Four activists crashed the annual general meeting of the world's biggest gold mining company on Tuesday morning while, outside, around 60 protesters chanted at company shareholders, "Quit while you're ahead, Barrick Gold is dead."
But inside the meeting in front of about 200 shareholders, Barrick Gold's executive chairman of the board John Thornton emphasized that "Barrick is back" and "gold is here to stay."
While the company pushed the message that it was taking human rights seriously, four activists used proxy shares to speak about rape allegations and environmental damage at the company's mines in Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Argentina.
Given a chance to speak at the meeting, MiningWatch Canada Research Co-ordinator Catherine Coumans called Barrick's Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea and its North Mara mine in Tanzania "extremely violent places" where women and men have allegedly been beaten and raped by mine security guards.
At the Porgera mine as recently as December, three men told VICE News they were forced by guards at gunpoint to perform sex acts on one another, despite one man telling the officers he was HIV-positive. More than 120 women have also come forward with rape allegations against security guards employed by the mine. As one of these women told VICE News over the phone: "Rapes, killing, illegal mining activities are still going on. They haven't done anything [to stop it]."
In 2010, Barrick acknowledged the problem at the Porgera mine and in 2012 it created a remedy mechanism to compensate alleged rape victims. To receive compensation, alleged victims had to sign waivers stating they would not sue the company in any court in the world.
Coumans said the women are unhappy with the compensation method — a sentiment expressed in a recent report by legal experts at Harvard and Columbia — and asked company president Kelvin Dushinsky whether Barrick plans to consult the women about the mechanism and rescind the waivers they signed.
Dushnisky responded at the shareholders meeting that the company has accepted responsibility for the human rights abuses at both mines, which he called "completely unacceptable." He called the remedy mechanisms "very successful.
"We are comfortable with the remedy framework that we've put in place," he said.
Another activist used her proxy shares to raise concerns about Barrick's Veladero mine in Argentina, where an open pipe valve leaked over one million litres of cyanide into a nearby river last September, prompting the local government to issue drinking water warnings.
While locals used to swim in the river, drink the water, and grow some of the best produce in the region, the spill has "dramatically changed" life in the area, the activist said, reading a statement from locals who live near the mine. Now, people are afraid to swim in or drink the water. "Our town will never be the same," the statement from locals said.
Dushnisky acknowledged earlier in the meeting that there had been "an unfortunate event." He said the company had acted quickly to contain the spill and work with local regulators to mitigate damage, fix the problem and test the water.
Preliminary testing by the United Nations found the cyanide didn't affect the local water supply, but that didn't stop locals from stocking up on bottled water, fearing the worst.
"Extensive water sampling that we conducted showed that we actually posed no risk to human health or to the aquatic environment downstream of the mine, but in any event, an incident like that is entirely unacceptable," Dushnisky said. "So we're placing a greater emphasis on environmental performance this year, with higher standards tied directly to compensation, and that goes throughout the company. We can do better and we will."
Previously Barrick said a faulty valve had caused the issue, but at Tuesday's meeting Dushnisky said it was an operator error.
Between 2011 and 2012 there were three other cyanide leaks at the same mine. The company told Reuters those incidents were "duly reported to the appropriate authorities."
Beyond promises to work on its environmental and human rights issues, Barrick announced a first quarter net loss of $83 million this year amid slumping gold prices, but cut its debt load by $842 million in the last year.
To address the losses, Barrick recently sold off non-core assets and shrunk the size of its Toronto headquarters by half — layoffs Dushinsky characterized Tuesday as "unclogging of the arteries.
Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont