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ARGENTINA
No to mining
Hernán Scandizzo
10/14/2004
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Argentine communities organize against mining.

On the 4th of every month the residents of Esquel, located in the province of Chubut in southern Argentina, carry out marches to detain a gold mine that, according to its opponents, would cause irreparable damage to the region.

The marches are one of several popular initiatives against mining in Argentina after the people of Esquel in March 2003 held a plebiscite and forced Canadian-owned Meridian Gold to suspend a plan to develop a gold and silver mine in which large quantities of cyanide were going to be used.

The victory of the "No to Mining" vote — in which 81 percent of the population rejected the mine’s development — went beyond the limits of the provinces of Chubut. The model of organization in assemblies, implemented by the Self-Organized Residents of Esquel, was taken up by other communities in conflict.

Popular consultation called for

The relations among neighborhood assemblies, environmental and indigenous organizations gave rise to the formation in 2003 of the Network of Argentine Communities Affected by Mining (Red CAMA), aimed at coordinating activities developed in the provinces of Chubut, Rio Negro, San Juan, Catamarca, Tucuman, Jujuy and Cordoba.

In the network’s founding meeting, participants not only coincided in pointing out the negative effects of mining on the environment and the regional economies but they also referred to what they consider the collusion of government authorities with corporations, since they delegate responsibilities in areas like social action and public works, hide information from the population and act with violence against opponents of mining.

The first pronouncement of Red CAMA called for "the immediate suspension of the granting of new permits of prospecting, exploration and mining in national territory affecting tourism, agriculture and any existing sustainable productive activity, until adequate legislation on the issue is passed."

The declaration also proposes that before any project is started "a popular consultation be held in the affected localities guaranteeing information and transparent education on the issue." And it called for annulment of Law 24.196 of mining investment and all related legislation because "it is damaging to the country’s interests and is arbitrary with respect to other economic activities."

State priority

The reform of the Mining Code and the passage of laws that makes environmental controls more flexible in the framework of the 1993 Mining Development Plan prepared the way for the mining companies’ arrival. According to the Secretary of Mining, in 1992 four mining companies operated in the country; in 1999, the figure rose to 80. This plan was consolidated in December 1997 with the signing of agreements with Chile, creating the legal framework to transform the border area of both countries in the one of the most important mining regions in the world.

This agreement has made it possible, for example, for Canadian-owned Barrick Gold Corp. to explore the bi-national Pascual-Lama gold deposit, which in Argentina lies in the valley of Cura in San Juan province. In mid-August in Santiago, Chile, Argentine and Chilean authorities signed the Specific Protocal of the Mining Integration Treaty, which mainly deals with the tax area, making the deposit’s development possible.

Growing opposition

Although mining investment has been converted into a priority for the state and different governments have acted in line with this goal, popular movements opposed to mining have not ceased.

In Andalgala in Catamarca province in northeast Argentina, the group Self-Organized Residents of Andalgala has been formed to denounce the consequences of the development of the Bajo La Alumbrera gold and copper deposit, begun in 1996, and to oppose other projects like Agua Rica.

In southern Argentina, members of the Mapuche indigenous group have carried out several actions, like the April occupation of the Directorate of Mining and Geology in Esquel, marches and legal actions — among them an appeal presented by the Coodinating Body of the Mapuche Parliament in Rio Negro — to detain the Calcatreu mine operation by Canadian-owned Aquiline Resources.

Aquiline plans to extract gold through a heap-leaching process which uses cyanide, a low-cost method which removes 95 percent of the metal from the ore. Company spokesmen have acknowledged that cyanide is toxic but they say there are measures of control for its management.

While Julián Fernández, lawyer of Ombudsman’s Office of Rio Negro, said "extensive reports of environmental impact" are lacking on Calcatreu, authorities like Alfredo Pega, Interior Minister of Rio Negro, say "the cost-benefit of all this should be analyzed. The Calcatreu project signifies the development of a region but it should not affect people nor those who produce. It is not that easy to say no to a possibility of development, when the alternative is unemployment."

Fernández said that there is a lot of misinformation in the population. "The only information given to the people was that provided by the company, which appeared to be more of a brain-washing exercise than objective information."

In the III Mapuche Parliament in Chubut in April, it was decided to bar the entry of mining company personnel from the communities. "Since the state has not implemented Article 169 of the International Labor Organization (regarding Indigenous and Tribal Peoples), which takes precedence over the mining legislation, we ourselves will since we were never consulted if we wanted to modify our Wall Mapu (Mapuche ancestral territory.)," a statement from the meeting said.


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