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SANTIAGO, Apr 10 2013 (IPS) - Environmental groups and indigenous Diaguita communities of the Huasco Valley in northern Chile celebrated a court decision Wednesday that will bring to a complete halt work on the Pascua Lama gold, silver and copper mine belonging to Canada’s Barrick gold.
“The mine was approved on the condition that the glaciers would not be touched. But the General Water Department (DGA) has repeatedly confirmed that Pascua Lama is destroying glaciers,” said Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA).
He told IPS that “illegal work on the mine has caused episodes of severe pollution in rivers in the area, and the environmental institutions have responded in a biased manner. So we believe it is a very good thing that the courts are putting things in order, even if this is a temporary measure.”
Located at 4,000 metres altitude in the Andes mountains on the border between Chile and Argentina, Pascua Lama, a binational open-pit mine, is the world’s highest-altitude open-pit gold, silver and copper mine.
On the Chilean side, it is at the headwaters of the El Estrecho river, in the province of Huasco, Atacama region, some 700 km north of Santiago.
Barrick had originally planned to actually move three glaciers to get at the minerals beneath.
The unanimous verdict handed down by the appeals court in the city of Copiapó, the capital of Atacama region, was in response to legal action brought by Lorenzo Soto, the lawyer representing the local Diaguita communities of Huasco who are opposed to the mine because they say it will threaten their water supply and pollute the glaciers.
In the lawsuit, Soto cited environmental infractions that triggered sanctions from government bodies like the National Geology and Mining Service (SERNAGEOMIN), the National Evaluation System and the Superintendency of the Environment.
Soto said the irregularities committed by the Canadian company included “the destruction of glaciers Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza, located in the environs of the mine, and the pollution of water resources” with heavy concentrations of arsenic, aluminium, copper and sulphate that threaten the El Estrecho river.
The company had already brought construction of the mine to a halt in November 2012 on orders from SERNAGEOMIN, which fined it for failing to comply with safety standards.
But Wednesday’s ruling completely suspended work on the mine.
However, a spokesperson for the company clarified that on the Argentine side of the border, work would continue.
“What this court measure does is confirm that the oversight and fines by the country’s institutions have been absolutely insufficient and biased, and have failed to take into account the gravity of the denunciations made by the community with respect to the infractions committed by Barrick in the operation of Pascua Lama,” Cuenca said.
Oriel Campillay, president of the Chiguinto Diaguita Indigenous Community, told IPS that the communities opposed to the mine were pleased with the shutdown of the project.
“We live in a beautiful valley where we grow avocados, grapes, lemons, apricots, peaches and pears, and the El Estrecho river is essential for us,” he said.
Speaking “in a personal capacity,” Campillay said he would not be opposed to the mine “if things were done properly.”
“We are asking for our communities to take part in the oversight of the project, but the company refused,” he said.
Barrick has not yet stated whether it will appeal to the Supreme Court or address the environmental irregularities it is accused of.
Barrick Gold’s vice president of corporate affairs for South America, Rodrigo Jiménez, said the company had not yet been officially notified of the decision by the court, and was thus unable to comment on its content or implications.
The government of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera surprised activists by applauding the court ruling.
Interior Minister Andrés Chadwick said the verdict “comes as no surprise to us, and we believe it is a good thing that it was possible to bring work on the mine to a halt, through a judicial organism, while Pascua Lama effectively lives up to the measures that had already been ordered by the Superintendency of the Environment.”
Meanwhile, Environment Minister María Ignacia Benítez said “this ruling is in line with what the government has been doing…As an environmental institution, we are not willing to accept projects that do not live up to environmental resolutions and commitments.”
Cuenca said the government’s statements were “brazen” because “what the court is doing is precisely rebuking the government and the state services for not fulfilling their role.”
“I think it is amazingly cheeky for a minister to come out and say that she thinks it’s a good thing, after they have failed to do their work and to exercise proper oversight. What’s more, what should really happen is for Pascua Lama’s environmental permit to be revoked,” the activist said.
He also stressed the role of the local communities in the struggle against projects that threaten their sustainability.
“The role of citizens, organisations, and in the case of Pascua Lama, the community of Huasco Valley has to be strengthened,” Cuenca said.
“This conflict has dragged on for at least 10 years, and what is happening is the result of the protests and mobilisation by the community,” he added.
In addition, he said that there are now “more sensitive courts that are better-informed about the country’s environmental institutions and regulations and their consequences. Today there is a much more progressive interpretation of the legislation compared to what we had two years ago, and that has been demonstrated in a string of rulings.”
Cuenca said that was due to “a combination of new conditions in the country, but for us, the essential thing is the role that the community has played.”
Campillay, meanwhile, said the Diaguita communities were organising to demand the implementation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, which requires that indigenous and tribal peoples are consulted on issues that affect them.
A favourable verdict was already obtained in the El Morro gold and silver mine in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. And now, he said, native communities would continue to challenge Pascua Lama and any projects that they feel threaten their integrity.
“We are surrounded by mining companies, and we want to be given the opportunity to decide what is done on our land, rather than having it be decided between four walls,” he said.
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