Extreme doesn’t mean a former river

We’d just spent a day in the hot and humid forest and small villages in and around Akyem, Ghana. It’s the “before” site: Newmont is going through their stage-gate process of due diligence to determine if its worth opening a mine here.

ghanaroad_1The task is ungraspable. Items on an endless to-do list: Energy needs. Relocating multiple villages, maybe 10,000 people. Roads and access concerns. NGO buy-in. Still not sure if local Chiefs will give their approval (despite not having de facto governance, politicians and enterprises must have their buy-in). Locations of sustainable farm training facilities. Evaluation of available and competent labor. Evaluation of available and competent ex-pat labor.

Oh — and is there enough gold in the ore samples to be profitable.

What also struck me was the water needs. One Newmont engineer told me he’s struggling with a solution to re-routing rivers and streams for the water supply. You need a lot of water to mine gold. A fresh and plentiful water supply for two lakes: a clean one for the water needs of the processing operations, and another to mix with the used cyanide and sulfur dioxide in the destruction process.

It was time for a beer in Newmont’s temporary encampment. A small little oasis, oddly. Reliable electricity, running water. Air conditioning. A small bar. A far cry from the mud huts and lean-to shanties we toured all day. If this is what Newmont can build temporarily, their fully operational mine must be a wonder. (We’ll see that next week.)

The beer was good. Scott McLagan, the lead professor and the Director of the executive programs at Daniels, had just debriefed the student teams. They were wandering a bit—trying to find focus for their projects. A balance of academic requirements and delivering something of value for Newmont. Measuring sustainable development efforts and the development of a Ghanaian foundation.

Not exactly a multiple choice exam.

“There’s no book for this stuff,” Scott told me. “Newmont is doing completely new things in Africa. Sustainability on this scale, and this integrated, is totally new.”

studentssustain_1The African earth isn’t the only ground Newmont’s breaking. They’re working with a model of sustainability similar to what Daniels teaches. A nice alignment with the Newmont approach of juggling multiple systems. But charts and theories are eaten alive by the doing.

“Learning happens at the extremes,” Scott continued. “Think about it: Newmont’s business model is as complex and capital intensive as they come. Most of their workforce is overseas in multiple and remote locations. They arrive in the sticks of Ghana like an alien race. They promise new wealth creation, but a huge environmental impact.

ghanahome_1“And they’ll have to move people who have lived here for generations. How do you value sustenance farming land? By the market value? That’d be next to nothing. And what happens when a financial wind fall comes to someone who’s never known financial management?”

I point out that that doesn’t even touch the environmental stuff. Like diverting streams.

“Or government stuff,” he says, practically brushing off green as if it’s the easiest part. “Newmont wants to be invited back. Where do they draw the line between good citizenship—building a public bathroom or a school is a rounding error in their corporate budget. But is that their job? Their duty to the shareholders?”

I look over my beer and around the bar. No students. They’re at work in their teams to tackle just these issues. Trying to find focus to their deliverables.

It’s very real to them. They’re on a deadline. A bit extreme.