The Cleanest Line


Photo: María Mariñas
Protesters in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias. The banner says: “Environmental Pillage: We don’t need gold —we already have our own treasure.” Photo: María Mariñas

Stop the Black Dragon

By Tony Butt   |   Sep 22, 2017 September 22, 2017

About five minutes from where I live, there is a small village called Tapia de Casariego. The waves at Tapia are not world-class, but they can get very good on the right conditions. Tapia is also very significant in Spanish surfing history, being one of the birthplaces of surfing in this country.

Most of the local population make their living from fishing, small-scale dairy farming, local services and tourism; and just up the road there is an organic farm. In fact, the area around Tapia is one of the most uncontaminated parts of the Spanish coastline.

When I arrived in the area I was enthralled by the unspoiled natural environment. I began to take long walks along the coastal path, hoping to find new surf. Sometimes I wouldn’t see or hear another human all day.

One day, not far from the coast, I stumbled upon a dreamlike wooded valley, at the bottom of which were two small lakes. Here you could hide away in a labyrinth of vegetation, surrounded by the songs of birds and the calls of a thousand frogs. It quickly became one of my favorite walks after my morning coffee.

I later found out, to my horror, that underneath that magical wooded valley is the largest unexploited gold mine in Western Europe. A Canadian company called Black Dragon, is presently hoping to extract the gold using methods which will destroy those woods and contaminate the surrounding area. Understandably, many of the local people were, and still are, not very happy about it.

I thought about how different that place would be. Instead of the delightful sounds of birds and frogs, there would be the deafening noise of large, industrial machines and explosions, the air would be full of dust and diesel fumes and the area would be private access only.

A gold mine in Tapia might provide jobs for a few of the local population for a few years, but the natural environment would be severely damaged for many decades or even centuries afterwards. Long after the mining company has disappeared, the local people and their children and their grandchildren, would still be suffering the consequences.

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you cannot eat money.”

— Alanis Obomsawin

For the first time in my life I started thinking about gold. How much of the stuff exists? What is it used for? And why is there this obsession to keep digging more of it out of the ground?

I did some digging of my own and found a website called gold.org. It quickly provided answers to those first two questions. Currently, there are approximately 160,000 tons of gold above the ground. Just over half of that is being used for jewelry, another third or more is being used for “holdings and investments” and about ten percent is being used for “technical purposes,” typically electrical contacts for mobile phones and other devices. So, almost 90 percent of all the gold in the world is used for decoration or as a symbol of wealth, and only about ten percent is used for anything that might be considered useful.

The website also states that gold is “safe to handle and to transport, and does not deteriorate or disintegrate.” This suggests that it can probably be melted down and re-used again and again, with almost zero losses. Therefore, even if the need for electrical contacts increases exponentially, there will still be enough gold to last hundreds of years into the future. So why dig more out of the ground?

The reason is simple: greed. If you can dig it up for less money than you can sell it for, then you have made a profit. And profit seems to come above everything else, including clean water, clean air and fertile soil.

To extract gold that is buried underground and embedded deep within the rocks is a highly destructive process. Before you even start you need to clear the area of the existing natural vegetation—delightfully referred to by mining companies as “overburden.” Then you have to access the gold. Nowadays, the most economically viable method is usually open-caste mining, where the entire volume of rock above the gold is removed, usually with explosives.

Once you have accessed the rock containing the gold, you then have to remove it and bring it up to the surface. You need a lot of rock to get a very small amount of gold, typically one or two grams of gold per ton of rock. A worthwhile operation seldom involves the removal of less than a million tons of rock.

Next, you have to extract the gold from the rock. This involves crushing the rock into dust and then mixing it with large quantities of a separating agent, typically cyanide or mercury. The separating process often releases arsenic that was previously locked up in the solid rock.

Finally, you have to get rid of the waste containing all those toxic chemicals. The waste is typically stored in a large dump called a “tailings management facility.” The facility is, of course, supposed to be perfectly sealed so that the chemicals can never get out. Needless to say, cyanide, mercury and arsenic are not very nice if they get in the soil, in rivers or in coastal waters.

