Gold! Haiti hopes ore find will spur mining boom

By Martha Mendoza

Associated Press

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 3:26 p.m. MDT

In this picture taken on April 10, 2012, a drill worker listens for the bit, hundreds of feet underground, during exploratory drilling for minerals and metals in the mountains in the department of Trou Du Nord, Haiti. Haiti's land may yet hold the solution to centuries of poverty: there is gold hidden in its hills, and silver and copper too. Now, two mining companies are drilling around the clock to determine how to get those metals out, and how much it might cost.

Dieu Nalio Chery, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

TROU DU NORD, Haiti — Its capital is blighted with earthquake rubble. Its countryside is shorn of trees, chopped down for fuel. And yet, Haiti's land may hold the key to relieving centuries of poverty, disaster and disease: There is gold hidden in its hills — and silver and copper, too.

A flurry of exploratory drilling in the past year has found precious metals worth potentially $20 billion deep below the tropical ridges in the country's northeastern mountains. Now, a mining company is drilling around the clock to determine how to get those metals out.

In neighboring Dominican Republic, workers are poised to start mining the other side of this seam later this year in one of the world's largest gold deposits: 23 million ounces worth about $40 billion.

The Haitian government's annual budget is $1 billion, more than half provided by foreign assistance. The largest single source of foreign investment, $2 billion, came from Haitians working abroad last year. A windfall of locally produced wealth could pay for roads, schools, clean water and sewage systems for the nation's 10 million people, most of whom live on as little as $1.25 a day.

"If the mining companies are honest and if Haiti has a good government, then here is a way for this country to move forward," said Bureau of Mines Director Dieuseul Anglade.

In a parking lot outside Anglade's marble-floored office, more than 100 families have been living in tents since the earthquake. "The gold in the mountains belongs to the people of Haiti," he said, gesturing out his window. "And they need it."

Haiti's geological vulnerability is also its promise. Massive tectonic plates squeeze the island with horrifying consequences, but deep cracks between them form convenient veins for gold, silver and copper pushed up from the hot innards of the planet. Prospectors from California to Chile know earthquake faults often have, quite literally, a golden lining.

Until now, few Haitians have known about this buried treasure. Mining camps are unmarked, and the work is being done miles up dirt roads near remote villages, on the opposite side of the country from the capital. But U.S. and Canadian investors have spent more than $30 million in recent years on everything from exploratory drilling to camps for workers, new roads, offices and laboratory studies of samples. Actual mining could be under way in five years.

"When I first heard whispers of this I said, 'Gold mines? There could be gold mines in Haiti?'" said Michel Lamarre, a Haitian engineer whose firm, SOMINE, is leading the exploration. "I truly believe this is our answer to taking care of ourselves instead of constantly living on donations."

On a rugged, steep Haitian ridge far above the Atlantic, brilliant boulders coated with blue-green oxidized copper jut from the hills, while colorful pebbles litter the soil, strong indicators that precious metals lie below.

"Just look down," said geologist John Watkins. "Where there's smoke, there's fire."

Nearby, 8-year-old Whiskey Pierre and his barefoot buddies stared at a team of sweat-drenched men driving a narrow, shrieking diamond bit 900 feet into the ground.

"That is a drill!" shouted Whiskey, bouncing on his toes. "The man drill to get gold!"

The workers periodically pulled up samples and knocked them into boxes. The first 40 feet yielded loose rocks and gravel. About 160 feet down, cylinders of rock came back peppered with gold. At 1,000 feet down, rocks were heavily streaked with copper.

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