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Hey shoppers, some gadgets come at a high price

I recently purchased my first smart phone. I can safely say that I have developed a bonafide addiction. I can’t put that phone down.

The fact that it’s taken me a full four years longer than anyone in my social group to start using a smart phone is in large part because of my concerns about the use of gold, lithium and other rare(ish) elements used in phone construction.

Our modern world relies on precious and semi-precious minerals to function. Sometimes, however, those of us who do not live in mining areas can forget the cost of resource extraction. In 2009, I was given the opportunity to learn about those costs in the Guatemalan town of San Marcos.

It’s a pretty indistinct town; paint is fading from most of the colorful building fronts, the concrete block houses sit wall to wall. No yards. No sidewalks.

The white front of the Catholic church stands out as a continual reminder of colonization, but beyond that facade is a living, breathing faith community that isn’t afraid to fight for what it believes its community needs.

The San Marcos diocese is home to a program called Pastoral de la Tierra — a ministry that addresses environmental issues and the human costs of land-use. The San Marcus municipality also has the dubious distinction of being home to one of Guatemala’s oldest strip mining (or Ceilo Abierto) projects. Dubbed Marlin I, the project is run by a Canadian firm called Gold Corp.  

The project is in full swing and produces an average of 240,000 ounces of gold a year. This gold sells for about $1,200 per ounce — or $280 million annually.  

Pastoral de la Tierra has been fighting against strip mining in Guatemala and specifically against the activities of the miners at the Marlin I site since before the first bulldozers started to clear the land.

Originally just another peak in a range of mountains, the Marlin I site is now a gaping crater, 1,600 meters across and 800 meters deep, with bulldozers and explosives continually gouging deeper and deeper into the earth.  

Deforestation, erosion, increased traffic and transformation of the landscape are all visible changes caused by the mine's presence.

In order to sort gold and other valuable ore from the thousands of tons of material produced by the destruction of a mountain, the mining company uses more than 250,000 gallons of water per hour — the same amount a typical family in the area might use in roughly a quarter century. The process also calls for the use of large amounts of chemicals such as cyanide, which can contaminate local water supplies.

Since the mine started operating, many villagers living in the area have begun developing huge sores all over their bodies, attributed by some to the contaminated water.  

So what does Guatemala get out of all of this? Not much. About 1 percent of the profits from these mining projects actually stays in Guatemala. Of that 1 percent, half is designated for the municipality in which the mine is located, leaving empty the mine’s promise of bringing development to rural communities.  

In the face of all this, the corporate machine plugs on and on and on, filling our world with the slew of consumer goods that we demand.  

This exploitation in large part happens so that mega-companies can offer me my shiny new phone at a fraction of the production cost.

Due to the luck of geography, we in the Pacific Northwest benefit, while people in far away places watch the land — which once provided their families with food — fill slowly with toxins leeching from factories owned by us (the people of the global north) and benefiting us.  

We never see the enormous cost our lifestyle demands of the planet and people in other places.

I do believe that people would change their consumptive habits if they saw children covered with sores, drank water tasting bitter and metallic and saw the cracking walls of San Marcus.

If we could remove the abstract and replace it with the reality, I believe we would change — because I know we are good people.  

But how we’re going to manage to see the dark reality instead of the pretty picture? That I don’t know.

Callie Vandewiele is a graduate of Pacific University who lives in Southeast Portland.




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