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ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Scarce Water Threatened by Gold Mine

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 25 2008 (IPS) - For nearly a year and a half, local residents in the northwestern Argentine province of La Rioja have been blocking the road that climbs up to the Nevados de Famatina mountain to protest a gold mining project that they say will pollute the water in the country’s driest district.

"The mountain is our only source of water, and it regulates the region’s climate," said Marcela Crabbé, a shopkeeper in Chilecito, a city of 45,000 located 30 km from Nevados de Famatina. "One hundred years ago this was a mining zone, but that left the area neither gold nor progress, just a huge environmental debt," she told IPS.

Chilecito and Famatina – a town of less than 8,000 people located 20 km from the mountain it takes its name from – are in the northern part of La Rioja, in the foothills of the Andes mountains, some 1,200 km northwest of Buenos Aires.

More than 2,000 people took part in the latest protest against the mine, earlier this month.

Criss-crossed by dry river beds, and with virtually no surface water, La Rioja is Argentina’s most arid province. It obtains its water from wells more than 200 metres deep, and from mountains like the 6,250-metre Nevados de Famatina, which provide water during the thaw period. If this melt water is polluted, the very survival of the two nearby towns would be in danger.

La Rioja Governor Luis Beder Herrera himself acknowledged this month that the province’s biggest problem is the lack of water: "We are the only province which practically has no rivers; water means everything for us." Nevertheless, his administration has promoted mining activity.

"I don't understand people who say we are going to pollute," said the governor. "I don't know of a single case of people who have died of this famous pollution. They are trying to scare people, but we aren't going to bring this to a halt."

Crabbé is a member of the assembly of residents of Famatina and Chilecito, who along with people from other towns in the province created the La Rioja Assembly, which is calling for a popular referendum on mining activity and protection from anti-pollution laws.

As a result of the mobilisation against local mining industry activity, Crabbé has come in for judicial persecution. She is facing three lawsuits, on charges of blocking traffic on the road to Famatina, defamation against a town councillor, and inciting violence in a street protest.

The movement emerged in 2004, when the Canadian-owned Barrick Gold started to explore for gold on Nevados de Famatina, using the camp left by the La Mexicana company, which mined for gold in the area a century earlier.

On Mar. 8, 2007, local residents worried about information that was circulating with respect to the impact of the project took Barrick employees by surprise by blocking access along the road to the mountain. The roadblock has remained in place since then.

That same day, the provincial legislature passed a law banning open-cast mining using cyanide leaching. It also approved laws calling for popular referendums in Famatina and Chilecito and creating a commission to investigate the process under which mining permits were granted to Barrick Gold.

Two days later, the company announced that it was suspending its exploration activities, and pulled out of the camp.

But the protesters continued to man the traffic blockade day and night until March this year, the beginning of the southern hemisphere autumn. Since then, the roadblock has been guarded sporadically throughout the winter.

The people of Famatina and Chilecito were already familiar with the complaints of water pollution in the neighbouring province of San Juan, where Barrick Gold is mining in Veladero, its biggest open-cast gold mine in Argentina.

Barrick Gold, which describes itself as the world's largest gold mining company, also operates a controversial project in Pascua Lama, in the Andes mountains on the border between Chile and Argentina, a project that has been put on hold because the two countries have failed to reach an agreement on the distribution of the mining royalties and taxes.

The Nevados de Famatina roadblock has been kept in place, to press for the implementation of the new regional laws, which never actually went into effect.

This month, however, they were overturned and were replaced by legislation that promotes mining activity.

In a closed-door session on Aug. 7, the provincial legislature revoked the laws approved in 2007 and passed two new ones that permit the installation of "responsible" mining operations that do not pollute.

"The province didn’t change its mind," government spokesman Roberto Ludueña told IPS. "The 2007 laws were never codified and implemented, so two new ones were passed: one that designates the Secretariat of the Environment as the regulatory authority for the mining industry, and another that create a consultative council."

The council, to be made up of government officials, industry experts and representatives of social and environmental organisations, will be tasked with drawing up reports and recommendations on each mining project that is presented to the authorities. "We are not opposed to mining; what we want is responsible mining," he said.

"Polluting the water would be a crime in a province without rivers, where virtually all of the water consumed has to be extracted from underground sources," said Ludueña.

He also admitted that, as the local residents point out, Barrick Gold did not cancel the project but merely "suspended" it, while the provincial government has been working on other agreements for a uranium mine in the mountains around Famatina – a possibility that also worries people in that area.

"Mining activity from the period when La Mexicana was active in the area left tremendously acid drainage at the headwaters, and we ourselves never saw any of the gold," said Crabbé.

Exploration for uranium, in neighbouring Sañogasta, prompted local residents there to join the La Rioja Assembly.

"Since the laws against open-cast mining were overturned, we have been in a state of permanent assembly," said Crabbé, who added that the group has plans to carry out a signature drive to call a popular referendum against the Barrick Gold mining project, following the example of a similar vote held in the city of Esquel in the southern province of Chubut.

In Chubut, a citizen movement successfully blocked an open-cast cyanide leaching mine, after holding a referendum in which an overwhelming majority of local residents voted against the mining project.

Activists in Famatina and Chilecito say the mining industry will use huge amounts of water, which will hurt human consumption and lead to further difficulties for an agriculture sector that is already suffering from critical water shortages.

"Famatina produces some 476 litres of water per second, and Barrick Gold would need 1,000 litres per second for a mine of this size," said Crabbé.

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