Does poor Haiti have gold in its future?

Map image from Eurasion Minerals Inc. website.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is in Haiti today. He said he wants to keep almost 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers in place there for another year. Those peacekeepers have been giving Haiti what little stability it's had lately.

Aside from that bit of political good news, there is economic promise for the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, too. Gold closed today at $683 an ounce. Almost triple the price of five years ago. Reed Lindsay reports that has foreign prospectors showing up looking for a lucky strike.


Reed Lindsay: On a scrubby hillside in Northeast Haiti, geologist Keith Laskowski chisels out a chunk of reddish rock with his pick and squints at it through a magnifying lens.

Keith Laskowski: And that is silica, which is often associated with gold.

Laskowski works for Eurasian Minerals, a small prospecting company based in Canada. He's traveled all over the world in search of gold, but he says this is the most promising mining claim he's ever seen.

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

Part of the problem is Haiti's political chaos. Over the last two decades, its had coups, dictators and death squads. Since the last copper mine closed in the early '70s, investors have generally steered clear.

There's never been an industrial gold mine in Haiti. But with gold prices soaring in recent years, geologists are increasingly coming here. Their companies are also encouraged by the election of a new government in Haiti, as Laskowski explains.

Laskowski: We started investing in Haiti after the last democratic election. We took that election as a sign that Haiti's on a positive course for stability and development . . .

[Sound of thunder]

Laskowski: That hit me. A lightning bolt. Lightning just zipped me. Let's get the hell off.

Lightning strikes on exposed hillsides are not Laskowski's only worry.There are treacherous roads, a lack of electricity, and corruption — even in the new government.

The town of La Miel lies downhill from Eurasian's excavations. Most people in La Miel are subsistence farmers. There's no clean drinking water here. No doctors either.

Suzanne Louis is a community leader and the wife of a farmer. She complains that Eurasian's geologists haven't explained what they're doing, or how they're gonna help improve life in La Miel.

Suzanne Louis (interpreter): If they don't help us, we're going to rise up and make them explain the work they're doing. They need to sit down with the people 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'd like.

Before there's any "exploitation," before there are any investors, Eurasian must prove it really has found gold in Haiti. And lots of it.

Alex Turkeltaub is a mining analyst specializing in emerging markets.

Alex Turkeltaub: Junior mining companies are notorious for talking up their properties. And 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.

Laskowski believes his company has found gold and copper reserves in Haiti that could be worth billions of dollars. But he warns it would take at least four years before any actual mining could begin. By then, gold will have a different price — and Haiti a different government.

In La Miel, Haiti, I'm Reed Lindsay for Marketplace.

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