Photo: Tony Butt
The beautiful forest under which the gold is sitting. Excess vegetation that needs to be removed is simply referred to by the mining company as “overburden.” Photo: Tony Butt
Photo: Tony Butt
The mine would be just a few meters from this coastline. Photo: Tony Butt

Over the years since I first discovered that wooded valley, I have been closely following the Tapia gold project. Here is a brief history:

There are about 60 tons of gold down there, and to get it out would require the removal and processing of over 30 million tons of rock. Many attempts have been made in the past to extract the gold. The first people were the Romans, way back in the first century A.D., who managed to get some of it out using crude but ingenious methods. Then nothing much really happened until the twentieth century. The story is complicated, with companies buying each other out and changing names on a frequent basis. The ones who have come closest so far are AsturGold, who received formal approval from the Asturias government in 2013 for an underground mine, but not for the toxic waste dump. In the end they struggled with an environmental impact study, which was eventually rejected leading to the project being shelved in 2015.

AsturGold immediately went to the Supreme Court of Asturias and filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, for which a result is still pending. In late 2016, AsturGold changed its name to Black Dragon, and is currently getting ready to attack.

Information on what Black Dragon is proposing to do is available in a comprehensive technical report released in February 2017. The proposed mine would be a few hundred meters from the coast and less than two kilometers from Tapia village and its surf spot. Existing environmental law prohibits open-cast mining within 500 meters of the coast. They can, however, build an underground mine as long as the access points, processing plant and toxic waste dump are located outside the protected area.

Approximate location of the mine site, according to the latest technical report.
Approximate location of the mine site, according to the latest technical report.

For the past few years, my wife and I have belonged to a local autoconsumo group consisting of about 50 families. The idea is for the members of the group to be a little more dependent upon each other for basic resources, and a little less dependent upon the external consumer-capitalist society.

One thing that is working really well is an organic farm where we obtain all our fruit and vegetables. The farm uses cultivation methods that do not degrade the soil year by year. It provides in-season, locally grown products with no pesticides, chemical fertilizers or genetically modified organisms. The farm also gives employment opportunities to intellectually challenged people. And, finally, the organization behind the farm, Fundación Edes, runs an adjoining school for children with special needs.

The Black Dragon proposal shows access tunnels and other buildings located exactly over the school and farm. In the eyes of Black Dragon, the school and farm are just more overburden that will need to be removed to make way for the mine.

I recently spoke to Antonio García, director of Fundación Edes. Antonio is a soft-spoken, humble man who was reluctant to say a bad word about anyone. But I could tell he was worried:

“The mine would mean a complete change of paradigm for the region. The present sustainable model would give way to an extractivist, short-term model whose days are, by definition, numbered. The mining activity would cease within a few years but the contamination it produced would not go away. The natural environment we had before would be destroyed forever.”

Photo: Tony Butt
Antonio García, director of the organic farm and special education center that would be obliterated by the proposed gold mine. Photo: Tony Butt

The mine won’t just be a problem for the organic farm. If it goes ahead, people who work in other small-scale local businesses will be negatively affected, particularly if there is a toxic spill. But even if there is the slightest rumor of a spill they might still be affected.

Elias Vazquez grew up surfing in Tapia. He is a highly astute man and has an eye for a good business deal, but he is adamantly against the mine. Elias is a percebeiro, or collector of goose-barnacles (see my previous article on TCL). There are just over 200 percebeiros along the nearby coast, all of whom could be seriously affected by the mine. The barnacles are incredibly sensitive to the slightest contamination or excess of suspended sediment in the water. Elias explains:

“The smallest toxic spill or even just heavy rainfall could easily release heavy metals into the river Anguleiro, which flows into the sea at Tapia. The contaminants would end up in the sea, and probably seriously affect the barnacles. Whatever the case, any spill would be big news in the local press which would mean that people would immediately stop buying the barnacles and we would not be able to make a living.”

Photo: Tony Butt
Elias Vazquez (right) and Alejandro Menendez hunt for goose-barnacles just a few hundred meters from the proposed mine site. Photo: Tony Butt
Photo: Tony Butt
The beach at Tapia. The Anguleiro River, which you can see on the far side, would pass very near the toxic-waste dump a few kilometers upstream. Photo: Tony Butt

The area around Tapia contains a number of small-scale dairy farms. They are family businesses with around 20 or 30 cattle. The milk produced is of a very high quality and subject to stringent contamination controls. The slightest suggestion that it not pass these controls would mean that the buyers would immediately go elsewhere for their milk.

