La Alumbrera: the witness case

La Alumbrera: the witness case

By Darío Aranda

After 15 years of exploitation, it became the best proof of mega-mining: the environmental impact studies carried out by the company reveal how it affects the region. In addition, the municipality of Andalgalá complied with the rule that is repeated throughout Latin America: all municipalities with mega-mining are poor.

Economic well-being, local development and environmental care. They are the main promises of mining companies, provincial governments and national officials. It is the same thing that Minera Alumbrera promised 18 years ago, when it began its installation. The neighbors believed and, after fifteen years of extraction of copper and gold, they rejected the mega-mining because they confirmed in the first person that the promised work did not arrive, the complaints of contamination accumulated and, in a new stage of the mining policy, the repression against neighbors who reject the activity. Bajo la Alumbrera, located among the top ten copper deposits in the world, is the witness case of an activity as millionaire as it is questioned, which, in the last eight years, increased 1,500 percent.

The promises

Andalgalá is the third largest city in Catamarca, founded on July 12, 1658, 354 years ago. In October 1994, under the guidance of President Carlos Menem, the installation of Minera Alumbrera began to exploit the deposit that belongs to the Catamarca state, the University of Tucumán and the national state, which make up the Yacimiento Mineros de Agua de Dionisio society ( YMAD). On October 31, 1997, its extraction phase began.

The deposit is in the hands of Switzerland's Xstrata (50 percent) and Canada's Goldcorp (37.5) and Yamana Gold (12.5). According to data from the same company, the deposit is among the ten largest copper projects in the world and among the 15 gold.

Its initial promises: a neighborhood for 5,000 people, a highly complex hospital, schools, 6,000 jobs, protection of the environment.

The company claims, even today, that it employs 1,800 local people and, indirectly, created 8,200 jobs. The environmental assemblies in the area deny it. Even the former mayor José Eduardo Perea (his term expired in 2011 and took over as provincial senator) acknowledged that only 50 residents of Andalgalá work at the site (1).

Marcelo Giraud is a geographer, professor at the National University of Cuyo, is also a member of the Popular Assembly for Water in Mendoza and is co-author of the book "15 myths and realities of transnational mining in Argentina." Based on the annual "Sustainability Reports" of the company itself, it details:

-Between 2002 and 2005 the company declares exports of 2,580 million dollars (an average of 647 million annually).

-In 2005 shipments abroad reached 897 million.

-2007: 1,558 million dollars.

-2008: $ 1,249,573,893.

-2009: 1,203.7 million dollars.

The company advertises that, to operate the deposit, it invested 1.3 billion dollars. Very close to the figure obtained in a single year of operation (2008).

In 2010 the company declared exports for 1,590 million dollars (at an average price of a dollar at 4.30 pesos: 6,837 million pesos). The Province received in 2010, according to the company, 674 million pesos (9.8 percent of exports), of which royalties are only 140 million pesos (two percent of exports).

Regarding municipal royalties, the latest figures released by the company correspond to 2009. The municipality of Belén received 5.8 million pesos (1.53 million dollars, at one dollar that closed the year at 3.79 pesos), 0.12 percent of what is exported. Andalgalá received 12.6 million pesos (3.32 million dollars) in 2009: 0.27 percent of what Alumbrera exported that year from the mountains of Catamarca.

In October 2009, with thirteen years of exploitation of Alumbrera, the municipality of Andalgalá officially declared an "economic emergency" due to the "serious" financial situation. Thus, it fulfilled the rule that is repeated throughout Latin America: all municipalities with mega-mining are poor.


Alumbrera accumulates complaints, and evidence, of contamination:

- Queue dam. All waste is destined for a huge garbage dump, 30 hectares and 150 meters high, called the tailings dam. Héctor Oscar Nieva is a mining engineer and was an environmental quality inspector for the provincial government when, in 1997, he detected that the tailings dam was leaking into the underground waters. The company denied it. Nieva denounced that he was separated from his position and then carried out a master's study at the University of Nancy (in France), in which he confirmed the leaks. The company finally acknowledged the losses, but argued that the studies are erroneous (even today on its website it questions Nieva, but acknowledges the leaks). Alumbrera installed a back-pumping system by which, according to promise, the contamination that escapes the mining corral returns to it. Nieva assures that the contamination continues to spread through the Catamarca subsoil.

Nieva is not an “anti-mining”, as environmentalists are often dismissively called, he even believes that metal mining is necessary. In recent radio statements (2), Nieva assured that, as early as 1997, the dam “was leaking everywhere”, affirmed that the company “never repaired it” and explained that the tailings dam “is hydraulically connected to the river basin. Vis Vis (…) It is a very serious event and future generations will suffer ”. He stressed that there are heavy metals in the leaks.

