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LATIN AMERICA
People want to be consulted
Latinamerica Press
2/3/2005
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Movement against mining grows

"Townspeople demand land from mining company," "Peasants march against mining project," "Farmers opposed to offering land to mining company," "Communities affected by mining march toward the capital." It is becoming more and more commonplace to read headlines like this in daily newspapers throughout the region.

Latin America concentrates more than 30 percent of worldwide investment in mining. While the governments of Argentina, Ecuador and Peru, as well as many others in the region, see mining as the motor for their economies, an increasing number of citizens are opposed to mining activities by transnational companies operating with or without local partners.

"There is a process of expansion of this activity (mining) and when mining grows it needs to control not only mineral resources but also a series of natural resources, such as land and water resources, which are essential to the development of mining activities but were previously in the hands of other stakeholders, including towns, peasant communities, rural populations, neighboring communities and even cities," said José De Echave, an economist at CooperAcción, a Peruvian non-governmental organization.

"In addition, there are other kinds of conflicts that involve populations that have coexisted with mining for many years, decades. They are not proposing that mining pick up and leave, but they want that their economic, social and economic rights be recognized," added De Echave.

Popular consultations provide forum
In June 2002, the residents of Tambogrande, a small town located in an important semi-tropical valley in northern Peru, held the first community referendum on mining in the world. While not binding, slightly more than 98 percent of Tambogrande residents voted against the plans of Canada-based Manhattan Minerals to develop a gold-copper mine in the town.

Resistance to the mine did not end with the referendum, which the company and government refused to recognize as valid. Civic strikes and awareness-raising campaigns demonstrated the town’s resistance to the mining project, which would have altered citrus and mango farming, the main source of income for most residents. A year and a half after the referendum, the government put an end to Manhattan’s plan in Tambogrande, stating that the company had not abided by clauses in its contract. Manhattan is appealing the government’s decision.

In March 2003, the residents in Esquel, in the southern Argentine province of Chubut, carried out their own community referendum. An overwhelming 81 percent of people voting opposed the development of an open-pit gold mine by Canada’s Meridian Gold.

The people in Esquel were concerned that the gold-mining process that would be used, which employs cyanide to filter gold from other materials, would ruin their economy based on ecotourism, trout fish farming and agriculture. While the Argentine government followed the lead of its Peruvian counterpart, declaring that the referendum had no legal merits, the Chubut provincial government suspended the project indefinitely.

Direct referendum sought
Although there are communities that initially welcome the development of mining activities on their lands, particularly because of the possibility of new jobs, they often change their opinion. This is the case of Andalgala, in the province of Catamarca, in northeast Argentina, where the Bajo de Alumbrera gold-copper mine is operated. Residents gladly welcomed the new mine, operated by a subsidiary of Swiss-based Xstrata, but are now opposed .

In 1997, when the project was announced, the company promised that it would create 16,000 new jobs. Four years later, only 24 residents in Andalgala worked for the mine. The number has increased to 100 today.

The residents in Andalgala are concerned about a new project in their district, Agua Rica, which will soon come on line. It is the most promising gold mining operation in Argentina, operated by Aconcagua Mining Company (Canada) and BHP Minerals (Australia). Agua Rica is located at the headwaters of the community’s water source, and residents fear that acid drainage from the mine will seep into the water and poison it.

Following the example of Esquel, a civic group, Self-Convoked Neighbors of Andalgala, has proposed a district referendum on the project. The Esquel model has been replicated in other Argentine regions with community-mining company disputes.

In Peru, the Tambogrande experience has also been replicated in a town in the country’s northern highlands.

Last September, people in the city of Cajamarca, in the department of the same name, protested for two weeks against a government decision giving Minera Yanacocha permission to explore for gold on Cerro Quilish, which residents believe is part of their municipality’s watershed.

The government eventually suspended the permission granted the company, which is owned by US-based Newmont Mining Corp. and a Peruvian partner, Compañía de Minas Buenaventura. While no assurances were given that Quilish will not be touched in the future, the government’s decision was seen as a victory for Cajamarca’s residents.

There have been different kinds of confrontations in Ecuador, where 20 percent of the country has been given in concession to different international mining companies. Indigenous and peasant communities have forced the suspension of mining contracts, have lost legal battles and have been taken to court on charges of sabotage, aggression and terrorism, among other charges.

The Ecuadoran Constitution requires communities to be consulted before mining activities commence, but the experience of dialogue tables in this Andean country generally come about after the project is operational.

Citizen participation too late
"There is citizen participation, but it generally comes late, when everything is decided and this participation is normally not binding in character," said De Echave, referring to the Peruvian situation.

"For example, a new mining project must present an environmental impact study. The population is consulted at the end and is given only a short time to review studies that are extremely complicated, enormous and very technical, without the possibility of having access to resources or advice to analyze them. The legal framework offers no guarantee that their observations will be incorporated into the environmental impact studies," he said.

These mechanisms for participation, as such, have no value for the communities. This has given rise to the demand for opportune and informed citizen participation at the start of any mining project.

"The communities must be involved from the beginning, from the development plans for prospecting and exploration to the entire process of evaluating the environmental impact study and monitoring the project in the case that the community accepts the project," said César Padilla, who is in charge of the Mining and Communities area of the Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts.

"If the community is opposed for strong and well-documented reasons, the mining project simply should not go forward," said Padilla.


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