After the 2010 earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and displaced more than a million, the government of Haiti identified mining for gold and other metals as necessary to strengthen the economy.
To that end, the government and the World Bank worked to revise the country’s mining law to attract foreign investment. Their draft law, which was presented to Parliament last July and is awaiting consideration, did not include input from Haitian environmental and human rights organizations.
The lack of transparency surrounding the proposed new mining law raises significant concerns about whose interests would be represented under the revamped legal framework. Canadian and American companies have already been granted permits to explore for gold, copper and other metals in the northern hills of Haiti. Although the full extent of Haiti’s mineral resources is unknown, some estimate that there is $20 billion worth of precious metals in the soil. If passed, the law would pave the way for country’s first commercial metal mine.
The experiences of poor but resource-rich countries around the world provide a stark reminder that translating natural resources into public wealth is a very risky business — one that often fails. Even in developed countries, industrial-scale mining has contaminated water, increased security threats, forced thousands of people from their homes, and damaged ecosystems for generations. In poor countries like Haiti, the record is even worse. Given the unique vulnerabilities it faces, mining could deal the country’s environment and economy a blow from which it would never recover.
Haiti is arguably the most environmentally damaged country in the Western Hemisphere. This damage is a consequence of environmental mismanagement, counterproductive foreign investment and anemic public institutions. The government has shown that it is unable to either prepare for or repair the destruction wrought by hurricanes, droughts and earthquakes. In fact, it has been unable to provide basic services to its citizens even in the absence of natural disasters: More than half of rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water.
In this densely populated country where both housing and land for farming are scarce, a majority of Haitians live in crowded cities, or in rural areas far from schools, hospitals and other services. Opening a mine would displace hundreds, if not thousands of families from their homes in the areas where the mines are expected to be built.
The government lacks the resources and the will to defend the interests of ordinary citizens. Officials from the Office of Mines and Energy told me that they visit communities where companies have explored for gold only when provided a ride in a company vehicle. Without regulation, international companies have shown that they have little incentive to think beyond their profits.
This country has long been plagued by corruption. Last year, a Haitian Senate report accused former government officials of embezzling more than $2 billion from PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan oil fund. Transparency International ranks Haiti as the second most highly corrupt country in the Americas. The divide between the rich and the poor in Haiti is extreme, and the poor majority struggles to hold the government accountable. More than 90 percent of schools are privately run.
El Salvador may provide a path forward. A year ago, the legislature there voted overwhelmingly to prohibit metal mining. The residents of areas rich in metals argued that their country was too densely populated and already too environmentally degraded to absorb the damage that would result from mining. El Salvador is the first country in the world to impose a ban on metal mining.
This precedent set by El Salvador should encourage other nations to hold inclusive debates about the costs and benefits of metal mining before allowing their nonrenewable resources to be dug up to the detriment of the many for the benefit of the few. In Haiti, a coalition of social movement organizations, the Kolektif Jistis Min (Justice in Mining Collective), is calling for just that: a national debate about the effects of mining before any mines are built. The collective, with which I have collaborated for more than five years, has taken a vocal position against metal mining, and is calling for the legislature to reject the draft mining law that it appears poised to pass.
Metal mining in Haiti will bring profits to the few and more misery for the masses. Haitian legislators should heed the example of El Salvador and listen to the voices of their own people who are cautioning against mining and demanding less destructive and more inclusive development.
Ellie Happel is the Haiti Project director for the Global Justice Clinic of New York University School of Law.