Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iliamna group takes proactive stance by touring mines

By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

A group of people from the Iliamna Lake villages toured mines this fall owned by Angelo American in Chile and one in Montana in an effort to learn “on our own as much as we can,” said Iliamna Development Corp. Executive Director Lisa Reimers.

“We decided we wanted to learn more about mining, and with that in mind founded ‘Engaging Communities,’” Reimers told an athropology class at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College on Thursday. “All we had before was what others told us.”

The subsistence culture struggles to find jobs in cash-strapped villages where they are confronted by conflicting information, she said.

“We didn’t have any experience with mining,” Reimers told professor Catherine Knott’s class, which is studying Pebble. But instead of sitting back and watching as an international mining corporation, Canadian-owned Northern Dynasty, made its plans known, Iliamna Native Corp., took “proactive action,” she said. It formed the development corporation in order to qualify for contracts and gain the jobs that normally go to outsiders.

Iliamna and nearby Newhalen villages, with combined Athabascan-Yup’ik populations of about 150, are the supply center for the premining feasibility work that has occupied the Pebble Project for the past five years. Reimers is head of the for-profit corporation that handles the labor contract for Pebble, employing more than 80 villagers from about 10 communities.

“We still haven’t taken an official position on the mine project. We’ve been visiting mines and sharing that information with other communities. We wanted to see ‘bad’ mines, too,” she said, referring to those such as Montana‘s Berkeley Pitt, that is often cited as an example of pollution. The group was able to tour the mine this fall, and hopes to return for more interviews with environmental officials and others.

When asked about why they don’t look for economic development that wouldn’t have so much at stake, Reimers said villagers had sought a number of opportunities including eco-tourism and value-added fish market products. Commercial fishing no longer offers adequate income, she said.

But nothing promised steady pay in desperate times. Fuel is $8.50 a gallon in Iliamna. Some villages must ration fuel, which limits the distance hunters can go for caribou or moose. This causes food shortages ultimately, Reimers said.

Some village schools are closing up because people have to move, she said. “Our reality is that Pebble is what came along and offered the jobs,” she said.

Currently, Engaging Com-munities is working on a film with footage collected at the mines and interviews. Charisse Arce is a marketing graduate of Seattle University who helped produce the Iliamna Natives’ first film exploring people’s thoughts on Pebble, “The Voices of Bristol Bay.” She is currently editing the film about the mines, which won’t be released until later in February. Like “Voices,” it will include interviews with a variety of people involved in mining, and those from communities impacted by the mines.

During the first week of October the group traveled to Santiago, Chile, for five days with some individuals from the Pebble Limited Partnership, Arce said.

“We toured Anglo American’s Operations at the Los Bronces Mine located just outside of Santiago. The goal was to learn about Anglo American, its business and social practices, any environmental issues, and the company’s interactions with the community,” she said.

The trip’s agenda was set by Angelo American, but Arce and Reimers, along with a dozen others from the Bristol Bay region, were able to look at possible social impacts of the Los Bronces Mine.

They were shown social causes Angelo had contributed to in the region. Financial assistance was given to the Municipality of Colina to build a public library center open to all ages, Arce said.

“It also provides a useful after-school program for the kids in the community to practice their reading skills,” she said.

They also visited a recently renovated health center.

“The emergency health center provides much-needed emergency care to people in the community of Colina. Another place we visited in Colina was a culinary school for high school-aged students. These students come from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend this ‘trade school.’ Anglo American provides financial support for the public school to operate,” Arce wrote in a preliminary report. “This school has a very high graduation rate and job placement rate after graduation.

“We toured the mining operations at Los Bronces, which included the tailings dam and also the concentrator located at Las Tortalas, where the copper is processed using froth flotation. The distance between Los Bronces and Las Tortalas is around 40 miles. We were able to learn and see the crushing, milling, and flotation processes,” Arce wrote.

Since the mine visits aren’t complete yet, Reimers and Arce are reluctant to form conclusions. But they will be finalizing the film and sharing the information with villages in Kachemak and Bristol Bay, Reimers said.

Some of their interviews include the president of a local environmental nongovernmental organization, which mediates conflicts between the community and industry, one being the mining industry; several small business entrepreneurs who have benefited from an entrepreneurship program funded by Anglo American, and students who are currently interning at the Los Bronces Mine.

“We learned a considerable amount,” Arce said. “We were there for five days and we did our best to pack as much in as possible. We felt we merely scratched the surface of learning more about the impacts a mining operation has on the environment and communities around it.”

No comments: