adds. “At least Columbus gave us gifts before he stole our gold. Barrick couldn’t even do that. We had no concept of what the devil was until Barrick Gold came to our lands.”