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ENVIRONMENT-CHILE: Activists Try to Block Start of Pascua Lama Mine

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, May 18 2009 (IPS) - As Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold gets ready to start construction at the Pascua Lama mine, straddling the Argentine-Chilean border, activists in Chile are scrambling to block the ambitious mining project while calling for an investigation of supposed irregularities committed in the approval process.

Public opposition to Pascua Lama resurged on May 7 when the company announced simultaneously in Toronto, Santiago and Buenos Aires that it had the necessary permits to start construction on the mine at 4,000 metres altitude in the Andes mountains, and that work may begin in September – at the start of the southern hemisphere spring – or even earlier.

The governments of Chile and Argentina, which issued environmental permits for the mine in 2006 and 2007, respectively, reached an agreement a few weeks ago on how the firm is to be taxed. Barrick blamed the delay in the project on this complex negotiation between the two countries.

The announcement that work would begin catalysed activists. But what really riled them was the participation of Chile’s mining minister, Santiago González, in the press conference in which the company announced the start of construction work on the mine.

At the news briefing, González said Pascua Lama was “very important” to the government, as the world’s first binational mining project and the first to be carried out under the mining integration treaty signed by Chile and Argentina in 1997.

Argentine President Cristina Fernández, who received the Barrick executives in the seat of government, made similar remarks.

But five days later, on May 12, Rodrigo Weisner, director of the General Directorate of Water (DGA) stoked the controversy when he said his office was still studying two permits needed to start work on the mine.

In an e-mail interview with IPS, the vice president of corporate affairs and communications at Barrick South America, Rodrigo Jiménez, said the company has the “key construction permits” that “enable it to begin to assign contracts and start to move in terms of development of infrastructure.”

By the time the “large-scale” construction gets underway, in September or earlier, the company plans to have the pending permits that are now in the process of being granted, he said.

For those opposed to Pascua Lama, this complicated scenario is part of a string of irregularities that have marred the evaluation and approval process for the mine, which will involve an investment of between 2.8 and 3.0 billion dollars.

The open-pit gold and silver mine will be located 4,000 metres up in the Andes mountains. Approximately 75 percent of the mineral reserves to be tapped by the company are in the northern Chilean region of Atacama, and the rest are in the northwestern Argentine province of San Juan.

Environmental organisations, local residents of the Huasco Valley below the mine, representatives of the Catholic Church, Diaguita Indians claiming the land as their own, and local and foreign activists have been protesting the project for years.

Their main fears are the dangers posed to three glaciers near the mine and the pollution of the key sources of water for 70,000 small farmers in the Huasco Valley, the only valley in northern Chile that has not yet been affected by the operations of mining corporations, say activists.

Environmentalists and other activists blame the water crisis plaguing the arid north of Chile on the uncontrolled expansion of private sector mining in the last two decades.

After Barrick received the environmental permits for the mine in 2006 and 2007, the company submitted other parts of the project to the evaluation process.

According to opponents of Pascua Lama, this means the initiative was never evaluated as a whole, but in bits and pieces, which made it impossible to gauge its real impact. They also complain that many aspects were modified along the way, bypassing Chile’s environmental laws.

In a May 14 meeting with foreign correspondents, Chile’s environment minister Ana Lya Uriarte acknowledged that several parts of the project were approved separately, but said the most critical aspect, the construction and operation of the mine itself, was approved on the basis of strict criteria in 2006.

Activists are also sceptical of the effectiveness of the glacier and river management and monitoring plans designed by the company to fulfil the main condition set by the centre-left government: that “the company will only remove the minerals in such a way that the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers will not be removed, relocated, destroyed or physically affected.”

The company had initially proposed “moving” the glaciers.

“From the point of view of the care and use of water resources, for example, there will be 49 monitoring points for overseeing the quality of water in Chilean territory, 26 of which are automatic,” as well as 38 points in Argentina, said Jiménez.

The Barrick executive argued that the mine “will not modify water quality.”

In addition, he said the multi-million dollar agreement reached with the Junta de Vigilancia del Río Huasco – a committee that represents around 2,000 farmers in the Huasco Valley holding water usage rights – in which the company pledged the construction of a dam and other water works would even improve on the current availability of water in the valley.

But even prior to approval of the mining project, the DGA had found that the glaciers in the area were retreating as a result of years of prospecting and exploration by Barrick.

