By Virginia Toledo López
Pascua Lama is the name of the mega-mining project located in the bowels of the Andes mountain range right on the border that separates Argentina from Chile, at the height of the province of San Juan. Through this binational treaty, the creation of “virtual countries” is allowed, known as “area of operations”, where the sovereignty of Chile and Argentina is deeply restricted in favor of the successful bidders. That is why it can be say that a “Barrik Gold territory” emerges between our countries.
Pascua Lama is the name of the mega-mining project (1) located in the bowels of the Andes mountain range, at 5,500 meters above sea level, right on the border that separates Argentina from Chile, at the height of the province of San Juan. This territory formally corresponds to the Canadian transnational Barrick Gold Corp., thanks to the Mining Integration and Complementation Treaty, signed on December 29, 1997 by Presidents Eduardo Frei Ruiz Tagle and Carlos S. Menem and promulgated on December 20, 2000. Through this binational treaty, the creation of “virtual countries” is allowed, known as “area of operations”, where the sovereignty of Chile and Argentina is deeply restricted in favor of the successful bidders. (2) That is why it can be said that a “Barrik Gold territory” emerges between our countries.
In both Chile and Argentina, mining is an economic activity widely promoted by the State, despite being one of the most polluting and one that generates the greatest damage in local communities. Already during the dictatorships in both countries, but mainly from the 1990s, and at the request of international credit organizations (such as the World Bank), a series of laws emerged aimed at granting great benefits to foreign investments in the sectors Chilean and Argentine miners (3). Thus, large-scale and transnational mining began to spread in the Southern Cone at the hands of neoliberal governments, lasting to this day.
On the Chilean side, the Huasco Valley is the region most affected by Pascua Lama. This Valley, located in the Atacama region, is the last fertile barrier before the desert in northern Chile. Despite the fact that the rains are infrequent there, the great mountain height allows the existence of glaciers that ensure a permanent flow to the Huasco River and its tributaries, guaranteeing the hydric balance of the valley. Except for Vallenar, the most important city in the region located on the coast, the Valley is made up of a series of small communes. Small-scale and peasant agriculture is the activity that occupies the largest amount of surface, also employing a large number of people. As an additional fact, in the rural area of Alto del Carmen, the one most directly affected by the mining project, is the Huascoaltina Agricultural Community, of Diaguita descent.
The beginning of the conflict: Barrick breaks into the tranquility of the Valley (4)
Barrick arrived in Chile in 1994, after acquiring three mining fields in the north of the country. From that moment, and taking advantage of its various links with the public sector (with senior officials from Chile, Argentina, the United States, and Canada), the company began a series of maneuvers aimed at achieving the signing of the mining treaty between Chile and Argentina.
In the year 2000 the company promoted informative meetings in order to present to the community the “benefits” of its project; seeking to give, at the same time, a “participatory” character to the initiative. There the community learned some details of the project and was able to review the Environmental Impact Study (EIA). To the farmers' surprise, the EIA ignored the existence of glaciers in the area (the mining site was just below three glaciers that supply the Huasco River and were not mentioned!). Faced with the complaint from the neighbors, the authorities, inclined to the mining undertaking, were forced to request a Glacier Management Plan, which did not prevent them from approving the project without much remorse. The company, following the advice of the authorities, presented a Management Plan that contemplated moving the 10 hectares of glaciers (!). All this, reasonably, caused great consternation to the community.
Thus, the inhabitants of the Valley organized, encouraged by members of the religious community of the place. They began to mobilize, train and report on the implications of the mega-mining project. The slogans “Yes to Life. No to Pascua Lama ”and“ Out with Barrick! ” spread in the area. People from other regions began to join, creating organizations to help spread the fight for water and life. Such was the case of the accompaniment of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA) and the creation of Collectives against Pascua Lama in Santiago de Chile (located 12 hours from the Valley), such as the Rexistencia Collective, made up of university students from the capital. . Community resistance was gaining momentum ...
At the end of 2004, the mining company came out of the silence in which it had remained and asked the government to expand the exploitation area. Thus, they presented the EIA for the second time together with the Glacier Management Plan. The conflict reached the peak of social mobilization and crossed the borders not only of the Valley, but also of the country. The issue of glaciers caught the attention of environmentalists, scientists, documentary makers and politicians around the world.
This scenario convinced the company of the need to develop a strategy aimed at dismantling the strong popular opposition. For example, Barrick offered the 9 directors of the Board of Irrigators (an organization that brings together more than 2,000 farmers in the area), a "donation" of 60 million dollars (3 million per month for 20 years) in order to carry out “joint investigations”, while deploying a strong communication offensive spreading the slogan “Responsible Mining”.
