Descendant of the conquistadors: the pursuit of wealth trumps all else

Jun 8, 2024
Gold bars and Financial concept

In an era of out of control climate change, the case for leaving gold in the ground is even stronger than that for coal. Investor and shareholder pressure has seen the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto divesting from the latter; but in practical, if not financial, terms ending the mining of gold is a far simpler task, writes Jeremy Rose.

In 2021, Spain’s combined exports of tomatoes and capsicums netted the country close to US$3 billion in exports.

By way of comparison the 200 tonnes of gold Spain looted from the Americas – killing millions in the process – is today worth around US$11.8 billion.

In other words, civilisations were destroyed for the equivalent of what some tomato and capsicums seeds have ended up netting Spain every four years. (Spain isn’t even Europe’s top exporter of tomatoes – that would be the Netherlands.)

In culinary terms the discovery of the Americas changed the world. There would be no chilli in curry, no fish and chips, no margherita pizza, no peanut butter, no corn on the cob, and no feijoas or tamarillos without it.

The impact of the new crops on the population of the “old world” was spectacular. In Europe the introduction of potatoes and maize is estimated to have nearly doubled the population from 140 million in 1750 to 266 million in 1850.

In China it was a similar story. The new crops from the Americas were the largest contributor to the population rising from 177 million to 430 million over the same period.

It’s hard to over-state either the benefits to Europe and Asia of the “discovery” of the Americas or the barbarity of what followed for the indigenous peoples and their lands.

Historians use the phrase: Gold, God and Glory as a shorthand for the motivation of the conquistadors but in truth the latter two were justifications for the first.

In a cruel irony the stolen gold barely enriched Spain. It was in effect a massive exercise in quantitative easing resulting in inflation and a dramatic fall in the value of gold.

With the benefit of hindsight the full obscenity and irrationality of the European lust for gold is all too stark. The gold was destined for bank vaults and jewellery. It was, and is, simply a store of value much like the zeros and ones that make up the Bitcoin blockchain.

And the lust for gold hasn’t diminished.

When New Zealand resources minister Shane Jones declared that if an endangered frog stood in the way of a mining it was “goodbye Freddie,” gold mines were front of mind.

The flippant Freddie Frog reference was to an OceanaGold bid for a licence to mine under conservation land in Coromandel, where the highly endangered Archey’s frog lives, and was made in Jones’ parliamentary speech in support of the government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill last December.

In 1935, Hōri Wātene told a commission of inquiry into the Ōhinemuri goldfield that his iwi, Ngāti Tamaterā, had resisted gold mining in the Coromandel as far back as the 1860s but without success, and declared gold a curse.

Jones may have Māori whakapapa (identifies and is of Māori descent) but in moral and political terms he’s a direct descendant of the conquistadors. The pursuit of wealth trumps all else.

Announcing the government draft strategy for mining, last week, he was at pains to point out the role new mines would play in meeting global demand for the minerals needed in renewable energy technologies.

That was pure greenwash. Gold isn’t one of those minerals. It may be among the rarest of elements but there’s no shortage. The World Gold Council estimates there’s currently about 190,040 tonnes of gold in the world.

When it comes to climate change gold mines are part of the problem, not the solution. Global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from gold mining exceed 100 Mt CO2-e annually – about the same amount as 27 coal powered power plants.

Cambridge University academic and climate policy expert Stephen Lezak says only about 8% of mined gold ends up being used for industrial purposes – mainly in cellphones and dentistry.

The case for leaving gold in the ground, Lezak says, is even stronger than that for coal and investor and shareholder pressure has seen the likes of BHP and Rio Tinto divesting from the latter.

And in practical, if not financial, terms ending the mining of gold is a far simpler task. Already about a fifth of the gold used is in industrial processes is met by recycling.

Lezak says the recycling of e-waste could be ramped up to meet the rest of the demand without having to dip into the tens of thousands of tonnes of gold currently languishing in bank vaults.

“Unlike copper, for example, the world can easily do without more gold,” he says.

“When you take an objective look at the social and environmental costs and you weigh those against the benefits of extraction, it doesn’t make sense.

“Living in the 21st Century is about making tough choices. The thing about gold is there are so many good substitutes available. If you want something beautiful there are other things besides gold that are beautiful. If you want to way to store wealth, there are other ways to store wealth.”

He says gold is valuable in spite of new production, not because of it, and if the supply of new gold was to dry up that would simply see the price of gold increase.

“It is true that the global economy relies in part upon gold – but that is not the same as relying upon mining.”

Lezak isn’t alone in calling for an end to gold mining. In 2017, following a decade of protest, El Salvador passed the world’s first and only blanket ban on metal mining.

Mega-Investor Warren Buffett sold off his gold holding in 2021 saying: “Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”

In a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote in great detail about how best to colonise the island of Espanola (modern Hispaniola which is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).

Eight of the letter’s 12 paragraphs dealt with gold. This is the paragraph dealing with the proceeds of the anticipated loot:

As regards the division of the gold, and the share that ought to be reserved for your Highnesses, this, in my opinion, must be left to the aforesaid governor and treasurer, because it will have to be greater or less according to the quantity of gold that may be found. Or, should it seem preferable, your Highnesses might, for the space of one year, take one half, and the collector the other, and a better arrangement for the division be made afterward.

That the gold was valued simply for being gold and not for the extraordinary art works that it was used to create in the Americas is beyond doubt.

Aztec king Motecuhzoma (Montezuma II), in an attempt to avoid a Spanish invasion, sent emissaries loaded down with treasures to the conquistador Hernan Cortes.

The German painter Albrecht Drurer described the treasures after they were put on display in Spain: “[A] whole golden sun, a whole yard wide, likewise a whole silver moon, also equally big, likewise two chambers full of … wonderful things for various uses, that are much more beautiful to behold than things of which miracles are made.”

None of the artifacts of which miracles were made survived. Presumably they were melted down to fill the bank vaults of Europe.

Motecuhzoma gifts simply whetted the appetites of colonisers hungry for riches not friendship or mutual aid.

It’s a mindset which was on display on Twitter recently when the head of the Taxpayers’ Union Jordan Williams responded to a tweet showing the huge swathe of New Zealand that could be opened up to mining if the Fast-track Approvals Bill is passed with:

“We’re sitting on THAT much gold/wealth and those nutters are protesting to keep it in the ground and keep us poor?! Hold my beer.”

Williams’ eye skipped over the open cast mine on the lefthand side of the tweet he was responding to and instead saw dollar signs radiating out of a map revealing the huge chunks of land that could be mined.

The cliché knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing has never been more apt.

The government’s Fast-track Approvals Bill will concentrate King Ferdinand-like power in the hands of politicians who increasingly look like they’re in the pockets of those whose only interest is: money, money and more money. Godless conquistadors without glory or shame.

Greenpeace, Forest and Bird and other environmental groups are holding a March for Nature to protest the government’s war on nature, Aotea Square, Saturday 8 June at 1pm.

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