What environmental organization are you affiliated with? What does it do?

I work for Earthworks, a new partnership designed by the Mineral Policy Center, which seeks to protect communities and the environment from irresponsible mining. We bring together activists, organizers, scientists, engineers, and community leaders in an effort to change mining policies and practices.

What’s your job title?

International Campaign Coordinator.

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What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

We’re launching the No Dirty Gold campaign next week, which is a consumer campaign designed to create pressure for an alternative to dirty gold. So I’ve been helping to produce campaign materials such as a consumer-focused report on mining’s impacts. I am doing outreach to students and other activist bases. I’m also in constant communication with our partners in Ghana, Peru, Argentina, Romania, and elsewhere to support local campaigns through targeted actions against mining companies and elected officials.

How many emails are currently in your inbox?

761.

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With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job? What types of people? What other organizations or government agencies?

Mining activists from the U.S., Ghana, and Argentina.
Photo: Radhika Sarin/Earthworks.

Other international and national NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that work on mining issues, such as Oxfam America; amazing community leaders around the world who are involved in local mining campaigns; student activists. The people I work with are truly inspiring. Daniel Owusu-Koranteng, executive director of a Ghanaian community-based NGO, has been investigating human-rights abuses by a major gold mining company in Ghana. Marta Sahores, an activist in Argentina, helped to organize a referendum against a mine proposal that threatens her community. Bernice Lalo, a Western Shoshone tribal member, travels proudly on her tribal passport, educating airport and immigration authorities about Western Shoshone lands and culture.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

Crazy people who call me up out of the blue with even crazier “solutions” to various environmental problems. For example, when I used to work for a population stabilization group, I actually had someone call me up to suggest that we sneak contraceptives into the public drinking water supply!

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

Stressed out students who take time out of their already-packed schedules to help us distribute No Dirty Gold valentines!

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Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I’m sort of a global mutt. I was born in North India, but spent many years in Cote d’Ivoire before I came to the United States. I currently live and work in Washington, D.C.

What was your environmental coming-of-age moment?

I love getting food from street vendors, and I remember getting really upset when I was young and saw people throwing their ice cream wrappers on the street. This was in India, where trash disposal is a major problem in most urban areas.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

When the media had a field day over Bjorn Lomborg’s book.

What’s on your desk right now?

 

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

The fact that our recycling rates are so low that we remain dependent on mining, rather than using our “above-ground” stocks. In the 1990s, Americans discarded enough aluminum cans to make 316,000 Boeing 737 airplanes!

Who is your environmental hero?

The farming community of Tambogrande, Peru, for successfully booting the Manhattan Minerals mining company out of their town and for proudly stating that their livelihood is worth more than gold.

Who is your No. 1 environmental villain?

Well, the mining industry produces more toxic waste than any other industry in this country!

What’s your environmental vice?

When I was in India a couple of months back, my little nephews insisted on going to McDonald’s. I felt really guilty, though I was amazed by the long vegetarian menu!

How do you get around?

I’m very fortunate to live in a city where I can walk, ride the bus, or take the Metro. I’m a public-transportation junkie!

What are you reading these days?

Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I really enjoy reading books and watching films about the immigrant experience.

What’s your favorite meal?

Fried, sweet plantains, attieke (manioc couscous), and hot sauce!

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

Yes. BBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR. I really depend on allAfrica.com as well, because most papers here do such a shoddy job of reporting on what’s going on in African nations.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

SUVs make me so angry!

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

Moist coastal forest.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

That industries engaging in resource extraction respect the rights of communities to defend their cultures, lands, and livelihoods, and that mining companies refrain from projects that have not secured the free, prior, and informed consent of the communities concerned.

When was the last time you wore tie-dye? How about fleece?

Tie-dye — maybe 6th grade. I’m wearing a fleece sweater right now!

Do you compost?

The apartment building that I live in is very enviro-unfriendly.

Which presidential candidate are you backing in 2004?

Whoever can beat Bush!

Would you label yourself an environmentalist?

Absolutely! To me, an environmentalist is someone who recognizes that a healthy environment is critical for healthy communities and our future well-being. There is, of course, baggage that goes along with any label, but identifying as an environmentalist also gives me an opportunity to talk about environmental issues and hopefully bring others into the environmental movement.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly?

It’s not necessarily that the environmental movement itself is at fault, but I think we need to do a better job of diversifying our ranks. We need to involve communities of color, strengthen North-South partnerships, and especially bridge the class divide. Too many times, environmental issues are dismissed as rich folks’ concerns, and this really hurts the movement.

What’s one issue about which you disagree with other environmentalists?

Birkenstocks. I hate them.

What could the environmental movement be doing better or differently to attract new people?

Make a stronger connection between the environment and human health. Many people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists do care about clean drinking water and their children’s health. Similarly, resource extraction issues are not just about the environment; they are also about rights and justice! Those who care about indigenous communities and cultures, for example, should have just as much interest in mining as do environmentalists.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

Bob Marley and the Wailers. Then and now!

What’s your favorite TV show?