In 2006 the governments of both countries approved the Pascua Lama project (Chile in February and Argentina towards the end of that year).
Despite this blow, the community remained standing, denouncing the lack of definition of multiple points of the project, reinforced by the growing internationalization of the struggle (environmental groups from Canada were added to the mobilizations in Argentina). In addition, a new support organization was born in Santiago: the Coordinadora contra Pascua Lama, which brought together most of the voices opposed to the approval. The massive dismissal of Barrick workers, in addition to allegations of fraud, also helped to reactivate the struggle in the Valley.
Throughout 2007 and 2008, actions were carried out that gave visibility to the cause and radicalized the conflict (among them the cutting of the Chollay Conay crossing, exhibitions in the National Congress, appeal to foreign courts, international campaigns against Barrick Gold and multiple dissemination work).
Barrick doubles the bet (5)
Within the framework of its image laundering strategy, Barrick has promoted an alliance with "the good guys from Chile", that is, with actors who enjoy a certain social legitimacy as a result of a history of charity. At the end of last year, the Atacama Commitment initiative was disseminated between Barrick, Teletón, (6) Un Techo para Chile (7) and América Solidaria (8), promoted as an alliance to “help the development of the region”.
This great media onslaught, added to other actions directly aimed at the residents of the Valley (such as the delivery of notebooks to children in schools, ambulances in hospitals, financing of traditional festivals and micro-enterprises, scholarships, improvements in schools and clubs ... and other "sweets" given by the company to accept its polluting project), have shown the profound inequality that the actors in conflict have.
Faced with a policy of distributing crumbs for society, of co-opting leaders, personalities and social organizations, and of collusion with the different levels of government, a group of people rises with no other resources than the conviction in defending the territory ... lifetime; certain that their greatest riches are the Earth and the Water, sources of everything else.
Impacts in the Valley
Pascua Lama would destroy not only the sustainability of the Valley, but it would mean a strong damage to the life forms that develop there. The type of activity that the mine would generate could be called an “enclave” undertaking, that is, with no greater link to local productive activity and whose benefits are for foreigners. Most of the jobs are created by contractors, at the same time that the profound environmental alterations caused put at risk the largest productive activity in the region: agriculture.
In addition, to the impacts generated by the deposit are added those produced by the creation of a Thermoelectric Power Plant located in the Alto del Carmen region, the electricity transmission lines to the mining deposit and a hazardous materials collection center.
For now, Barrick's intervention has already generated strong impacts: multiple territorial organizations have been divided or in a situation of internal conflict due to whether or not they receive sponsorships from mining; the venture has closed steps in the mountain range affecting breeders in the region; the unfulfilled promises of work, the adjudication and closure of the Chollay ranch claimed by the Diaguitas as the depository territory of part of their archaeological and cultural heritage, are some examples. To these are added those generated by the full operation of the mine.
Barrick has already broken the tranquility of the Valley. It has introduced new needs in communities linked to a consumer economy, previously unknown by farming families, perverting the traditional community ties and with Nature. And, above all, it threatens the ecological balance of the place.
These large mining ventures are characterized by extracting a large amount of minerals in large “open pit” deposits, for which they require extensive use of energy and an alarming consumption of water. Thanks to the use of strong explosives, an immense artificial crater is generated where the mountain used to be. Debris, such as crushed rocks and dust, can be blown away from the mine site by the wind. But the greatest danger comes from the use of cyanide and other toxins to liquefy the mountain and extract the precious metals. That cyanide, once the gold has been gathered, is a poison that remains in the environment spinning around, polluting the water and the land.
Without a doubt, mega mining is the most aggressive industrial activity both in environmental, social and cultural terms. And if we consider the damage it generates to family economies, by undermining the source of its traditional productive activity, we can say that it is not sustainable in economic terms either. The gold is going into foreign hands, while the water, the source of life, is polluted and the glaciers, the main reservoirs of fresh water, are decimated. In the words of Camila, an environmentalist in the region, “if the water becomes polluted, the traditional and productive activities of the valley will end… deep down there, everything that the valley is is affirmed: its identity, its culture, its way of seeing time… everything ”.
The latest news
That our governments continue to promote mega-mining is not news. It is only enough to see the continuous positive references to the activity, enunciated from the highest levels of government (both in Chile and Argentina). The recent veto of the glacier protection law by Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, called the "Barrick veto", has been nothing more than sad corroboration of this.
But there are news on the front lines: Barrick's top executives met last April 15 with the Argentine president, and then, on April 25, with the Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet. Of course and as is customary with these companies, both meetings were behind closed doors and without statements to the press. However, thanks to a statement issued from the company's offices in the province of San Juan, it was known that an agreement had been reached on the tax issue, which had been the main bureaucratic obstacle to Pascua Lama until now. In this way, the project began the final stretch, scheduling the formal start of work on the mine in September.
