Politics of Poverty

Mining development in Haiti: A golden dream or nightmare?

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A view on the public debate

Will mining lead Haiti to a brighter future? Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America, outside Port-au-Prince
Will mining lead Haiti to a brighter future? Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America, outside Port-au-Prince

Haiti has $20 billion in gold reserves, of course with some disputing these estimates. Whether these reserves end up helping the country out of poverty or worsening its already intense socio-economic problems will be determined by how the Haitian government manages competing concerns about mining development.

I was in Haiti last week to participate in two forums about the future of the mining industry in the country. Although Haiti is at a very early stage (currently there are no operating mines), it was obvious that the industry is already provoking intense passions on all sides.

The Haitian government and the World Bank convened the first conference I attended in Port au Prince. It featured the usual World Bankish combination of bureaucrats, corporations, Bank officials, academics and lawyers. Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe also made an appearance, along with precisely zero representatives of Haitian civil society (as is often the case with Bank-sponsored events of this type). International civil society was limited to an appearance by Oxfam America’s feisty Haiti associate country director Yolette Etienne on a Davos-style comfy chair panel. She stressed the importance of addressing the governance and environmental challenges posed by mining, including protecting the country’s already fragile water resources, which Haiti’s rural farming communities depend on for their livelihoods.

The second forum I attended, aimed at supporting the public debate on the potential risks and benefits of mining to Haiti, was far livelier. It took place in the northern town of Limonade and Oxfam helped sponsor it with the National University of Haiti. There, too, we heard from Haitian government, academics and Newmont Mining (which has exploration areas across nearly the entire northern half of the country), but also from community leaders and Haitian civil society, notably PAPDA, the Haitian Advocacy Platform for Alternative Development, an Oxfam partner. Oxfam also invited partners from Guatemala, the National Coordination of Indigenous Peoples and Campesinos (CONIC) and Madre Selva, to speak about the environmental and social problems mining has caused in that country. Passions ran high at various points and debate flew fast and furious past my head in Haitian Creole. At one point, a consultant working for the Haitian government stormed out of the meeting after being sharply challenged by community representatives who alleged that the industry has already damaged their lands without adequate compensation.

Mining development in Haiti is clearly on the minds of civil society, policy-makers and, of course, mining companies. What is also clear after my week in Haiti is that the government, by the admission of several representatives with whom I spoke, has nothing like the capacity that will be needed to effectively regulate mining. Haiti has pretty much every governance challenge you can have, ranking near the bottom on nearly every governance-related indicator. It’s hard to imagine how dumping mining on top of those challenges, at least at the moment, would do anything more than make these problems even worse.

The good news is that the government appears to be aware of these challenges. It recently cancelled all current mining licenses, pending a review of contracts signed by the previous government and revision of its mining law (which dates from 1976). This may create some breathing space for the government, with help from donors, to address its capacity issues. It may also provide time for Haitian civil society to build its own capacity and further organize.

As I’ve written previously, Haiti could take some steps now that could help it avoid some of the worst impacts of the “resource curse.” It must be said, though, that past efforts to build government capacity at the same time a new extractive industry develops, as was the case in Chad, don’t inspire much confidence. If Haiti’s economic development is the primary goal here, and given the country’s multiple governance and environmental challenges (severe water contamination, deforestation, vulnerability to earthquakes and hurricanes among them), there’s a heretical notion to some that should seriously be considered.

Leaving the gold in the ground is an option.

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