Gilded past, tarnished reality

The Cordillera de los Andes stretches from Colombia in the north down along the western side of South America to the tip of Chile and Argentina in the south, making it the longest continental mountain range in the world.

The Cordillera de los Andes stretches from Colombia in the north down along the western side of South America to the tip of Chile and Argentina in the south, making it the longest continental mountain range in the world. The Andes have yielded a fabulous wealth of mineral resources from the legendary silver lode extracted from the Cerro Rico of Potosi, Bolivia to the largest open-pit copper mine in the world at Chuquicamata, Chile.

Archeological evidence shows that over 4,000 years ago early peoples in the Central Andes had mastered the basic principles of metallurgy. This knowledge spread across the continent. By 2,500 years ago it reached Colombia.

The shine, hardness and colour of the metals found in their surrounding mountains inspired local pre-Hispanic Colombian cultures. Ever hear of the Narino, Quimbaya, Tierradentro or Zenu cultures? I certainly hadn’t before visiting room after room of golden artifacts from these and other societies in the Museo de Oro in Bogota, Colombia the week before last.

The collection of priceless items, symbols of political power, social prestige and visible links to their myths and cosmologies housed in the Banco de la Republica’s Gold Museum truly staggers a first time visitor. This world-class museum guided the visitor through the wealth of exhibits in a carefully designed, thought provoking manner. They placed what we saw in a larger context.

“Every view of the world contains classification systems, which establish order for people and their surroundings. No society can exist in a state of chaos and disorder.” In this light the museum curators pointed out that Colombia’s “indigenous cosmologies have been classified as ‘eco-cosmologies,’ because of the sophisticated and systematic environmental knowledge inherent in them and the efficient ecological management that this entails.”

The Spanish colonial era exhibits its gilded heritage across the continent as well. The incredible golden arches and naves of Quito, Ecuador’s La Compania de Jesus church built by the Jesuits with native labour in the 17th century, demonstrates this. The Quechua artisans, though, found ways to subtly incorporate their beliefs into the artwork of this church. However, the rapaciousness of the conquistadors’ pursuit of wealth marked a radical departure from the ecological sensibility of their native antecedents.

Have today’s mining projects continued on this path – ignoring the needed balancing of fundamental environmental requirements with economic priorities? A June 20 article in The Catholic Register reported the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, calling for international support to shut down a Canadian-owned gold mine just across El Salvador’s border in Guatemala.

“Archbishop told his weekly press conference June 9 his country should ‘go to international justice mechanisms’ if bilateral talks between El Salvador and Guatemala fail to prevent Vancouver-based GoldCorp from going ahead with the Cerro Blanco mine.

“Escobar believes the Canadian mine will inevitably contaminate Lake Guija, which feeds the Lempa River, El Salvador’s main source of drinking water.”

In June, as well, thousands of Peruvian miners and farmers demonstrated their opposition to Newmont Mining’s $5-billion gold and copper project 3,700 metres up in the Andes because of the threat to the water supply that the project poses. Similarly, in July Barrick Gold Corporation’s mammoth $8.5-billion Pascua-Lama gold mine project, which straddles the Chilean and Argentine Andean border, had to be suspended because of an appeals court ruling. Chile’s environmental regulator backed up local Diaguita indigenous communities’ contention that the mine was contaminating the local water supply and agriculture.

Last week Cecilia Jamasmie wrote on the blog that “Chile’s environmental regulator has asked Barrick to build canals and drainage systems, citing major environmental violations.” She further noted: “The company’s lawyer, Jose Antonio Urrutia, said that the decision of the appeals court to halt all operations in the Chilean side the proposed mine was ‘rightful’ and that the gold miner now wants to “make things right.”

Making things right requires the balance that first peoples understood very well. If we can struggle together to find it again, maybe our future won’t be as tarnished as our recent past.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse.