MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Omai, Omai!

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

Omai, Omai!

By 1990 Friedland was looking for golden opportunities further south. His early ventures into eastern Venezuela (through Vengold) soon came up against knotty problems of land ownership, and indifferent drilling results: he later withdrew most of his investment. By then, however, he had struck it rich in Guyana. Junior Canadian company, Golden Star Resources (GSR), had been eyeing-up the country's biggest gold deposit, at Omai, on the Essequibo River. Friedland's strategy with GSR resembled that with Galactic: using shares in a company called South American Goldfields Inc, he bought his reverse way into GSR at a bargain price. Soon GSR sealed a deal with then-respected Quebecois company Cambior, and the Guyana government, as well as the World Bank and Canadian Export Development Corporation (to provide political risk insurance).

According to GSR, Friedland sold all his shares in the company in 1994; nonetheless, his brother and bosom confidante, Eric, continued in an executive role. If true, Robert's withdrawal from the company was fortuitous. For, in mid-1995, the tailings dam at the Omai mine collapsed completely, shooting several million cubic metres of diluted cyanide and heavy metals cascading into the Essequibo, the country's main river and its freshwater lifeline. It was one of the worst environmental disasters of its kind ever in South America. [For further details, see Five Minutes Before Midnight, Minewatch Briefing on Omai, London 1995.] Once again, Friedland escaped any legal sanctions (indeed it is now unlikely that Cambior or partner GSR will ever have to pay out adequate compensation to families and communities along the Essequibo). Once more, however, Friedland's moral responsibility - as the main person in charge of the company which financed and initially constructed this treacherous mine facility - cannot be in doubt.

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