- National Gendarmerie took water samples from the DP2 channel (it transports the water discarded by the concentrate drying plant in Tucumán, which goes down to Santiago del Estero and ends in the Mar Chiquita lagoon, in Córdoba) due to complaints filed with the prosecutor federal of Tucumán, Antonio Gómez. Gendarmería confirmed "a high content of copper and sulfates exceeding the limits established by Law 24,051 on Hazardous Waste." Another study by the Gendarmería in March 2004 confirmed the presence of cyanide in water (0.0008 milligram per liter). In April 2007, the Ministry of Mining of the Nation itself recognized in a report that Minera Alumbrera contaminated: it confirmed that the DP2 channel had a high content of metals: “The measurements carried out indicate that the effluent from the Minera Alumbrera treatment plant presents concentrations of TDS (total dissolved solids), sulfates and molybdenum detected in the beginning of the channel that exceed the regulated limits. Throughout the course and with the contribution of surface and underground water in the area, a notable increase in the concentrations of TDS, sulfates, iron, manganese, arsenic and boron can be observed, exceeding the limits established by the applicable regulations. The impact considered is negative, with a high degree of disturbance and a high environmental value. Its intensity is high, regional, permanent and partially reversible. The risk of occurrence is true and the impact is rated with a value of 7, which represents a medium impact ”.

“The cause of contamination has been going on for twelve years. It is unheard of. And it is due to the complicity between the economic power and the Judicial and political Power. There is ample evidence of contamination, but there is a clear denial of justice, "federal prosecutor Gómez denounced MU.

- Water. Alumbrera has an extraction permit of 1,100 liters per second. Which is the same at 66,000 liters per minute: almost four million liters per hour in a semi-desert area. The company is allowed to use up to 100 million liters of water per day. The World Health Organization (UN) states that a person requires 50 liters of water per day to meet all their needs. Alumbrera uses water equivalent to two million people per day. An internal report from the National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA), Andalgalá headquarters, dated September 6, 2006, highlights two issues: water and the role of mining. "An urgent meeting with the Governor should be requested in order to discuss the extremely serious situation of the existing water systems, which puts sustainable economic development and other local human activities at serious risk." And he remarks that "INTA's strategic development axes, based on sustainability, competitiveness and social equity, are contradicted by a merely extractive and polluting economic activity (mining)".

- The gross product obtained by Alumbrera is sent by a monumental mineral pipeline - an underground pipe - 310 kilometers long that passes through Catamarca to Tucumán. It carries a mud with diluted acid and mineral. There were at least four spills from the mineraloduct: on September 17, 2004, on June 10, 2006 and, two days later, on June 12. All three in Villa Vil. The fourth and last: in December 2008 in the Ampujaco area, on the border between Andalgalá and the department of Belén.

- Acid drains. It is one of the great problems of mega-mining worldwide. Acid drains occur naturally, but are magnified as a consequence of mining. They are produced when the sulfide-containing minerals present in rock are exposed to air or water, turning into sulfuric acid. This acid can dissolve heavy metals (lead, zinc, copper, arsenic, mercury or cadmium) present in the rock and in the residues or tailings to the surface and underground water. They cause serious pollution, can travel long distances downstream, and will occur even after the mine has closed. Alumbrera removes 300,000 tons of rock per day.

To confession of part

The Environmental Impact Report (IIA) that Minera Alumbrera presented to begin operating is a document full of technical data, labyrinthine reading and 14,000 pages. Horacio Machado Aráoz has a degree in political science, a professor at the National University of Catamarca and the author of numerous scientific articles regarding the consequences of the consequences of magamining. Machado analyzed the Alumbrera Environmental Report, and quoted:

- "The quality of surface and groundwater will be modified in the Vis Vis river canyon (...) The sources of contamination considered in the model were the tailings dam and the waste rock pile." (Minera Alumbrera, IIA 1998, Page 17).

- “The water quality will continue to be affected after the closure of the mine, due to the drainage of the tailings and the sterile rocks considering a useful life of the mine of 20 years and, according to the simulation models carried out, the impact will be it will be significantly reduced 50 years after the start of mining operations ”(Page 23).

- Regarding the impact of the project on water systems and the availability of water extracted from the local ecosystem, the Environmental Impact Report prepared by the company recognizes: “The area of ​​the Amanao basin will be reduced by 27 percent (from 60,500 hectares to 44,165) due to the presence of the Colas Dam (…) The excavation of the quarry will affect the underground drainage towards the Vis Vis river (…) Part of the underground flow of the Vis Vis river will be intercepted by a back-pump system. For the Santa María and Nacimientos rivers, whose underground contribution is affected by the pumping of the Campo del Arenal production wells, there has been a decrease (sic) of the contribution equal to 0.75 percent and 6.6 percent respectively, between 10 and 20 years of pumping. This should translate into a drop in the water table in the vicinity of both rivers of no more than 0.5 meters ”(Page 16).

