Mineral wealth glitters again in Haiti's darkness

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 June, 2007, 12:00am

Keith Laskowski bounds up the freshly cut dirt road like a child at an amusement park. He stops at a patch of reddish rock, whacks at it with his miner's pick and slips a broken-off chunk into his pocket.

'This road exposure's great,' Mr Laskowski says, followed by an almost giddy laugh. 'Excuse me, I've not seen this stuff. It's really exciting.'

For 27 years, Mr Laskowski has been travelling the world in search of gold, from Mongolia to the Amazon. But he says he has never seen a mining claim as promising as a grassy cone-shaped hill in northeastern Haiti.

'These are the best results I've ever seen in my career,' says Mr Laskowski, a Connecticut-born geologist working for a company based in Vancouver, Canada, called Eurasian Minerals.

'I don't think there's a question of whether there's a good deposit here. It's a question of whether we can develop it here in Haiti.'

Late last month, Eurasian Minerals announced the gold content found in several trenches cut into the hillsides, driving its stock price up 40 per cent on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Mr Laskowski says the company hopes to find billions of dollars worth of gold in the area above the village of La Miel, close to the border with the Dominican Republic.

This would be no small news for Haiti, where industrial production is practically non-existent and agriculture is mainly subsistence. Haiti has never had a modern gold or silver mine, and its only copper mine closed down 35 years ago. Government officials hope mining will bring jobs to local communities and a boon in tax revenue.

'You walk all over the country, climb mountains, sweat, break rocks, and you never see anything come of it,' says Dieuseul Anglade, a geologist who is the director of Haiti's Bureau of Mines and began working there three decades ago. 'It's been frustrating. But now we've got every reason to believe that in the coming years there will finally be mineral exploitation in Haiti.'

A United Nations study carried out in the 1970s indicates that Haiti could be littered with gold and copper deposits. But political violence and recurring coups have kept investors away. Few Haitians are aware of their country's potential mineral wealth.

Now, with the price of gold doubling in the past five years and a newly elected government establishing a degree of stability, geologists are once again scouring Haitian hilltops.

'Haiti's logical,' says Alex Turkeltaub, managing director of Frontier Strategy Group, a consulting firm hired by mining companies looking to invest in emerging markets.

'Russia's very difficult, resource nationalism is making Latin America increasingly difficult to deal with, and African countries have their own challenges,' says Mr Turkeltaub. 'With Haiti, the assumption of most mining executives is that its proximity to the United States and its relatively small size mean that they will have a lot of leverage as large players in a small economy, and that the Americans will always be there to protect against complete disaster, which is very different from a place like the Congo.'

But Haiti, says Mr Turkeltaub, is still off the map for most in the mining industry.

'Junior mining companies are notorious for talking up their properties,' he warns. 'It's an industry that has as many stories of over-promised resources as there are stories of discovering huge deposits when no one expected them.'

Still, Mr Turkeltaub predicts 'a stampede into Haiti' if the existence of large gold deposits can be proved.

Two other companies besides Eurasian, one Canadian and another financed by Canadian investors, are searching for gold in Haiti, according to Mr Anglade. Both are still conducting research to determine the viability of a mine.

Eurasian is a four-year-old company, which as its name suggests, has operated almost exclusively in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Like most 'junior companies', it seeks out unnoticed mineral deposits in far-flung parts of the world, and then, after proving their value, tries to sell them to a major mining corporation.

Mr Laskowski made his own pitch to Eurasian Minerals early last year and persuaded the company to obtain a permit from the Haitian government to look for gold.

Ten years ago, he was working on a gold exploration project in Haiti for Newmont Mining Corporation, the world's second-largest gold producer. But Newmont left after a year, according to Mr Laskowski, in part because of a merger with Santa Fe Pacific Gold Corporation, but also because the price of gold was falling and Haiti's political situation was getting dicey.

The experience serves as a reminder of the hurdles that stand between a handful of trenches and a full-fledged gold mine.

As the bird flies, it is only about 100km from the capital of Port-au-Prince to La Miel. But it takes 11 hours to get here over bone-jarring roads - if you are lucky enough to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle. For the area's residents, the only form of transport is a donkey.

There is no electricity, and Mr Laskowski sleeps in a tent, avoiding the village's mud and palm houses, which can be stifling hot and are a refuge for tarantulas.

He shrugs off these discomforts as relatively minor annoyances that come with the territory. He is more worried, he says, about venal officials and angry locals.

Haiti was recently ranked the most corrupt country in the world by Berlin-based Transparency International. President Rene Preval is seen as honest, however, and Mr Laskowski says he has not encountered any corruption in the government.

Mr Anglade insists the mining bureau is clean and says he is more concerned about keeping an eye on the mining companies. He has only 10 university graduates on staff and a meagre US$1 million annual budget, which he says will not be enough to monitor a major mining operation.

Meanwhile, discontent is already brewing in the village of La Miel and the surrounding countryside, which like the rest of Haiti, is desperately poor.

The sudden appearance last year of Mr Laskowski and his team of Haitian geologists sparked lofty expectations among the local peasant families that the company would bring much-needed development to the area. But so far, Eurasian's relatively small-scale exploration work has resulted only in a few temporary jobs.

'If they don't start helping us, we're going to rise up and make them explain the work they're doing,' says Suzanne Louis, a community leader and the wife of a farmer. 'They need to sit down with everyone together to let us know what decision they've made for the area. If they don't do this, we're not going to let them exploit us as they wish.'

Mr Laskowski has asked the locals to be patient. In the best of scenarios, he says, it will take from four to six years before any actual mining could begin. By that time, Haiti will have a new government, and gold will probably sell at a different price.