Toll on Indigenous Peoples
Around half of all the gold mined from 1995 to 2015 is likely to come from native lands-the traditional territories of indigenous peoples. Many indigenous peoples live in remote areas that until recently had not been accessible to the mining industry. Government and business interests often do not respect the spiritual and cultural connection indigenous people have to their lands and environment. And their relative isolation from mainstream society often leaves indigenous communities without basic legal and political safeguards. In many countries, for example, the law does not recognize indigenous peoples clearly as owners of their lands. Even when surface land rights are clearly titled to indigenous groups, governments frequently sell off the subsurface rights to mining corporations.
Pak Jau Hau of the Dayak indigenous people of Kalimantan affected by Kelian open pit gold mine in Indonesia. Credit: Jeff Atkinson/Oxfam CAA
Some examples of mining-related problems facing indigenous people:
In 1895, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes of Montana were forced by the US government to abandon 16,200 hectares (about 39,700 acres) of what was then Spirit Mountain, a sacred site. The government wanted the land opened to gold prospecting. Today, Spirit Mountain has been replaced by the Zortman-Landusky open pit cyanide-leach gold mine. Although the mine was closed in 1998 when its owner, Pegasus Gold, declared bankruptcy, it continues to pollute what is left of the landscape. Both surface and groundwaters have been extensively contaminated. Water quality problems and poor cleanup of disturbed lands have prompted multiple lawsuits by the tribes against both the state and federal governments. The first lawsuit in 1994 resulted in a $37 million settlement for violations of the Clean Water Act.
Credit: Mineral Policy Center
In Bolivia, Canada-based Orvana Minerals began operations in May of 2003 at its Don Mario gold and silver mine, located in the heart of the pristine Chiquitano Forest, home to numerous Chiquitano and Ayoreo indigenous communities. In June 2003, the regional indigenous federation filed a complaint with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private sector lending arm of the World Bank and partial financier of the mine, alleging violations of World Bank environmental and social safeguard policies. An IFC investigation is underway.
Indigenous people have special rights to be consulted about mining projects when governments retain ownership of sub-surface mineral deposits on their lands. Under the International Labor Organization's Convention No. 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, which has been signed and ratified by 17 countries, governments must allow for a culturally appropriate system of consultation. ILO Convention No. 169 also requires indigenous communities to participate in the benefits of mining projects. Seven South American countries are parties to the convention, and indigenous communities in the region have used the convention to defend their rights.
The people of Porgera, Papua New Guinea have been dramatically impacted by a large Australian-run gold mine in what used to be an isolated area. Credit: Jeff Atkinson/Oxfam CAA
For more information:
Endangered Communities. A section from Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities, and the Environment. (592KB)
International Labor Organization Convention 169 Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries