The region of Asturias
Ever since the Roman era, the Principality of Asturias has been characterized by a rich mining tradition which developed further toward the end of the nineteenth century. Thereby making coal one of many mined materials in the area. The ground contains a multitude of minerals and metals: mercury, iron, zinc, magnesium, copper, tungsten, tin, lead and also gold.
The mining industry fell into decay from 1970 to 1980. In this period, the Asturian coal fields became the least efficient and most vulnerable part of the Spanish coal industry. Between 1955 and 1985, Asturias lost 15,7% of all jobs in the region, and as many as 51% of all manufacturing jobs. The amount of jobs in mining reduced from 32.000 to 21.000 between 1970 and 1992. The total number of pits halved in the ‘80s to only about 14. Today most of its inhabitants are working in agriculture and the livestock and fishing industries.
Asturias has a total of 487 gold fields, all situated in the west of the province. Almost all of them were once exploited by the Romans. In the western zone of Asturias there are three so-called ‘gold belts’: Oscos, Narcea and Navelgas. The three sectors have different mineralization processes but are linked through cracks along a northeast-southeast axis. The largest mining projects that have been covered in the media are El Valle-Boinás and Carles, both of which are part of the Narcea-gold belt.
The gold reserves of Salave, a parish which is part of Tapia de Casariego, were first discovered by the Romans. Gold mining in the northwest of Spain then took off on a larger, more industrial scale. The Romans developed a special technique to exploit the gold: Ruina Montium. They built tunnels in the hills where water was poured in. The water pressure pulverized the surrounding rocks. Both this grit and the gold were then collected and led through greasy piles of wool or dense bushes so that precious metals would stick to it.
In this process, entire hills were demolished and tons of soil and rocks were moved. It is estimated that a total of 4 million cubic meters were dug up and transported, with more than 7000 kg of gold being excavated. While these numbers are certainly high, they pale in comparison to those of the largest open-pit gold mine of the Roman Empire: in Las Médulas, in Léon in western Spain, more than 93 million cubic meters of soil and rocks were transported elsewhere!
In order to supply enough water, dams and many canals were constructed. Many roads were built to transport the tons of materials. It is estimated that Salave’s mining industry consisted of around 200 people. Most of them were free, indigenous men coming from fortified villages nearby (forts): Figo and Castello de Rondello. The management of the engineers and all logistics were in the hands of the army who were based there and controlled the area together with a small group of public servants.
After the decay of the Roman Empire, almost all mining projects in the northwest of Spain ceased. Initially they were retaken by the Arabs, yet the excavation of the home grounds quickly ended again after discovering the American continent and its mineral richness. Spain’s own resources were left aside and all attention was geared towards the excavation of natural resources that belonged to the indigenous population of the Americas.
It took until the middle of the nineteenth century before more extensive mining projects took off again in Spain. In 1825 the first mining law was adopted and immediately there were many requests for mining concessions in the region. Between 1825 and 1964 exploitation permits were constantly requested for different types of minerals and metals: silver, molybdenum, iron, copper, zinc, tin, tungsten, gold and more.
Nearly all of the production was led by France and England. Most of the metals such as copper and iron were transferred to other European countries. This situation remained in place until the start of World War II. Afterwards, the demand in rapidly industrializing Spain quickly exceeded the available supply of minerals. Asturias, mostly known because of the large supplies of coal and fluorite, thus became one of the largest mining regions in Spain.
In the 1960s , many large mining companies began to travel to Salave to explore possibilities for gold mining. Exminesa (Cominco), Imebesa (Northgate), Río Tinto Patiño, GFSA (Gold Fields), CESA Charter Exploraciones (Anglo-American), Oromet, Newmont Gold Company (Newmont Mining Corporation), San Diego Gold Company (Lindex Corporation), Río Narcea Gold Mines are just a few of the companies that came to Salave to size up the situation. Those explorations resulted in the designation of an area for research that amounted to more than 62 square km.
In 2005, Río Narcea Gold Mines launched the first completely developed mining project in the region. It concerned a large open-pit mining project that would be installed along the coastline, at a mere 1,5 km distance from Tapia de Casariego. The consequences for the environment would be huge. Protests against the mining project started to emerge and led to the creation of the ORO NO platform. The movement and its members ensured that Río Narcea Gold Mines temporarily had to postpone its plans. In 2007 mining giant LundinMining bought the company in an attempt to re-launch the mining project. In the end, the concession ended up in the hands of the current owner, AsturGold (DagilevCapital Corporation), who recently changed its name to Black Dragon Gold Corp, as of October 2016.
