Travelling out of sight? Mapping the flight networks of Canada's gold mining industry

12 Min Read

April 20, 2021

Sydney Hart is a writer and artist. He recently received a PhD in Cultural Studies from Queen’s University.

On the second floor of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), in the heart of Canada’s largest city, visitors can find a room presenting all kinds of crystals, gems, and precious minerals. More prominently showcased than the rest, a strange piece of gold stands in the entrance to the room, which features the Barrick Gold Corporation Gallery and the Teck Suite of Galleries (both named after Canadian gold mining companies), as well as a small display for the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. The accompanying text claims that the large coin embossed with a maple leaf in the entrance is a 100 kg mass of pure gold, the property of the Barrick Gold Corporation and an object certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest of its kind in the world. This description, in essence, intends to make the gold shine brighter. But where did this gold come from? Is it from different mines scattered across Barrick Gold’s operations in Africa, South Asia, and Oceania? Or perhaps from one of Barrick’s many fiercely contested mines in Latin America, such as Pierina in Peru?

Here, in one of Canada’s largest and most popular museums, the mining industry has an opportunity to turn public attention away from its many detractors, whether those protesting in Toronto or across mine-adjacent communities. In the ROM exhibit, symbols of wealth are disconnected from patterns of extraction in the Global South, and little to no mention is made of the vast corporate and logistical networks that underpin the influence of companies such as Barrick Gold.

Examining flight patterns is one way to glimpse the extensive connections that Toronto-based mining companies have forged around the world. Mapping gold extraction through air travel can also tell us about the scale of carbon emissions in the gold mining industry, and thereby show one facet of the entanglements between the extraction of precious metals and the extraction of fossil fuels.

A close look at flight data reveals that most gold imported into Canada arrives by plane. While details on the precise types of planes transporting such gold (company-owned, charter, etc.) is usually under wraps, the gold mining industry makes extensive use of air travel for “fly-in/fly-out operations,” which typically involve the transportation of workers between mine-adjacent sites and regional pick-up points. Barrick has forged an extensive transnational network for air travel, only partly justified through the locations of its mining operations across four continents. It also owns its own fleet of luxury aircraft. Unlike the smaller planes it uses for fly-in/fly-out operations that take less than an hour of flying time, Barrick’s fleet of Gulfstream IV luxury jets are used for considerably longer journeys, and notably connect Toronto to Palm Beach, FL, New York, and London, UK. The CEOs of Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, for instance, have both reported owning at least three residences. Flight data for planes owned by each company suggest that the model of the fly-in/fly-out operation extends to transnational movements to and from company headquarters in Toronto and Vancouver. Flying into work, it seems, is common in the gold mining industry.

The interior of a Gulfstream IV private jet. Photo by Konstantin Von Wedelstaedt, 16 November 2008.

Flight emissions account for about 2% of global carbon emissions, a number that was predicted to rise sharply before the COVID-19 pandemic ground flights to a halt. Various flight calculators online (such as ICAO Flight Emissions Calculator) allow passengers to glimpse how carbon emissions change based on the length and type of their flights. Other online tools help passengers quantify how personal flights contribute to rising sea levels more directly, for instance by exposing how “the average personal CO2 emissions of several metric tons per year can be directly linked to the loss of tens of square meters of Arctic sea ice in every year.” Such calculations have led to terrifying estimates, for instance that Canadians’ personal carbon emissions contribute, on average, to 47 square meters of Arctic sea ice loss per year, one of the highest such carbon footprints in the world.

Based on these methods of calculation and publicly accessible data, flights of Barrick-Gold-owned aircraft in 2019 contributed, at minimum, to the loss of four square kilometres of Arctic sea ice. In its recent annual report, Barrick goes to great lengths to list initiatives for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, yet no mention is made of the emissions from aviation, whether from workers flying towards mines in rural Nevada, or executives flying towards New York.

It is estimated that flights of Barrick-Gold-owned aircraft in 2019 contributed, at minimum, to the loss of four square kilometres of Arctic sea ice.

In recent years, the “flight shaming” movement has helped scrutinize the carbon footprint of air travel. However, there are limits to shaming individuals or advocating for personal responsibility without any systemic analysis of inequality under capitalism, especially when considering differing costs of passenger travel and the small minority holding an outsized influence on carbon emissions in the skies. Private jets, which are extensively used in the gold mining industry, carry an average of only four people per flight. In 2017, 12% of US residents took a plane six or more times, accounting for two-thirds of all flights by US residents, while in the same year more than half of residents didn’t take a plane at all.

Detail from "Goldcorp" visualization, Mining Maps project

I have created visualizations of flight networks in Canada’s gold mining industry for Mining Maps, a website I designed to complement my doctoral research on extractivism and air travel in Canada. For flight data, I used publicly accessible records from the OpenSky Network, a non-profit association based in Switzerland that estimates capturing close to half of all global flights. Mapping the flight emissions of Canada’s gold mining industry presents concrete examples of the systems driving emissions in aviation. However, the data visualizations of Mining Maps focus on two companies—Goldcorp (which was headquartered in Vancouver, before it was acquired by Newmont Mining in 2019) and Barrick Gold (the world’s second largest gold mining company)—and the countries from which Canada imports gold.

The ROM is arguably one of the most prominent sites through which Canada’s mining industry presents itself to the public. It provides a platform to some of the world’s largest mining companies to shape narratives about their industry. While museum displays task themselves with describing minerals in detail and in material isolation, museum presentations widely belie the social, cultural, and environmental consequences of mining operations. The gold mining industry has been investing heavily to whitewash its image, notably in the wake of publicized human rights violations and opposition from Indigenous communities and mine-adjacent communities in the Global South. However, in the skies, away from the scrutiny they expect, corporations show a different face. Understanding the industry’s transnational networks and mapping them through emerging technologies enables us to tell a different story. Such a story can further expose the role of industrial gold extraction in long haul flight patterns, the roots of global environmental degradation, and some misleading claims enshrined in Canadian cultural institutions.

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