Earth, hands and cyanide: the mining expansion in the northwest of Santa Cruz

Earth, hands and cyanide: the mining expansion in the northwest of Santa Cruz

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By Luis Manuel Claps

Since the 1990s, the number of mining companies operating in the northwest of Santa Cruz has increased, encouraged by successive governments and protected by the current legal framework.

Since the 1990s, the number of mining companies operating in the northwest of Santa Cruz has increased, encouraged by successive governments and protected by the current legal framework.

These companies, mostly foreign, have managed to identify large deposits of scattered metals. But the brilliance of gold is overshadowed by another wealth that the area houses: the ancient cave paintings and archaeological sites of the Pinturas river basin. Until now, the mining companies have consolidated a territorial and political dominance of the region. However, the situation could start to change.

Something in the caves of the Pinturas river speaks to us of the original, it touches our soul. Delicate as a caress, the cult of the hands seems to be as long a history as human existence itself. Leroi-Gourhan, a student of the Lascaux cave paintings, pointed out the liberating role of the upper extremities for the development of the brain, and therefore of Homo sapiens. There are handprints in the most diverse places in the world. Also in Patagonia.

The first news about the cave paintings of Santa Cruz are due to the English traveler Musters (1871). In his chronicles, he alludes to the "hill of God", which Escalada (1949) later identified as the possible place of origin of men and animals, according to the Tehuelche cosmogony (Gradin, 1985). But it was Carlos J. Gradin, in 1964, who began an intensive and permanent study of the area. The magic of the paintings moved him in such a way that he did not stop visiting Santa Cruz until his death in 2002. In "Recuerdos del Río Pinturas" (1999), a short but beautiful book, since the author leaves aside the The archaeologist's technical language to show rather the "spirits that beat in the Pinturas River", you can read something of Gradin's intimate experience in the area: his particular gaze, which is also a philosophy of approach to the territory based on respect and contemplation. Anyone who enters the area through that look, that experience, despairs to know what is happening there lately.

Searches in Arroyo Feo

The Cueva de las Manos, occupied by groups of hunters and gatherers since the end of the eighth millennium BC, located in the Pinturas River canyon, was declared a Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in December 1999. The municipality of Perito Moreno (declared Capital Arqueológica de Santa Cruz) is the authority responsible for the administration of the reserve area. Last season, they told me, about 10,000 tourists visited the site. It is curious that the area declared as heritage, which institutes a protection regime, has been restricted to the Cueva de las Manos, leaving out, for example, the Cueva del Arroyo Feo and the Alero Charcamata. Also a large number of small shelters with paintings: Aleros del Buho, la Vizcaina, Don Alfonso, Los Almendra, la Madrugada, el Cármen, to mention the best known (the list is from Gradin, 1982). In the brochure that they gave me in the direction of Tourism of Perito Moreno, it can be read that the Pinturas area "has the charm of translating the feeling of being in an unexplored place". This cannot refer to mineral exploration.

It is precisely there that several companies have entered, with the consent of the owners of the fields. They opened huge trenches that can be seen from Route 40, about 10 kilometers away. They made roads and, as the tourist Carlos Astrada reported, they poured liquids over the water courses of the place. "We saw bulldozer tracks and finally we found them pulling stones out of the stream, like making a path or something like that. We didn't understand what those machines were doing there. When we got to the Feo creek cave, just in front, about 150 meters away, we found A mining exploration team. 200 meters from the cave paintings they are doing this work ", Astrada told Tiempo Sur (note also published by dated June 1, 2006). The concerned tourist sent an email to the Tourism Department of the town of Los Antiguos, but never had an answer: in the northwest of Santa Cruz, you cannot report a mining company.

The San José project

Built with $ 50 million from Standard Bank (which also loaned $ 75 million to Canada's Wheaton River to buy 12.5 percent of Minera Alumbrera, in Catamarca province), the San José project is a two-vein operation of silver and gold (Huevos Verdes and Frea) underground. It is the most advanced in the northwest of Santa Cruz: it is expected to start operating fully in early 2007. Located about 120 km west of Las Heras and about 50 km east of Perito Moreno, about 61,000 ounces will be extracted. of gold and 3,400,000 ounces of silver per year. The mining area is located about 7 km south of the confluence of the Pinturas River and the Deseado River. The treatment process for the 750 tons of material per day includes the use of sodium cyanide for the separation of gold and silver.

The company in charge of the project is Minera Santa Cruz, a partnership between Peru's Mauricio Hochschild & CIA SA and Canada's Minera Andes. Although the project is a relative distance from the cave paintings, the company's aggressive public strategy has obliterated a collective discussion about extractive activity in the area. In Perito Moreno, Las Heras and Los Antiguos have been listening patiently for two years, his speech on "social responsibility" by all available media. But many begin to realize that something is wrong. Even more so if the experiences of criticism and resistance to the metal mining industry that grows in neighboring provinces such as Chubut or Río Negro are taken into account. Faced with this, Minera Santa Cruz closed ranks with local, provincial and national officials. And behind her came the others.

"The community environment is the most important thing for the company"

Juan Inchcastletegui Vargas, president of Mauricio Hochschild & CIA, affirmed at the presentation of the project in the South Room of the Government House, with the presence of Néstor Kirchner. The first thing Minera Santa Cruz did was sign an agreement with the Provincial Council of Education of the province, whose owner is Ingrid Bordoni, on April 22, 2005. Of this agreement, ratified by the then governor Acevedo, and in which it participates also the Ministry of Production, lowers all community insertion actions deployed by the mining company, in order to "cooperate in the academic, scientific, exchange of information and training of human resources."

Specific protocols were added to that agreement: for the production of textiles (work clothes for the workers), for the delivery of 24,000 mangoes to the mayor whose purpose was to finish the work of the municipal slaughterhouse, a third was the delivery of three greenhouses (but beware, two during 2006 and, if things go well, the third in 2007). But the most interesting is the "Comprehensive Plan for Training and Training in Metal Mining for Local Employment", aimed at young people from the three neighboring towns to the project. At the end of the course, the Council of Education and Minera Santa Cruz delivered a certificate of "mining process operator". In other words, to work as a driller in the mine tunnels. Several of those who took the course were surprised by the prevailing disorganization: "no one gave us a ball ... the course lasted a month, but I only operated the drilling machine for about two hours, rather it seems to me that it was all a chamuyo" they commented to me. For some, the promise of golden prosperity fades. Ephemeral consolation for a city like Perito Moreno (4 thousand inhabitants), whose municipality has about 600 employees.

Spirit in danger

Gradin comments that the first inhabitants of the Pinturas River area, several thousand years ago, "would have come to constitute a hunting society, increasingly organized and ... perhaps fairer than the current one, more communal" (1999). This statement is all a political statement. Nobody masters the truth. It is time for other sources, arguments and experiences related to extractive activities to enter the public stage of the Northwest of Santa Cruz. Otherwise, the spirits of the Pinturas could leave us forever.

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