Also, Tapia is a popular destination for tourists looking for a quiet holiday in natural, unspoiled surroundings. The local population are keen on attracting more tourists and offering natural outdoor activities such as coastal walks, canoeing or a relaxing break in a restored centuries-old house. With the mine there, tourism would disappear, along with the income it generates.

And, last but not least, surfing is an important part of Tapia de Casariego. There are several different breaks, ranging from a small high-tide right, to a more powerful left that works up to about eight feet, to a mythical, unridden outer reef called La Sierra (The Saw) which starts breaking at around 20 feet.

The surfing heritage of Tapia is just as important as the quality of its waves. Tapia is one of the birthplaces of surfing in Spain and has a poignant story attached to it. In 1968, Australian surfer Peter Gulley and his brother Robert arrived in Tapia and encouraged some of the local kids to try surfing. From that moment on, surfing was firmly rooted into the culture of Tapia.

Sadly, Peter Gulley died in 1991. A commemorative stone was put up by local residents, and a yearly competition called the Peter Gulley Memorial—a regular stop on the European professional tour—has been held every year since 1992. Now, almost half a century after that first trip in 1968, Robert is still coming back every year, and some of those local kids, now in their sixties, are still surfing.

If the mine went ahead, surfing wouldn’t be the same in Tapia. Instead of a quality surf spot with clean water, a pristine local setting and a rich cultural surfing history, people would think of it as just another contaminated beach, like some of the spots in the heavily industrialized central Asturias.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to Robert who, in addition to being the originator of surfing in Tapia, has seen firsthand in Australia what mining can do to an area:

“I don’t think this mine should go ahead at all. Mining companies do what they like. Once they get permission, once they get a foot in the door, they won’t stop. I think there will be a lot of trouble, a lot of problems. It will ruin the whole area for kilometers up and down the coast, and inland as well. With the prevailing northeast winds, Tapia is directly downwind, so it will be covered in dust. In fact, the whole place will look like a lunar landscape.”

Photo: Evaristo Blanco
Robert Gulley, 49 years after his first visit to Tapia. Photo: Evaristo Blanco
Photo: Anabel Rascón
The memorial stone for Peter Gulley. Photo: Anabel Rascón
Photo: Abraham Rey

Tony going for the XXS awards with Tapia village in the background. Photo: Abraham Rey

Photo: Pedrín Mendez

The left at Tapia. Photo: Pedrín Mendez

Along the roads in and out of Tapia, on people’s houses and along walls you can see the words “Oro No!” (Gold, No!). The local campaign group, Oro No, has been fighting hard to stop the mine over the last few years. I spoke to one of the campaign leaders, Carlos Gutiérrez, who has been at the forefront of the campaign right from the beginning. Carlos is an old-school environmental activist who makes regular humanitarian missions to West Africa and Central America, but has never owned a house or a car. He is passionate about the issue, and feels personally insulted by the mining company:

“These people come here with their money and their arrogance and try to tell us what progress is. They try to tell us what is good for us and try to tell us how we can be happy. They don’t consider for a moment the local environment, what we enjoy and what we care for—because we have been caring for it for hundreds of years. All they understand is money and power.”

Oro No are a local group with a following of about 3,000 people, mostly in Spain. They have been highly influential in creating awareness about the dangers of gold mining and the environmental catastrophe that would unfold if the mine at Tapia were to go ahead. The suspension of the mining project in 2015 was considered a victory, but now Black Dragon are getting stronger by the day and preparing to attack at the first opportunity. If and when this happens, Oro No and the people of Tapia will need support internationally. So please join Oro No, keep up to date with what is happening and support them any way you can.

Photo: Tony Butt
Carlos Gutiérrez, at ground zero. Photo: Tony Butt

The environment is not just something nice to look at. It is our resource base. It gives us the food, water and air we need to survive. Destroying that resource base so that we can dig up a yellow metal whose usefulness is limited to electrical contacts, and of which there is already ten times as much as we need, seems like total insanity.

Black Dragon is a multinational corporation whose explicit function is to amass wealth, even if it means destroying the environment. The people who will gain are not the local inhabitants, but a small group of businessmen in Canada who have never even heard of Tapia.

And even if some of the local people end up getting jobs and money for a few years, the natural resources—the real wealth—will be stolen from their children and grandchildren. This is called “intergenerational tyranny” and should be treated as a serious crime.

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