- Regarding the extraction of water from the Campo del Arenal aquifer, Alumbrera points out: “In the Campo del Arenal area, the maximum depression of the water table that will be caused by the water production wells has been estimated at 4-5 meters in the first years and in 14–22 meters after 20 years (…) This will cause the drying of the 4 artisanal wells near Route 40, used as a trough for animals ”(Page 19).

Machado has a slow, calm speech and a low tone, but he has just heard Governor Corpacci affirm on a Buenos Aires channel that "Alumbrera does not pollute." Machado changes his tone and sums up: “Did the governor ever take the trouble to read Alumbrera's Environmental Impact Report? This type of exploitation has a serious environmental impact that is recognized worldwide. The Alumbrera Report itself gives an account of the magnitude of the effects on ecosystems caused by this exploitation; the reduction of water basins, the depression of aquifers, reduction in the flow of rivers, alterations in the quality of water and air, destruction of habitats, affecting flora and fauna ”.

The Governor appointed her husband, Miguel Angel Mercado, to head the Ministry of Production, where in practice the provincial Mining Secretariat reports. And he placed his uncle and Alicia Kirchner's ex-husband, Armando “Bombón” Mercado, on the board of YMAD (Alumbrera's national counterpart). Bombón Mercado is syndicated as the political benchmark of Kirchnerism in Catamarca.


In 2003, Esquel and its rejection of mining had a national impact. In 2004, when this editor visited Andalgalá for the first time, there were (at least) three positions: acceptance of mining, rejection and, an intermediate one, acceptance but with more income for the municipality. It was a coincidence that mining had not brought benefits to the community. Critical voices were gaining space, but it was difficult to see if they were the majority.

But the lack of work and the scarce local impact of mega-mining were added two events that moved Andalgalá. At the end of 2009 the provincial government gave the green light to Agua Rica, a gold, silver, copper and molybdenum mining project in the hands of the Canadian Yamana (Alumbrera shareholder) and advertised as three times larger than the deposit in operation. The aggravating factor: it will be located only 17 kilometers from the urban center of Andalgalá, where the rivers that feed the region (the Blanco, Candado and Minas) are born. The new field is allowed to use 390 liters of water per second, almost 34 million per day.

In March 2010, it was learned that the provincial government had granted the urban area of ​​the city of Andalgalá a concession for mining exploitation. He even clarified that, if necessary, the neighbors would leave their homes for the mining company to advance with the extraction of the mineral. The beneficiary was the company Billiton Argentina BV, belonging to the international group BHP Billiton, with headquarters in Australia and a presence in 25 countries.

The official document of the Catamarca Mining Secretariat was clear: “The mining area practically covers the city of Andalgalá, a situation that is normal and common, since according to the Mining Code, the two properties can coexist, both the mining and the superficial, being the mining company in this case for prospecting and exploration purposes, in case of reaching an exploitation, the corresponding compensation and the greater public interest on the part of the State must be contemplated, for the priority of development ”. It was the textual paragraph of the official writing, dated November 18, 2009, and which was signed by the highest mining authority in Catamarca, the Secretary of Mining, Guillermo Sinner.

The project was called “Pilciao 16” and the official documentation (file 770B2005) confirmed the possibility of expropriating homes to advance the mining activity. The report also specifies that the department of Andalgalá weighed 280 mining permits for prospecting and exploration. Only Pilciao 16 involved 4465 hectares, much of the urban area.

The popular mobilization, and the rain of criticism of the provincial government, made Pilciao 16 backtrack. Mining voracity was gaining critical voices.

Mining democracy

José Eduardo Perea was elected mayor of Andalgalá in 2003. During the campaign that brought him to the municipal executive, he had promised a plebiscite to decide what to do with the Agua Rica deposit. But as soon as he was elected, he changed his mind: "The people must decide, I am sure of that, but it is that they are not yet prepared because they do not know the issue," Perea told this editor in 2005 (3). When asked when the same voters who made him become mayor will be prepared to vote for the plebiscite, he said he did not know.

In April 2004, and without waiting for the Mayor, the inhabitants of the small area of ​​Choya (in the department of Andalgalá) rejected the Agua Rica project due to the environmental risks it could cause with water and air pollution. They did so through a document that 80 percent of the population adhered to.

Perea was mayor for eight years of Andalgalá, until December 2011, when he was elected provincial senator. He never called a plebiscite.

It did, even with the opposition of Perea, the Deliberative Council of Andalgalá. In March 2010 he called for a binding plebiscite for the people to decide, on May 25 of that year, whether to accept or reject Agua Rica. The company in charge of the deposit, Yamana Gold, denounced that it was "unconstitutional" for the people to decide. The provincial government supported the company, and also declared it "illegal and unconstitutional" (4).