However, there are still sticks in the efforts of the company, since the General Directorate of Waters (DGA) of Atacama conditioned the start of construction works to the approval of the complete hydrogeological model of the project, which is still under study , as well as two reservoirs proposed by the company. Thus, the enterprise still has permits.
The communities remain firm in their claims. The organizations and assemblies reaffirm: "water is worth more than gold." Phrase that synthesizes a world view that prioritizes Nature over economic returns in the short term. Undoubtedly, it is necessary now more than ever that we join forces to continue the fight against looting. Against those who only see business to do on Earth.
This text can be considered as a call for the defense of our territories and as an invitation to be in solidarity and to be attentive. To be in solidarity with the struggle raised in the mountain range in defense of Earth and Water, our common goods and the legacy for those who will come. Defining moments loom in the fight against Pascua Lama, which will determine the fate of the last fertile valley in northern Chile, and it is imperative that we stand to defend it.
At the same time, it is an invitation to be attentive because Pascua Lama is one more example of the looting that is being carried out in our lands for the benefit of large foreign capital and with the approval of many Latin American governments. Unfortunately, mining is advancing: this undertaking is only one of those projected in our countries. Pascua Lama is one of the many battles to come.
Virginia Toledo Lopez is a Lic. in International Relations. PhD candidate at Cs. Social of the UBA.
The talks with Javier Karmy, Camila Bardehle and Constanza San Juan are greatly appreciated, as well as the gift of the book "Pascua Lama: armed conflict behind us", without which this note would not have been possible.
(1) Large-scale mining project. Pascua Lama is the first binational mining project on the planet, destined to extract gold (gold mining), but also silver, copper and other metals that are difficult to estimate. Approximately 17 million ounces of gold, 689 million ounces of silver and 562 million pounds of copper are projected to be extracted from this mine. Production is estimated at 600 thousand annual ounces of gold and 23 million annual ounces of silver. "In 2013 Pascua Lama will produce its first bar of doré", in Portal Minero, July 23, 2009 available at http://www.portalminero.com.
(2) The objective of the treaty is to allow investors from both countries to explore and exploit existing mining resources in mountain areas without any type of restrictions. Through the treaty, an Administrative Commission is created, financed by mining corporations, with the power to dispose and decide on the territory included in the area of operations. Likewise, the Commission would draft an Internal Regulation that would regulate the use of that space.
(3) In Chile, Law 18.097 on Mining Concessions and the 1982 Mining Code introduce the concept of full concessions for mining companies, perverting the traditional nationalist spirit that had characterized the policy towards the sector; the Statute of Foreign Investor of 1983 grants fiscal stability; Law 18,248 abolishes the export royalty and Laws 18,985 and 19,137, of the 90, grant new tax advantages. In Argentina in the 90's, laws such as the Mining Investment Law (Law 24.196, of 1993), the Mining Reorganization Law (Law 24.224, of 1993), the Federal Mining Agreement (Law 24.228, of 1993) were enacted. , the Mining Update (Law 24.498, of 1995) that generated a new regulatory framework for mining activity. These legal instruments are aimed at guaranteeing: equal treatment of national and foreign capital, granting them, for example, the right to transfer all profits abroad; legal stability of acquired mining rights; protagonism of the private activity in the exploitation; liberalization of the concession regime; increase of exploration surfaces; free internal and external commercialization; and reduction of operating costs. Likewise, the Mining Investments Law grants these activities a set of fiscal and tax benefits (for example, fiscal stability for a term of 30 years, special benefits in Income Tax as a deduction of 100% of the amounts invested in expenses various, accelerated amortizations for capital investments in order to execute new projects or expand old ones; exemption from payment of import duties for any good or input; limit on provincial royalties, which may not be greater than 3% of declare the mining company; etc.). In addition, Law 24,402 of 1994 establishes the Financing and VAT Refund Regime to the Mining Sector. Moori M. V. (1999) “Economic reforms and investment in the Argentine mining sector”. ECLAC - Economic Reform Series No. 50, Santiago de Chile, and Karmy J. and Salinas B. (2008): Pascua Lama: armed conflict behind us, Quimantú, Chile.
(4) The following data have been extracted from the book Karmy J. (2008): Op. Cit.
(6) Organization that receives donations for charity through a television program. Barrick last year was in second place in the ranking of donations.
(7) Catholic Initiative for Home Construction. This problematized the position of the clergymen of the valley, openly opposed to the mining site.
(8) Institution chaired by Benito Baranda. He does voluntary social work in different countries of the continent.