Haiti $20 billion untouched mineral wealth to help the country out of poverty

Two and a half years after an earthquake devastated Haiti, killing more than 300,000, the country could use a windfall to help in its rebuilding efforts. Now, thanks to its mineral wealth, Haiti could begin making its way out of being one of Latin America’s poorest countries.

Located south of Cuba on the Caribbean Sea, Haiti is still rebuilding roads and schools and working to provide clean water and sewage systems for its 10 million people, more than half of whom still live on less than $2 a day. Unemployment runs at about 70% and most of the government’s budget is supplied by foreign and humanitarian aid, which poured in after the quake.

Now, according to recent reports, a round of exploratory drilling by Canadian and U.S. companies has unearthed valuable metals. These include gold, silver and copper, which may be worth close $20 billion, and is viewed by many as a potential economic boon for this nation.

On its website, the Pulitzer Center states that Canadian Eurasian Minerals in seeking to open gold mining operations in Haiti's three northern departments this year. The company controls exploration or exploitation rights to over one-third of Haiti’s north – at least 1,500 square kilometres. Eurasian – which has tested over 44,000 samples so far – is partnered with the world’s number two gold producer, U.S.-based mining giant Newmont.

Another Canadian company, Majescor, and a small U.S. company, VCS Mining, and their subsidiaries have licenses or conventions for tracts totaling over 750 square kilometres. Altogether, about 15% of Haiti’s territory is under license to North American mining firms and its partners.

These companies have spent $30 million so far digging, drilling and testing the deposits of mostly "alluvial" or "invisible" gold that are part of the same territory that holds one of the largest gold reserves in the Americas – the Pueblo Viejo mine in neighbouring Dominican Republic. This year, Barrick and Goldcorp will begin producing at the newly refurbished pit mine, going after what they say is at least another 23.7m ounces of gold and 141.8m ounces of silver.

Extracting minerals in Haiti has been prohibitive in the past due to many issues, including political instability and resistance to mining companies. But the price of gold has held steady above $1,500 an ounce for the past year and Haiti hosts a U.N. peacekeeping force of 10,000 that will assure some security for the companies – both of which make exploration in Haiti appealing once again.

Haiti’s newly installed prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, is also supportive. Lamothe, whose slogan is “Haiti is open for business,” has pledged to make mining one of the country’s new growth industries and to change laws in order to make them more business-friendly.

In May, Lamothe told the Associated Press (AP) that his government is drafting mining legislation that will lay out rules apportioning royalties for the government and setting protections for the people and environment that could be affected by mines.

The downside

Not all Haitians are as enthusiastic as Lamothe or foreign mining companies, the Pulitzer Center adds. Pit mining can potentially poison water supplies and damage the environment. Many Haitian experts are also worried that a pit mine could be dangerous to Haiti’s already fragile environment. Haiti has only about 1.5% tree cover, down from about 90% it had in 1492.

Additionally, Haiti has not signed the international Safety and Health in Mines convention or the voluntary Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, both of which – if followed – offer some protections. In addition, Haiti is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world – coming in at 175 out of 200 countries.

Lamothe, however, believes these issues can be addressed.

"The most important thing is to have the correct mining law," he told AP. "It ensures that the right portion comes to the state. It ensures that the people living in the region where the mines are, that their rights are protected. It ensures environmental protection."

With the contribution of Suzanne Soto, owner of Si! Corporate Communications, a Greater Toronto Area company providing public relations services in both English and Spanish.