That conclusion was supported by a study by the Military Geographical Institute, the National Agriculture Association (SNA), and the Sustainable Chile Programme, a prominent local environmental group.

“In the sixth year of construction of the mine, the company also plans to destroy a rock glacier, to install the Nevada Norte waste dump there,” the head of Sustainable Chile, Sara Larraín, wrote in a May 11 opinion column in which she also pointed to Barrick’s bad environmental reputation around the world.

According to Barrick official Jiménez, the DGA report “was based on a visual inspection” that was not checked against technical measurements. In any case, he argued, the changes undergone by the glaciers were found during the environmental impact assessment process to have been caused by climatic factors, like the El Niño weather phenomenon or global warming.

In response to a question from IPS about whether the government can ensure that the construction and operation of the mine will not affect water quality and quantity in the Huasco Valley, minister Uriarte said that because of its characteristics, the project “will require month-to-month, day-to-day, hour-to-hour, and second-to-second monitoring.”

In this respect, “the big challenge facing our country is to have an oversight mechanism,” like the one currently being discussed in Congress, which would include the creation of an environment ministry to replace CONAMA (the national environment commission headed by Uriarte), an environmental impact assessment service and an environmental regulatory agency.

Uriarte hopes the new institutions will be approved before the end of socialist President Michelle Bachelet’s term, in March 2010.

According to the company, around 5,500 workers will be needed during the construction phase at the mine, and 1,600 permanent jobs will be created. In addition, it estimates that some 4,000 indirect jobs will be generated.

But while the company highlights its social, educational and cultural efforts in the area, it is accused in Huasco Valley, especially by the small farmers, who are mainly Diaguita Indians, of “buying off consciences” and dividing the communities by means of donations.

If the rivers are polluted, the damages to the region’s natural and cultural heritage and to traditional sources of work like farming would far outweigh the benefits offered by the company, say activists.

On May 14, about 100 activists, mainly young people, held a demonstration outside the ministry of mines in the Chilean capital to protest the announced start of work at the Pascua Lama mine, denounce irregularities, and call for a moratorium on mining.

“A review of all aspects of the Pascua Lama project would require, in our view, the declaration of a moratorium on any enterprise that could qualify as large-scale chemical mining that intends to operate at the headwaters of our rivers or in glacier ecosystems,” says a statement that the protesters sent to mining minister González.

“There is still a series of pending bureaucratic steps and irregularities that have not been resolved by the company (Barrick), which in our understanding call for a more in-depth reflection, not only with regard to this project in particular but with respect to mining and environmental policies in general, on the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary of Chile’s independence” from Spanish rule, to be commemorated in 2010, the statement adds.

Lucio Cuenca of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), one of the groups that called last week’s protest, complained about the government support the company has received, despite the protests and demands from local residents and activists.

In the activists’ view, Minister González acted as a “spokesman” for Barrick in the press conference.

Cuenca also expressed concern about “the private meetings that President Bachelet has held with senior executives from the company, which the press was not even informed of.”

The environmentalists described as a “strange coincidence” the fact that neither Bachelet nor President Fernández in Argentina had backed laws to protect the glaciers.

While Fernández vetoed a law to that end passed by the Argentine Congress, the Chilean leader decided that the government would draft a policy for the protection and conservation of glaciers, which was finally approved on Apr. 14.

Instead of backing a draft law that is stalled in Congress, government officials argued that adoption of a national government policy would bring faster progress in preserving glaciers.

Uriarte clarified that, besides throwing her support behind the national policy, the president signed decrees creating a brand-new inventory of glaciers, which calls for an environmental impact assessment of any project affecting these fragile reserves of water. But environmentalists say the national policy and the inventory are weak instruments.

In both Chile and Argentina, the threats posed to the environment and national security by the 1997 mining treaty have been questioned, because it creates a cross-border area that would be controlled by mining companies. Environmentalists argue that Pascua Lama will pave the way for other binational mining projects.

According to Barrick, the area where the mine will operate holds 17.8 million ounces of gold and 718 million ounces of silver. In the first five years, projected annual output will be between 750,000 and 800,000 ounces of gold and 35 million ounces of silver.

If the deadlines set by the company are met, the mine will begin to operate in 2012 and production will begin in 2013.

Meanwhile, the groups opposed to the project are organising a March for Life, to be held Jun. 13 in Vallenar, in the province of Atacama. They also announced that they would strengthen ties with activists in the Argentine province of San Juan, and that other activities would be planned to prevent construction of the mine.

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