The Neighbors for Life Assembly was blunt: “The people of Andalgalá have already voted in the demonstrations and rallies in the square. The people have already said no to mining ”.


Dozens of Andean towns reject mega-mining. Companies and officials allege that "people are not informed" and that "environmentalists have dogmatic positions." Intellectuals and journalists from the government support this line of argument, which underestimates the knowledge of the people.

“It has been empirically verified, and is supported by the vast majority of the reports collected by this body, that the mining activity that takes place in the open pit and involves the use of chemical procedures for the extraction of metals, severely damages the environment and consequently to human beings and their communities ”, affirmed the National University of Córdoba (UNC) to reject money from Alumbrera. Resolution 1308 of the Superior Council, of December 2009, focuses on the social and environmental consequences and clarifies: "The socio-environmental problem not only involves economic and technical dimensions, but also fundamentally involves aspects related to human rights and the well-being of the communities. ”.

The National University of Río Cuarto also rejected money from Alumbrera. In its foundation, it highlights: "The analysis of the environmental dramas that are proven in the area of ​​operations of said mining cannot be ignored."

On February 16, the Faculty of Medical Sciences of the National University of Rosario unanimously voted a resolution rejecting the extractive model, with special emphasis on agribusiness and mega-mining: "There is already conclusive scientific evidence about the damages that the health of ecosystems, and therefore of humans, provoke the production models that are being imposed in our countries, which is why the excuse of political leaders who hide behind their supposed weakness instead of applying the same is unacceptable. precautionary principle. "

Repressive stage

In December 2009, when the provincial government gave the green light to Agua Rica, the residents cut a local road that is an obligatory step towards the future deposit. The El Algarrobo Assembly was born there, which took its name from the tree that gave them shelter.

On February 15, 2010, at night, they suffered harsh repression by the provincial police and special infantry groups. Children, adolescents, women and men received rubber bullets, sticks and prison. The objective: that the Yamana Gold machinery could advance with Agua Rica. The anger led to a massive concentration in the central square of Andalgalá and populated. Justice suspended the project until there is "social peace."

In January of this year, in parallel with the Riojan population against mega-mining, the Catamarca assemblies cut off the roads to Alumbrera. As never before, there were coordinated and selective cuts (only affecting mining trucks) in Tinogasta, Belén, Andalgalá and Santa María.

On January 26, four assembly members were arrested in Santa María. The next day, January 27, there were 18 arrests and repression. On February 8, the Bethlehem camp was destroyed and twenty people were arrested (including a 13-year-old boy). The roadblocks and roads were maintained.

On Thursday February 9, in a public speech, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner starred in a staging with a mining "worker" who claimed responsibility for the activity and questioned environmentalists. The President remarked that her interlocutor (Armando Domínguez) was not a political leader, nor was he from the Barrick Gold company, but a simple “worker”. A few hours later, the media revealed that Domínguez was a leader of the PJ de Olavarría, a union member of the mining union and that he had been an auditor of the union in San Juan, where he closed ranks with Barrick Gold to agree on wages at the Veladero deposit.

In the act that will remain in the history of political bloopers, the President recognized the need for "a serious discussion" regarding mining.

Only nine hours later, on Friday, February 10 at 3:45 pm, the Tucumán police evacuated the Amaicha del Valle court, where the advance of Alumbrera trucks was also slowing down. On the same day, at 9 in the morning, a hundred troops violently repressed men, women and children. Rubber bullets to faces, women kicked, tear gas for everyone.

No national official repudiated the repression (as it did not happen when the Qom Roberto López was assassinated in Formosa or when the peasant Cristian Ferreyra was killed in Santiago del Estero).

“We do not believe that the Government wants a serious or sincere debate. The President and the governors receive the mining businessmen and us, who are the first to be affected, repress us, raid our houses as if we were terrorists and take us prisoner, ”said Cecilia Carrizo, 33, a member of the El Algarrobo Assembly.

On February 15, promoted by the National Government, the Federal Organization of Mining States (Ofemi) was formed, made up of Jujuy, Salta, La Rioja, San Juan, Mendoza, Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz, Neuquén and Catamarca. A clear endorsement of the mining activity. The Argentine Chamber of Mining Entrepreneurs (CAEM), which brings together the large companies in the sector, celebrated the creation of Ofemi (it even signed the charter).

According to data from the Ministry of Mining of the Nation, in the last eight years mining exploration increased by 664 percent and it specified that there are 600 projects under study. The official report "Mining in numbers" (from 2009), in 2003 there were only 40 mining projects. In 2009 there were already 336 (840 percent) and in 2012 they reached 600: 1,500 percent more than in 2003.

Never before has mining grown so much.

Dario Aranda - Journalist - Original article published in the MU newspaper of the Lavaca Cooperative (March 2012).






Video: contaminacion minera (June 2021).