Law and Order.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Visit NoDirtyGold.org on or after Feb. 11 and take the No Dirty Gold consumer pledge!

Radhika Sarin of Earthworks

Is an “environmentally friendly gold mine” a complete oxymoron? Does such a thing exist?     — Janice Wormworth, Sydney, Australia

Unfortunately, no large-scale gold mining operation today can be considered both socially and environmentally responsible. The No Dirty Gold campaign seeks to change that by calling upon the mining industry to provide retailers and consumers of gold an alternative to dirty gold: gold that is not produced at the expense of communities, workers, and the environment. The reforms called for by the campaign are reasonable and fair, and well within the capacity of mining companies to implement. For example, we’re asking that no mining occur in protected areas; that mine waste not be dumped into natural bodies of water; that mining companies respect the basic human rights outlined in international declarations and conventions; and that mining companies provide guaranteed funding, before beginning a project, that will fully cover reclamation and closure costs.

For more information about some of the changes we’re asking the mining industry to immediately undertake, please read the recommendations presented in the Earthworks/Oxfam America report “Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities, and the Environment.”

I am a member of Engineers Without Borders at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. I have been working on a potable water project for Siuna, Nicaragua, which is part of the mining triangle on the north Atlantic side of Nicaragua. I don’t understand why the mining company can own the rights to the minerals in the ground and the people who live there don’t. It is very confusing. Is this commonplace? How can the law allow this to be so and can we change that?     — Jenna Pollock, Hanover, N.H.

Lack of legal title to lands is a problem facing many indigenous communities. In many countries, the law does not recognize indigenous peoples as owners of their lands. Even when surface land rights are clearly titled, governments frequently retain sub-surface mineral rights and can auction off concessions to resources found underground.

The key to progress may be the enforcement of international agreements. The International Labor Organization’s “Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention,” adopted in 1991, guarantees indigenous groups the right to decide on their own development priorities, and to be consulted in good faith before any development takes place on their lands. In Latin America, where most countries have ratified the convention and written it into national law, some indigenous movements have used the convention to defend themselves against the incursion of extractive industries into remote parts of Amazonia. Visit the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal People’s webpage for more information on the convention and to see the list of countries that have ratified it.

Another international agreement, the U.N. draft “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” moves beyond consultation and requires the free, prior, and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned before any development can proceed. Indigenous groups around the world have invoked this right to defend their cultures, lands, and livelihoods against resource extraction operations.

Please clue me in — what is the problem with Birkenstocks (other than that I can’t find a pair I can afford). A dear friend of mine who is a chiropractor is a huge fan of them.     — Kathy Davenport, Jackson, Mo.

I’m from India, home of rubber flip-flops!

In my country [Guyana] we are about to issue mining rights to another two North American mining operations and additional rights to one of the existing operations. Gold is either the No. 2 or No. 3 revenue-earner depending on how sugar (No. 1) or rice (No. 2) exports or production do annually (bauxite used to be No. 1). One gold mine, Omai, spilled cyanide, which contaminated the food chain in our largest river. Omai lied, the government covered up during their inquiry, and we failed in our bid to have the Canadian courts hear our case for compensation for the people affected. Today, my wife’s grandmother (84 years old) and her unmarried aunt (63 years old) and most of her family who still live in the affected area have medical complaints related to that spill. They are the indigenous people of that area — Lokonos, commonly referred to as Arawaks by outsiders. They, like their foreparents, all depend on that food chain for sustenance and visit the river daily for drinking water and washing.

Because of Omai and the spill and jobs created by the company, the indigenous people of the area now have running water in their homes and can afford a better standard of living and, most importantly, their children and grandchildren seem to have a future in this “Western” world, which has destroyed their way of life since the first Europeans came into the Amazon and decimated their peoples with germs (weapons of mass destruction?).

My question: Is this not the only way out of poverty for my country and my people? Please don’t patronize me with the usual development models.     — Jerome Singh, Georgetown, Guyana

For those readers who are unfamiliar with the Omai gold mine accident that the reader is referring to, here’s some background: A project of the Canadian mining corporation Cambior, Omai is one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. Its tailings dam failed in 1995, releasing some 3 billion cubic liters of cyanide-laden tailings (a type of mine waste) into the Omai River, a tributary of Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. Following the spill, the president of Guyana declared all 32 miles of river drainage from the mine to the Atlantic Ocean — home to 23,000 people — an official “Environmental Disaster Zone.” Initial government reports estimated the cyanide concentration in the Omai to be 28 parts per million, which is 140 times the level that the U.S. EPA considers lethal.

