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ARGENTINA: Groups Lobby Congress for Changes to Mining Laws

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jul 28 2007 (IPS) - People from 14 Argentine provinces visited Congress this week to call for changes in the country’s mining code, which grants substantial tax incentives that have drawn foreign corporations with poor environmental records.

Brought together by the Red Encuentro Social (Redes) network, some 300 delegates from community associations in the provinces expressed concern over mining projects that fail to take into account the well-being of local communities, pollute the water and air, and have serious effects on traditional local economic activities like tourism.

Another 400 representatives of the groups making up the Redes umbrella symbolically “embraced” the Congress building outside.

The participants came from as far away as Chubut in the south, where organised resistance successfully blocked a project by Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, as well as western and northern provinces like Catamarca, La Rioja, Mendoza, Santiago del Estero and Tucumán.

Guillermo Gonzáles, an activist with Vecinos Autoconvocados de Termas de Rio Hondo, in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, said the Bajo de La Alumbrera mine, administered by a Swiss-Canadian consortium in the neighbouring province of Catamarca, has caused severe problems in their town of 40,000, which depends on tourists drawn by thermal spas.

The mine, which began to operate in 1997, is the biggest open-cast mine in Argentina, producing 180,000 tons of copper and 600,000 ounces of gold a year.


Frequent leaks in the pipelines carrying the minerals through the neighbouring provinces of Tucumán and Santiago del Estero have also polluted local water sources.

The event was led by national Congressman Carlos Tinnirello, a member of Redes, who has proposed an overhaul of the mining code in order to ban exploration, prospecting and open-cast mining using cyanide and other toxic substances.

The proposal would also prohibit the use of rivers and streams in exploration and mining, as well as the use of leaching systems, acid to separate out the minerals, and tailings dams.

But in an interview with IPS, Tinnirello admitted that he was not optimistic that the proposal would be approved.

“We presented it two years ago, and we have only been able to get the mining commission to refer it to their team of advisers. That means it could spend another two years in a drawer, because the underlying problem is that the government of Néstor Kirchner wants to boost the mining industry,” said the lawmaker.

Argentina began to open up to investment by mining companies in the 1990s, under the administration of Carlos Menem (1989-1999). But the process “has deepened” under Kirchner, said Tinnirello.

“Argentina actively participates in international fairs to publicise the benefits of investing in the local mining industry,” he said.

According to the Secretariat of Mines, in the last four years, the number of mining projects has grown 500 percent. But as the number of projects has increased, so has the resistance of local communities.

The 1997 mining code opened the doors to a flood of investment. As international metals prices have climbed, foreign mining companies have found in Argentina favourable laws and incentives.

The mining code establishes that the state cannot be directly involved in the mining industry but must grant concessions to private companies. It can engage in research, but its findings must be transferred to mining companies.

The code grants companies legal stability for 30 years, allows them to deduct taxes from earnings from investment in prospecting and exploration, drastically cut the proportion of royalties that the companies pay the state, and permits them to take 100 percent of their export earnings abroad.

Although Tinnirello described these generous conditions as “an aberration,” he said his proposal would not modify the rules governing royalties or tax deductions. “That would be like putting a price on death,” he said. “What we want is for them to go away, or to stop polluting.”

“For us, mining is death,” Urbano Cardozo with the Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados por la Vida de Andalgalá community association, told IPS.

Andalgalá is a town in Catamarca near the Bajo de La Alumbrera mine.

The mine has been the target of frequent criticism because of the pipeline leaks that carry the minerals to the area around Andalgalá and nearby Santa María and Belén. People from Tucumán and Santiago del Estero have also sued the company for soil and water pollution, but without success.

“It is impossible to control what they do. We see the spills in the rivers and call the judge, who comes and takes photos and samples, but then our complaints don’t go anywhere,” said Cardozo.

“In Chubut, La Rioja, Mendoza and Tucumán they are backing off on the investments, but Catamarca is totally committed to the mining industry,” he said.

Cardozo was referring to recently passed provincial laws limiting open-cast mining using cyanide, which have been adopted as a result of community pressure.

But it is unlikely that the same thing will be achieved at the national level, said Tinnirello.

 
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