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for people who care about the West

Not good news for the locals

Afghans might learn from history what happens to people who live above valuable minerals.


Finally, some good news out of Afghanistan. In June, it was reported that the poor war-torn arid mountainous country might hold as much as $3 trillion worth of minerals: iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium, a vital component in the batteries for portable electronic devices.

But this is unlikely to be good news for the Afghans themselves, as we Westerners should realize better than anyone. Our history shows that just about the worst thing that can happen to you is to have something valuable discovered underneath your patch of earth.

We could start with the fate of the Incas in the Andes and the Aztecs in Mexico after the Spanish found rich deposits of gold and silver in the New World, not long after Christopher Columbus visited in 1492, but let's move on to our own part of the hemisphere.

The first American gold rush was not the Forty-niners crossing the continent to California. It came two decades earlier -- an 1828 rush in northern Georgia. So much gold was found that the U.S. government even established a mint in Dahlonega, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta.

That was Cherokee country. The Cherokee were not nomadic warriors; they lived in log cabins, farmed, even owned slaves like many other Southerners. Despite all those attributes of contemporary civilization, they got in the way of gold-hungry American prospectors. The Cherokee were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma on the infamous "Trail of Tears." Whoever prospered from the discovery of the gold, it wasn't the people on the ground where the gold was found.

That was also the case in California. Some estimates say there were more than 150,000 Indians abiding there in 1848, the year that James Marshall found gold in the streambed gravel while building a sawmill for John Sutter. By 1870, after wars and disease, there were fewer than 30,000.  Clearly, the gold beneath them didn't do the Miwoks and Nisenah any good.

Nor did the gold help Sutter, who lost his land and died nearly bankrupt. Most of California's early Hispanic landowners -- California had been part of Mexico until 1848 -- didn't fare any better.

California set a pattern in the West. The Cheyenne and Arapaho were removed from Colorado after its 1859 gold rush, just as the Kalispel and Flatheads lost their Montana homelands following the 1861 gold discoveries on Grasshopper Creek. And the Lakota were forced out of the Black Hills of South Dakota with the Deadwood gold rush of 1874.

It wasn't always gold, of course. Colorado's Utes negotiated an immense reservation, covering nearly the western third of the state, and the U.S. Army was supposed to protect their lands. But then rich deposits of silver were found at Leadville near the eastern border of the reservation. Prospectors ignored the law and the occasional Army patrol to stake claims in the Elk and San Juan mountains.

That's when the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains got its name. Prospectors were gathered in Twin Lakes, eager to cross Independence Pass and tap the riches of the Aspen area. However, President Ulysses S. Grant planned to protect Ute treaty rights by sending Gen. John Pope west with a brigade or two.

Territorial Gov. Samuel H. Elbert interceded with Grant to cancel the order, thus allowing the Utes to be dispossessed. Grateful miners climbed the nearest high peak, all 14,440 feet of it, and named it for Elbert.

To be fair, this phenomenon of dispossession in pursuit of mineral wealth was not limited to the United States. The aborigines of Australia saw few benefits from that country's gold rush of 1851. Even where they weren't pushed out of the way, they found their land and streams devastated by mining, thus destroying their traditional livelihoods.

But surely we're more enlightened now, right? Nigeria is one of the world's leading oil producers. The Niger Delta, however, is one of the most polluted places on earth thanks to spills and ruptures, and the average life expectancy is about 40 years.

A few Nigerians get good jobs in the industry, but as for the others, "We lost our nets, huts and fishing pots," said Chief Promise, an Otuegwe village leader. "This is where we fished and farmed. We have lost our forest."

America has stronger environmental laws, but often there's still no reason to celebrate if something valuable is found under your property -- especially when you don't own the mineral rights.

That's the situation in Garfield County on the Western Slope of Colorado. When the land was homesteaded, the federal government retained the rights to any oil or natural gas that might lie below. So homeowners deal with noise and traffic, and the occasional dose of benzene in their drinking water. They don't see a nickel of royalties, and it's hard to imagine that these developments have enhanced their property values or improved their lives.

Sure, there are exceptions. The Southern Utes were pushed out of their mountain homelands in the 19th century, but the southwestern Colorado tribe holds nearly $4 billion in assets, much of that from oil and gas development on their reservation. The Utes formed their own production and pipeline companies and branched out.

And my own family benefited for a few years on account of royalties from oil production from my maternal grandfather's ranch near Bill, Wyo. But we didn't live there, and the rancher who leased the grazing rights was less than pleased with the noise, traffic and disturbance.

So, by and large, riches beneath your feet do not translate into a better life for you. The Afghans may live atop a treasure house of mineral wealth, but if our history is any guide, it won't do them a bit of good.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].