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Western Shoshone

Shiny gold - poisoned land

By Renate Domnick (Society for threatened peoples). English version by Elisa Grazzi

Bozen, 3. October 2003

The Nevada Desert, in the South Western United States, is the Western Shoshone people's ancestral land. With the Ruby Valley Treaty, signed in 1863, the USA formally recognised two thirds of Nevada State as Western Shoshone sovereign territory. Apparently, at that time white people were not interested in what they saw as semi-desert land. As soon as gold started to be discovered there, however, the Ruby Valley Treaty was broken. Today, Newe Sogobia, as the Shoshones call their land, represents the United States' main gold source. In the 1930s, Western Shoshone territory illegally came within US authorities' jurisdiction, as for instance the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Since then, Western Shoshones have been dispossessed of more and more land, for military purposes (as is the case for the Nuclear Test Site, an area which is used to conduct nuclear testing) and for the extraction of gold.

Although at present 80% of the United States' gold comes from Newe Sogobia, Western Shoshones do not benefit from their ancestral territory's wealth. Quite the opposite: they are struggling against forced expropriation. On the firm claim that their land can not be sold, so far they have been constantly rejecting monetary compensation for the taking of their land, awarded in 1979 by the Indian Claims Commission.

The biggest gold companies in the world
Four of the biggest international gold companies operate on Western Shoshone land. Most of them run more than one mine at the same time. At least 30 of the mines that are active in Newe Sogobia belong to multinational corporations. Round Mountain, for example, is one of the first modern gold mines. It turned out a native village and a cemetery. Many corporations have been working mines in Round Mountain, and it seems that many are yet to come: the Carlin Trend area, which is the richest in gold, was discovered in 1961, and it is thought that over 600 tons of gold are still to be found within the Tuscarora Mountains. While producing half a million ounces of gold per year, Echo Bay Mining Co. destroyed most of the massifs in Round Mountain. Newmont, a Canadian company, has bought more than 500 square miles of land in order to run four mines, five husbandry plants and three lye-washing basins.

Considerable gold reserves were also discovered in the Crescent Valley area, in the middle of Western Shoshone land. Cortez was one of the first mines there. Shortly after Cortez came Pipeline Mine, whose cyanide lye-washing basins, liquid waste outlets and detritus depots alone occupy now almost 2,500 acres of land. In Crescent Valley also lay a ranch belonging to the Dann Western Shoshone Traditional Family. Mary and Carrie Dann have been fighting really hard for natives' sovereignty rights. Thanks to their struggles for the cause, they received the "Right Livelihood Award", which is also called the "Alternative Nobel Prize". According to Carrie Dann, the situation is seriously worrying. "When I look out of my window in the morning", she says, "the first thing I see is cranes working in golden mines. It is without doubt a distressing sight. Land and water are sacred to us. But mines are destroying everything: they drill the land in search for gold seams and they waste precious water".

Today, many Western Shoshones work as ranchers in small companies. People who cannot cultivate their own land are forced to search for employment, which is usually found either at Casinos in Las Vegas or in gold mines. However, in spite of economic dependency, Western Shoshones keep fighting gold extraction, which is destroying their land. The Western Shoshone Defence Project (WSDP) was founded with the aim of defending Western Shoshone's right to their own land, and it has been working as a competent mouthpiece for Western Shoshone protests in court and companies' board meetings. In doing this, the WSDP had to deal with cyanide gold extraction, a subject to which public opinion had no access at the time.

Gold mines are chemical time bombs
Gold extraction produces more waste than any other mining activity. In fact, 99.9% of dug material is useless, as there are only 1 to 3 grams of gold in each ton of rocks. This "micro-gold", so to speak, can be found virtually anywhere, also in Europe. Searching for micro-gold in Europe, however, is out of question, and rightly so. Mining companies, most of which come from Canada, the United States and Australia, engage in gold extraction only where there are no strict environmental laws. Native populations, who depend on land and water for survival, are the victims of mining companies' craving for profit.

