Honduras, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and also one which has been experiencing an explosion in unregulated mining activity, recently experienced yet another mining accident in which a landslide trapped 11 of the unfortunate miners inside of an illegal gold mine. Local volunteers were only able to rescue three before being forced to withdraw, fearing harm which might come from the unstable conditions within the poorly constructed mine. The mine lacked a basic map of its design to guide rescuers throughout its many shafts and tunnels, making the search even more challenging.
Gold has long attracted the attention of desperate men of all walks of like in all time periods and in all parts of the world. Gold’s value in the eyes of humankind persists to this day, with its price increasing almost every single year, once reaching almost $1,500 per ounce in 2013. It has dropped since then but its value is still high enough for countries like Honduras to attempt to cash in on its gold deposit, despite the fact that it boasts the most murders per capita in the world, a below average Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index, and a generally weak economy.
According to reports from observers, the countryside of certain parts of Honduras are littered with many of these “artisanal” mines which can sometimes end up as deep as 200 feet, quite deep for mines that were excavated using only hand tools. The men that work in these mines search desperately for any bit of gold they can pick from the walls, sieve from the dirt, or chemically extract from the soil.
There are no official numbers for the value or quantity of the gold produced from these small mines, which are completely unregulated by the Honduran government. However over the years many Hondurans have attested to the immense profits to be gained from these modest sites, saying that the money is worth the danger. Certainly these latest mining accidents have highlighted one “danger” associated with gold mining in Honduras, but so far have not brought to light the other danger, one that affects not only the miner but those living near the mines themselves.
Mining small bits of gold is a very complicated process. First getting the gold from the mines themselves is quite dangerous, given that they are not always built properly and as the current disaster shows can collapse easily. Then there is the actual process of getting to the gold hidden within the excavated earth itself. Gone are days when just picking away at the Earth and waiting for that glimmer of yellow would yield enough profit to justify the cost of the labor involved. Now miners must use a host of chemicals to extract the gold from the already excavated Earth. The technique most commonly used by the miners in Honduras is one which involves mercury, a chemical that is highly toxic and can cause numerous negative health effects and pollutes the local environment.
According to a United Nations expert on the subject, these miners will use mercury to extract the gold from the soil by mixing the heavy metal in with the gold bearing earth and then simply burn the mercury off, leaving only the gold. Of course the problem is that such fumes are extremely harmful to humans and since many miners perform this process inside of their own homes in order to protect their “haul” they not only contaminate themselves but also their families. Any remaining mercury is simply dumped out into the environment where, says the expert, “it goes straight to the fish.” Due to the obvious public health risk, such run-off is highly regulated in developed countries. However the government of Honduras has seen fit to let these illegal mines continue to threaten the health of its citizens and even permits mines owned by foreign firms to do the same.
Honduras and its citizens certainly have the right to attempt to exploit their natural resources in order to try and transform their country for the better. However, they along with the international community, which provides one of primary markets for the gold, should think not only of themselves but of the Hondurans who are yet to be born, for they are the ones who will bear the brunt of the current mercury stained status-quo. Exploitation of gold deposits does not have to involve robbing the future of its health and yet, given that little is being done to reign in the destructive mining practices currently harming the environment in Honduras it would seem that gold buyers do not mind being accessory to such theft as long as they get their precious commodity.
By Andrew Waddell