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ARGENTINA
Popular victory in Argentina
5/26/2003
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People pressure closes mine.

The people of Esquel, a small mountain city in southern Argentina, have forced the Canada-based multinational Meridian Gold to abandon its plans to mine the gold and silver-rich area. This is the first time such a project, which, on top of its environmental impact would have involved large amounts of cyanide, has been successfully obstructed.

On March 23, in a plebiscite brought about by popular pressure, 84 percent of the cities’ inhabitants said "No" to the development. Two weeks later, Meridian announced it was halting the project and the provincial government of Chubut — where Esquel is situated — suspended the project indefinitely.

"This is the first popular victory the people of Argentina have been able to celebrate in decades," said biologist Lino Posolón. "In a city with 6,000 unemployed people, despite the promise of 400 new jobs, we said no to the mine and yes to life," he said.

Meridian — which has similar projects already underway in Chile (El Peñón) and Peru (Los Pircos) — arrived in Argentina in the middle of the 90s at the same time as other mining companies from Canada, Great Britain and Australia. The privileges offered by Law 24.184 for the Promotion and Protection of Mining Investments, sanctioned in 1992, were too good to miss.

This law gave the companies tax stability for 30 years, the right to import tariff-free capital goods, and the right to hold any lawsuit against them in their countries of origin. On February 28, the government added on a new benefit, scrapping the companies’ obligation to clear its export profits with the Central Bank.

According to geological studies, the El Desquite mine — situated 7 kilometers from Esquel — measures 2.5 kilometers by 500 meters. Meridian had announced that 75 percent of the mining would be open-pit, the rest underground. The mine would have been in operation for a maximum of 10 years.

In this period, 3,000 tons of rock per day would have been destroyed with dynamite and the precious metals separated out through lixiviation, a process requiring six tons of highly toxic cyanide and 3 million liters of water a day. Meridian would have obtained 10 grams of gold and 17 grams of silver from every ton of processed ore.

Posolón, a professor at the National University of Patagonia, explained that the raw ore contains large quantities of arsenic, lead and cadmium. Smashing thousands of tons of rocks a day, he said, releases these toxins, which, together with the cyanide, are a major source of pollution.

With some 30,000 inhabitants, Esquel — "caltrop" in the Mapudungun language of the Mapuche, the original inhabitants of Argentinean-Chilean Patagonia (LP, May 24, 1999 and Jan 29, 2003) — is the main city in the so-called Comarca Andina of Parallel 42. It is 2,300 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires, 20 percent of its population is unemployed, and foreign tourism forms the foundations of the local economy.

Visitors are drawn by the La Hoya Winter Sports Center, the Los Alerces National Park (named after the coniferous larch tree) — where there are dozens of freshwater lakes for fishing —, the country’s last single-track railway that dates back to the start of the 20th century and, above all, the clean air.

The alarm was raised about the use of cyanide in the mine last December by the October 16 Popular Cooperative, which provides potable water to Esquel. "It’s one of the most potent poisons around and its residual nature means that it will still be there long after the mining stops," stated the Cooperative.

Experts and environmentalists added that acid runoff contains dissolved heavy metals, which are toxic, and which continue to pollute rivers, lakes and underground water sources for centuries. "What’s more," stated some anti-mine publicity, "where there are now mountains, forests and fauna we will be left with arid areas and few conifers."

Once the dangers of the Meridian project had been made public the people of Esquel took to the streets, beginning a series of demonstrations that culminated in the local authority agreeing to organize a plebiscite, prohibit the use, transport and depositing of cyanide within the municipality, and retract provincial adherence to Law 24.184.

A campaign of pressure and false accusations began, during which Posolón and other activists of the "Yes to life, no to the mine" campaign received death threats. Meridian, confident that its job offer was a vote winner in a city with such high unemployment, insisted that voter participation in the plebiscite be obligatory.

Furthermore, false poll results were published in which the "Yes" to the mine vote beat the "No" vote and the people of Esquel were warned that, should the "No" vote win, other companies would be put off investing in the area. Meridian employed doctors and experts to give talks where they downplayed the dangers of cyanide and the environmental damage caused by open-pit mining.

The Meridian campaign teams organized pop concerts featuring groups from Buenos Aires, offered schools computers, bought votes and hired cars to take people to the voting centers. None of it worked.

The defeat of the Canada-based multinational had immediate consequences, as Meridian’s value fell 15 percent on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The company’s head office suspended the project and fired two executives who had begun legal action against the people of Esquel. Brian Kennedy, Meridian’s president, traveled to Argentina to give them their marching orders personally.

 

 


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