Big-scale industrial exploitation of gold sources started at the beginning of the 1970s, with the development of the cyanide gold lye-washing technique. In Nevada, cyanide gold lye-washing was used for the first time by Newmont. Today, industrial gold extraction is unthinkable without cyanide. Sodium cyanide, a salt of hydrocianic acid, is a quick-effect poison. Dissolved in water, it immediately kills any life form. Cyanide is useful in the process of gold extraction because its molecules alloy to themselves particles of gold that are present in rocks. First, huge piles of ground rocks are imbued with cyanide solution. Subsequently, in a chemical processing plant, gold is refined and divided from the remaining minerals. Huge quantities of cyanide are used in this process: several tons per day, depending on the size of the mine and on the quantity of gold contained in the rocks.

Gold mines steal water from the Earth
In many areas of the world, water, which is the prime element of life, has reversed into the opposite: it can bring death and illness, when it is infected by residues of industrial activities, such as gold mining. In Nevada, water precipitations amount to less than 12 inches per year, and droughts can last several years. Solely in the Humboldt River area, mines pump over 250,000 gallons of water every day. Since mine shafts lie below the level of the phreatic layer, water flows in them. In order to keep the shafts dry, mining companies like Pipeline Mine remove almost 40,000 gallons of water per minute, twenty-four hours a day. As waste of water is against the law, water is collected in drainage areas, so that it can flow back to the phreatic layer. However, this does not work wherever the soil is impermeable: therefore, a considerable part of the water evaporates due to Nevada's dry weather.

When environmentalists and Western Shoshones started protesting, mine managers responded by altering expert reports. According to them, their activities have little effect on water springs and rivers. Where phreatic layer's level has lowered, though, springs and rivers have disappeared. Western Shoshones, who live as shepherds in the semi-desert climate of Nevada, can't afford to build new wells. If they can't find water on their paths, their cattle die. Moreover, when mining companies stop activity, residual water flows into the wells again: poisoned by waste from gold extraction, they become very dangerous. Basins used for the gathering of toxic mud represent the main cause of environmental disasters linked with mining activities. Companies often do not comply with security standards for the construction of such basins, because their only objective is cost reduction. The basins can contain several hundreds of cubic meters of mud. Dams often cannot stand the pressure caused by such masses of mud, so waste that contains cyanide ends up leaking and poisoning the surrounding environment.

More issues are caused by rock waste. If, as in the case of Newe Sogobia, whole mountain massifs can be turned into "remainders", it is easy to understand that mining waste depots are difficult to manage firstly because of their huge size. Depending on the type of rocks in question, then, materials stored in these depots contain arsenic, sulphur and poisonous heavy metals, as for example different radioelements, like uranium. Once they are brought out as a consequence of rock grinding, these elements divide from particles of rock, and end up contaminating water and land through atmospheric precipitations. This process is called "acid drainage". It consists in rains conveying into water masses heavy metals and other toxic elements that result from rock grinding. Over one hundred and fifty years after the 1849 gold fever, the state of California is still struggling against this dangerous phenomenon.

Sacred and historic sites are being destroyed
Big-scale land destruction also results in the loss of sacred and historical sites. Many of the sites that are threatened of destruction have been recognized the necessary qualifications to become part of the National Heritage register for the protection of cultural or historical sites. For example, Rock Creek Canyon belongs to the National Heritage thanks to its sacred water sources, which are still used in Western Shoshone traditional medicine. Also, Western Shoshone tribes from all over Newe Sogobia gather in Rock Creek Canyon for sacred rituals.

Tosawihi (White Knife) Quarry is another Western Shoshone National Heritage site. The White Knife Shoshones are named after this quarry because virtually all of their utensils are fabricated with the white stone that can be found there. Anthropological research has shown that Tosawihi Quarry has been used to this end by White Knife Shoshones for 5000 years. A third Western Shoshone cultural site that is being threatened is Shoshone Mike. It is a sacred graveyard, where the last massacre of native people took place, and it is now surrounded by mineral waste depots belonging to Twin Creeks Mine. As is he case for every gold mine, access to Shoshone Mike is kept under strict surveillance.

