Gold Mines and Rumor Mills in Nicaragua

It’s not only in the land of the midnight sun that men moil for gold. Where the hills of northwest Nicaragua roll towards the border with Honduras lies one of the world’s hottest gold mines. But El Limón has been generating another sort of heat for the past six months.

In May the daily newspaper, El Nuevo Dario, reported confrontations involving miners employed at the Canadian owned mine, the mine’s management, the local community and the National Police. Controversy has always been part and parcel of this isolated community’s lot.

An agreement at national level made provision for the mine owners to make payments to the municipality of Malpaisillo where the mine is located. During the late 1990s, with a Liberal central government, payments never came to Malpaisillo. The line was; the company made payment to the central government, which was then obliged to transfer this to the local authority.

This year resource cuts in electrical supply to local inhabitants are top bill. At El Limón there has been a long standing agreement that the mine owners would subsidies local energy supplies. No doubt with reducing its cost base in mind, B2Gold of Vancouver said it had embarked on an energy saving campaign aimed at the 8000 inhabitants.

According to reports this campaign involved the national government, the municipal town hall of Malpaisillo, international NGOs as well as local stake holders. Nevertheless, electrical supply has been cut for several hours at a time and up to three times a day. The resulting frustration led to a work stoppage, street protests that turned violent and the deployment of anti-riot police. Newspaper photos show streets strewn with stones and a wrecked police vehicle. One police man died as a result of the violence in October and several people have been injured

Alvaro Ledesma, B2Gold’s corporate affairs manager, says since arriving in Nicaragua the company supplies free electricity to 8000 people. But now there has been an excess of consumption. That is quite possible, sort of depends on what you call excessive though; nothing stays the same forever. However it does seem strange that with all the actors involved in the energy saving campaign – local government, international NGOs, local stake holders, et al – it came as a surprise to B2Gold that there were 11000 consumers. After all, the national newspaper says there are 11000 inhabitants. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye.

Meanwhile, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise and the Mining Chamber of Nicaragua have urged calm, a return on normal mining operations and a negotiated settlement. From the trade union side, general secretary Humberto Rivas Canales of the Pedro Roque Blandon Union said, We will continue urging the mining company to restore the right of people to enjoy efficient service of energy.”

Commenting on the situation the leader of the governing Sandinista party and President of Nicaragua said the events came as no surprise to him. He is reported as saying, “We regret the suffering of the family of the deceased police and the families of boys who are imprisoned.”

He pointed out that when the mine was under state control 3000 people were employed. But after losing the election in 1990, when “structural adjustment” was the banner under which the advancing neo liberals then marched, 2200 people lost their jobs.

El Limón has always been a Sandinista strong hold. During the time of the revolutionary Sandinista government, 1979 to 1990, there were notable improvements in the community, particularly in the sectors of health and education. During the 1980s English coal miners helped installs a ventilation system in the mine.

Insightful as Daniel Ortega’s observation might be it may also turn out to be more pedestrian than presidential. In October warrants for the arrest of ten people have been issued. Among them are three or four trade unionists including general secretary Humberto Rivas. The long list of charges includes murder, sexual abuse, organised crime and aggravated damages against the state.

You don’t have to be an industrial relations expert to work out that B2Gold are happy to see trade unionists who they consider troublesome are behind bars.

Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good day he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.