In 2009, AsturGold acquired five concessions for exploitation from the former owner, Río Narcea Gold Mines (part of LundinMining since 2007). This way the company – registered on the stock exchanges of France and Toronto – gained access to an area of 433 hectares, supposedly containing immense gold supplies. The estimated amount of gold is 62 tons, which at the current price would be worth 2.254.878.000 Euro.
The gold supplies of Salave are buried in a dense pine and eucalyptus forest. The lakes ‘Lagunas de Silva’ are situated here. These lakes were a result of the excavations by the Romans in the first and second century AC. The removal of materials back in those days resulted in large holes with a diameter of several tens of meters, of which the deepest point is thirty meters under the ground. Due to the high density of the substratum, the water accumulated here, thus creating the Lagos de Silva.
During the acquisition of the concessions in 2009, Cary Pinkowski – a Canadian entrepreneur and the CEO of AsturGold – announced that he wanted to reopen the mine of Salave as soon as possible once they acquired all the environmental licences. The management hoped that everything would be ready in September 2011 so as to be able to present the project to the Principality of Asturias. It was planned that the mine would be operational for at least ten years and that on average 3500 kilograms of gold would be excavated each year.
In contrast with the previous owner of the concession, who wanted to explore the region through open-pit mining (resulting in the authorities’ rejection of the project), AsturGold elaborated a project that would have according to them a lesser impact on the environment. Through a system of underground mining in which the gold is transported via underground conveyor belts to the treatment area – which would still be situated at 2.7 km inside the extraction area – the passing of heavy trucks would be avoided. It was promised that the mining project would create 250 direct jobs, whereas the construction of the mine itself, which would take around 21 months, would create some 70 jobs. If everything had gone according to plan, the first gram of gold would have been exploited in 2014.
The new project concerns gold mining on the coast, involving large transfers of materials. This process will risk polluting the region.
The reaction of the population of Salave was divided regarding the mining project. Supporters in favour of the project united under the slogan ‘Trabajo Ya Mina Sí’ (‘Jobs Yes, Mine Yes’) and affirm that 70% of the population is in favour of the mine. They see the risk of environmental pollution as negligible and insist that the water of the Porcia River would not be used: the mine would work on the base of a closed circuit. Furthermore, ‘Trabajo Ya Mina Sí’ argue that there is still a great crisis in Spain. The unemployment rate in the region is over 40% and the population has never been able to make a living out of tourism. In other words, a new mine would boost the region’s economy. Oro No claims that ‘Trabajo Ya Mina Sí’ was engineered by AsturGold, and that the President was employed and paid by the mining company.
With AsturGold close to bankruptcy, the project came to a standstill until in July/August 2016, the company received a capital contribution from Lionsbridge, Westech International and RMB Australia Holdings. As a result, AsturGold was able to pay off the debt that they had racked up. After the mining project (that in 2016 was still in a legal stage) was rejected by the Principality of Asturias, attempts were made to relaunch the project with the new contributors. In September of that same year, the newly Australian-Canadian AsturGold resumed contact with the local and regional authorities.
In October 2016, it was decided that the mining company should be rebranded as a result of this sale. Black Dragon Gold Corp was chosen. This was part of a strategy to attract new investors. Around the same time, the company announced that it would soon resume contact with the authorities so as to relaunch the project as soon as possible. The Principality of Asturias reacted by stating that they were waiting for the outcome of the dispute between the Principality and Black Dragon Gold Corp, a case previously brought to court by Black Dragon, after the rejection of the mining project. It is now up to the Supreme Court of Justice to judge the case.
ORO NO is now waiting anxiously to see if Black Dragon Gold Corp will be granted all the required environmental permits. There have been various attempts to categorize Salave under the network of protected areas ‘Red de Espacios Protegidos de Asturias’ (Network of Protected Spaces in Asturias). However, until now these attempts have been unsuccessful and the region does not enjoy any form of protection. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why the area should be considered a reserve: both the landscape and the archeological value of the understudied Roman settlements are often mentioned. Also, the region’s biological make up is highly valuable since Salave contains one of the scarce ‘wetlands’ of Asturias, with many protected fauna and flora. Further, the economic impact (a great concern for the population) , is worth considering, as protecting the region has the potential to attract tourism.
- Critcher (C.), Parry (D.) & Waddington (D.), “Regulation, RestructuringandRegeneration in Coalfields: Three European Cases”, in Edwards (P.) &Elger (T.) (eds.), The Global Economy, National StatesandtheRegulation of Labour, Mansell, London & New York, 1999, pp. 87-110, p.103.
- Berekening op 05/02/2017, aan 36.369 euro per kilogram + https://www.oroyfinanzas.com/2011/06/el-mayor-yacimiento-de-oro-de-europa-se-encuentra-en-asturias/
-  http://www.lne.es/occidente/2014/09/18/tercer-plan-astur-gold-riesgos/1643811.html