The Bureau of Land Management
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the federal authority in charge of land protection. It is also competent for licences of land use for military and industrial purposes. The environment, however, lacks proper protection because of the clash of interests and of the concentration of power within the BLM. Due to the collusion between the BLM and the mining companies, expert reports about the effects of mining activities on the environment are falsified, and environmental crimes are not persecuted. The contamination of big liquid masses with cyanide and other poisonous substances is against the law, and so is the destruction of historical and cultural sites. However, instead of punishing crimes, in Newe Sogobia powers work together in order to hide them.

Until the 1990s, public opinion knew nothing about issues related with gold extraction. Indeed, these problems used to concerned solely Third World native populations. However, oppressed native populations started to organise, and in 1994 their delegates from all around the world met in London, in order to define a common strategy and take action. Then, in 1999, native people's organisations met again at the Peoples' Gold Summit in California. Originally, the meeting was intended to be hosted by the Western Shoshones. However, organisers thought that, had a conference against gold extraction taken place in Newe Sogobia, the BLM could have taken it as too big a provocation, and it could have obstructed it. The relationship between the BLM and the Western Shoshones can be compared with that between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and most of the US native peoples: since the BLM is the competent authority for gold extraction, and it works closely with mining companies, it identifies with their interests. In conclusion, the Peoples' Gold Summit was held in California, where gold extraction in the 19th Century put an end to many native peoples' survival.

Unfortunately, the same holds true also in the case of Western Shoshones: gold extraction could mark the end of their sovereignty rights on their ancestral territories. In fact, this once ignored semi-desert land has become expensive because of gold. Nevada policy-makers, therefore, are eager to sell the land to private investors. However, this will not be possible until the judicial controversy regarding Western Shoshones' claim to their land is not solved. This is why senator Harry Reid is trying to promote a law that aims at forcing Western Shoshones to give up their rights once and for all, accepting monetary compensation for the taking of their land. However, Western Shoshones never agreed to accept money. The Reid Bill states that each Western Shoshone individual receive an equal part of the compensation money that was decided in 1979: 20,000 dollars per tribe member.

In order to defeat Western Shoshone resistance, Reid tried to collaborate with some tribe members that were interested in accepting the compensation money. Along with them, he held a voting session, without informing all of the Western Shoshone population. Although the vast majority of them could not participate in the voting, then, the press reported that most Western Shoshone had agreed to accept the compensation. In reality, however, out of the 4,000 Western Shoshones that live in Nevada, only 1,183 took part in the voting. Among the people who voted there was the chief of the Temoak tribe, who tried to give a speech against money compensation in exchange for land. As soon as he started the speech, however, his microphone was turned off. In August 2002, the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs, Washington DC, held a hearing about the Reid Bill. Although Senator Reid made sure to choose personally the Western Shoshone representatives that took part in the hearing, however, the Senate rejected his Bill. Evidently, contrary opinions could not be completely silenced. In any case, Nevada politicians have announced that they will not stop trying to have the Bill approved.

More than once, Western Shoshones have applied to international institutions in order to defend their right to their ancestral land. Although their situation may look hopeless, so far they have continued to stand up for their cause. In Geneva, several organisations have been dealing with the Western Shoshone case: among them, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (UNWGIP) and the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The situation has also been reported to the Human Rights Commission of the Organisation of American States (OAS). This Commission has given several warnings to the US Government, saying that monetary compensation for the taking of land constitutes a violation of Western Shoshones' fundamental rights, in particular the right to own, trade, and dispose of property freely and the right to legal recourse.

Finally, it should be noted that Western Shoshones have been the first North American natives to turn to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to seek defence from the selling of their land through the Reid Bill. They asked Antonio Martins da Cruz, President of the OSCE, to order an inquiry about human rights violations perpetrated by the USA against the Western Shoshones.

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