MAC/20: Mines and Communities

PBS mines the trouble for Newmont in Peru

Published by MAC on 2005-10-23

PBS mines the trouble for Newmont in Peru

By Joanne Ostrow, Denver Post TV Critic

October 23 2005

The visuals elevate a "Frontline/World" documentary airing this week, produced in conjunction with The New York Times. We've read much of the substance of this report over the past four years, but at least on an emotional level, seeing is believing.

"The Curse of Inca Gold" - Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Channel 6- KRMA - is a dramatic tale about the power of a Third World community over the faraway multinational corporation in a gleaming Denver skyscraper. It's also about social responsibility and history repeating itself. Further, it suggests two first-rate journalism outfits are better than one when it comes to mining a rich story spread over two continents.

For local viewers who have followed the financial and legal dealings of the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corp. in Indonesia and South America, the conflict between the Peruvians and the gold miners is just another chapter in what might be called "The Curse of Newmont Gold."

The investigative report "provides a rare behind-the-scenes look at how a multinational company does business in a developing country rife with corruption," Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Lowell Bergman says.

Bergman, a frequent contributor to The New York Times and a producer and correspondent for PBS's "Frontline," was previously a producer with CBS's "60 Minutes." He's best known for his exposé of the tobacco industry, chronicled in the feature film "The Insider."

International intrigue, accusations of bribery, environmental despoliation, sickened villagers, bricks of gold, secret recordings and a crooked Latin American dealmaker who turns out to be a CIA plant - it's all in this compact 30-minute account (to be accompanied by a series in The New York Times beginning today). The facts are familiar; the documentary scores a first, however, in getting a former Newmont executive talking on camera.

Newmont chief executive Wayne Murdy declined to be interviewed for the broadcast.

However, Heatheryn Higgins, spokeswoman for Newmont in Denver, did respond to a request for comment from The Denver Post. Noting that the company was not allowed to preview the broadcast, she said, "We engaged with journalists, opened doors on our mining operations in the U.S., Ghana and Peru in an effort to demonstrate our focus on safe and sustainable mining, to show our support for communities where we operate and to highlight our environmental practices. We tried to address the often negative stereotypes of the mining operation. Still, we believe the stories will be presented in a negative manner."

In the documentary, the former Newmont executive Larry Kurlander is featured throughout. He emerges as the conscience in the drama, newly aware of the world beyond the corporate suite. Brant Hinze, the general manager of the mammoth Yanacocha mine, plays the good company man, telling Bergman the company has "close to $2 billion" invested in the site and hopes to be a neighbor "for a very long time."

Secret video recordings show Kurlander meeting with the notorious Vladimiro Montesinos, Peru's corrupt intelligence chief and main adviser to then-Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Kurlander reportedly lobbied Montesinos, just as he lobbied the U.S. State Department, for help in the court battle over ownership of the Yanacocha mine.

In the recordings, made in Montesinos' office, Kurlander is seen asking for Montesinos' help in dealing with the French. Kurlander claims the French were trying to bribe Peruvian politicians to influence the judges. The dispute went all the way to Peru's notoriously corrupt Supreme Court. In another videotape, Montesinos meets with the Supreme Court justice who will cast the deciding vote. Newmont won that round.

Didn't these guys learn anything from the Nixon tapes? Always assume someone is eavesdropping.

"When the Montesinos secret videotapes turned up on Peruvian television, they led to his downfall and the collapse of the Fujimori government," Bergman notes. That's part of a larger story, beyond the scope of this half-hour. Looking back, Kurlander says he regrets meeting with the thug Montesinos.

Is it possible both sides may have attempted to corrupt the court? Denials are issued all around - "each side insists that the evidence against them was either unreliable or forged."

Bergman weaves Conquistador history into the report, reminding viewers that foreigners always have descended on Peru seeking gold. Some 500 years ago it was the Spanish, today it's a Denver-based company that digs half a million tons of earth a day, "literally moving mountains."

Hinze explains how the microscopic, so-called "invisible gold" is mined. "We carry the ore, the rock that has gold in it, place it on the leach pads, and then we'll sprinkle the weak cyanide solution over the leach pads."

Cyanide? That cues a discussion of the campesinos' mistrust of the mining methods, their concerns about the environment, ill effects on plant and animal life, and how hundreds of pounds of toxic mercury, a byproduct of gold mining, accidentally spilled throughout the village. More than 1,000 people are suing in a U.S. federal court, alleging they still suffer serious health problems as a result.

After the spill, Kurlander was dispatched back to Peru to conduct an environmental audit. He broke the bad news, warning in a memo that Newmont's senior executives could be subject to criminal prosecution and imprisonment.

At that point, Bergman says, Kurlander had an epiphany, "a transformation, if you will." Less than a year later Kurlander retired.

Parting shots reveal a sea of Peruvian villagers protesting the Yanacocha mine, overflowing the town square and shutting down mine operations. Newmont is significantly cutting its production of gold at Yanacocha, in part because the protesters have forced the company to stop expansion.

Kurlander gets the last word, a chastened executive: "Communities are more and more becoming involved in their own destinies. Without the community support you'll be out of business eventually. They will force you out of their community, and it doesn't matter how much government support you have."

TV critic Joanne Ostrow can be reached at 303-820-1830 or jostrow@denverpost.com.

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