If I understand the question right, you are asking me whether mining development is the only way out of poverty for Guyana. Mining has often been presented to poor countries as a key to development and economic growth. There are some national mining sectors that would appear to support this idea in one way or another. But when you look at the industry’s general economic record, the picture is actually quite grim. For the most part, mineral-rich developing countries have some of the slowest growth rates in the world, and the highest poverty rates — a phenomenon economists call “the resource curse.” Heavy dependence on mining also correlates strongly with a wide range of serious social problems, such as high levels of poverty, low levels of education, and poor health care. Nearly half of the world’s poorest countries show this dependency: Mining is their biggest export sector. And over the past couple of decades, the poverty in these mining-dependent countries appears to have deepened: According to the U.N. Commission on Trade and Development, the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day in poor mineral-exporting countries rose from 61 percent in 1981-1983 to 82 percent in 1997-1999. I recommend reading “Metals and the Wealth of Nations” [PDF], a section from in the Earthworks/Oxfam America report “Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities, and the Environment” and Oxfam America’s report “Extractive Sectors and the Poor” [PDF].

I was wondering if you worked at all to stop strip-mining in places such as West Virginia, or if you knew of a way to get involved in helping to prevent this practice.     — Lauren Hauptman, Princeton, N.J.

Earthworks doesn’t work on coal mining at present, but I’ll refer you to the Citizens Coal Council.

I was wondering, are governments generally aware of the issues that you are trying to campaign against? Do they take you seriously or simply argue against you? Are any countries particular villains or heroes in the progress they make?     — Matt Shillaber, Bristol, U.K.

A few farsighted leaders are taking strong stands against the continued use of cyanide, mercury, and other toxic chemicals in mines. The Baia Mare tailings dam spill in Romania in 2000 (which resulted in more than 100,000 tons of cyanide-laden wastewater being released into the Tisza River) prompted the Czech Senate and the German Parliament to ban gold mining that used cyanide leaching methods. The provincial board of the Mindoro province in the Philippines passed a 25-year moratorium on mining in January 2002, following controversies over cobalt and nickel mining. And in 1998, a citizens’ initiative in Montana led to a ban on the use of cyanide leaching for new mines or expansions of existing mines in the state.

The World Bank is also considering the recommendations of an independent commission it had appointed to review its investments in oil, gas, and mining. The commission recommended that the bank refrain from financing any mining project that fails to meet a set of basic criteria, including those called for by the No Dirty Gold campaign.

I’m excited by your idea of bridging the class divide. What can we do to prevent environmentalism from being dismissed as “rich folks’ concerns”?     — Laura-Marie Taylor, Bishop, Calif.

Many people consider environmental protection as something of a luxury. But in fact, things like pollution and resource degradation often affect poor communities the most. Take the example of access to clean drinking water. Many rural communities are dependent on a river or stream or groundwater. When this source of drinking water becomes polluted or contaminated by mine waste, it has a very profound impact on the community.

This is exactly what has happened in the Wassa District of Ghana. Because of cyanide contamination from nearby mines, several villages were left without access to drinking water. In one instance, an affected village took legal action against a mining company to claim compensation and reached an out-of-court settlement. Still, the cyanide and heavy-metal residue from the spill could remain for decades, posing health and environmental threats to the people and animal life in the area. For more information on Wassa and other communities affected by mining, visit the Community Voices page of our website.

Who has given the mining industry the go-ahead to blast the tops off mountains in order to mine them? Has it been stopped yet? If not, how long do you think it might take to stop this devastation? And by then how late will we be?     — Beth Gouvernon, Pembroke, Bermuda

Nothing stops coal mining companies from blowing the tops off mountains to mine them. U.S. law does prevent mining companies from obliterating streams by dumping mine waste in them — if we can limit waste dumping, we can restrict mountaintop mining. Unfortunately, the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently overturned (on procedural, not substantial, grounds) a decision that verified that obliterating streams with mine waste does violate the Clean Water Act. For more information, contact Citizens Coal Council or Earthjustice.

What can investors do to pressure mutual funds to stop investing in dirty gold companies? If you own a dirty gold stock, how can you submit a shareholder resolution calling on the company to clean up its act? (See the Northwest Corporate Accountability Project.)     — David Ortman, Seattle, Wash.

These are excellent questions! The growing field of Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) is having a hard time supporting mining. As of January 2004, for example, the Calvert Group, an American SRI firm, had no holdings in any metals mining corporation because it could not find a single one that met its criteria for corporate responsibility.

The Social Investment Forum has a Shareholder Action Network that is a great source of information on socially responsible investments and shareholder activism.

You might also be interested in reading about the shareholder resolution that Boston Common Asset Management filed with Newmont Mining Corporation, the world’s largest gold-mining firm, calling on the company to prepare a report on the risk to the company’s operations, profitability, and reputation from its social and environmental liabilities. Boston Common has requested that Newmont develop policies on operating in protected areas, provide sufficient funds for long-term environmental cleanup, and provide full disclosure of the company’s impact on the environment, labor, and human rights. More information is available from Oxfam America.

What a great photo, Ms. Sarin! As an up-and-coming environmental activist, do you have a vision for your own career, or a sense of just what it is that you hope to achieve? Keep up the good work!     — Swaroop Mishra, Pasadena, Calif.

For now, I would be delighted if you all visited the No Dirty Gold campaign website and took the consumer pledge to end destructive gold mining practices! We really need your support!

Thank you, Grist Magazine, for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts with your readers.