Gold Mining Project Threatens Andean Glaciers
By Gustavo González *
Increasingly vocal groups oppose mining for gold and silver along the Chile-Argentina border because the project would mean removing three glaciers in the Andes Mountains.
SANTIAGO - Ecologists, indigenous communities, farmers, political leaders and civil society organizations are mobilizing in Chile, Argentina and even Europe against Pascua-Lama, a giant mining project of the Canadian transnational Barrick Gold that calls for the removal of three Andean glaciers to exploit gold and silver deposits.
The Pascua-Lama site extends to both sides of the Argentine-Chilean border, with 80 percent in the latter, and lies under the glaciers known as Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza. They feed into Huasco valley, 660 km north of Santiago, supplying irrigation water for some 70,000 small farmers.
More than 2,500 people protested against the project on Jun. 4 in a festive march through the streets of Vallenar, a town located 150 km west of the mining site, which is also 300 km northwest of the Argentine city of San Juan.
That same day, a thousand people marched in Santiago to protest the Barrick Gold project, while in Barcelona, London and Cambridge events were held to denounce the plan and in defense of the glaciers, organized by the non-governmental organization Vidau (Life, Cooperation and Development).
The Pascua-Lama deposit holds proven reserves of 17 million ounces of gold and 635 million ounces of silver. The transnational plans to invest 1.5 billion dollars over 20 years to exploit it, with annual output in the first five years of 750,000 ounces of gold and 30 million ounces of silver.
Barrick Gold proposes to begin work on the project in January 2006, but before that, it must respond satisfactorily within 90 days to a lengthy questionnaire on the project's impacts, presented in early June by the government's national environment commission, CONAMA.
''Water is worth more than gold. The Pascua-Lama project is a brutal example of the type of economic development Chile is carrying out,'' Lucio Cuenca, the Chilean coordinator of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told Tierramérica.
Ecologists say the Andean glaciers, one of the Earth's important reserves of freshwater, are suffering sharp decline as a result of global warming, and that in this case the removal of 20 hectares of ice as part of the Pascua-Lama project -- with a volume of 300,000 to 800,000 cubic meters of ice -- would cause serious environmental harm.
In addition is the contamination from mining operations of the waters that irrigate Huasco valley. ''Gold mining dumps 79 tons of waste for every 28 grams of gold, and produces 96 percent of the world's arsenic emissions,'' according to economist Marcel Claude, vice-president of the international environmental group Oceana.
Foreign trade expert José Francisco Lihn warns that water contamination from mining will prevent Huasco valley farmers from exporting their olives, grapes and vegetables because they cannot meet the environmental standards of the international markets.
Barrick Gold has conducted an intensive publicity campaign, including television ads that paint the project as environmentally friendly in terms of water treatment, and stress its claims that it would create 5,000 direct jobs during the mine's production phase.
Carlos Vilches, the region's legislative deputy and member of the conservative National Renovation Party, said the fears are unfounded and assured that there are experiences in Chile of mining in glacier areas with environmental impact controls, both by private companies and the government mining agency CODELCO.
Of quite a different opinion is Sara Larraín, director of the Sustainable Chile Program, who told Tierramérica that Barrick Gold's ''avarice and obstinacy'' prompt the transnational to ''improvise technical proposals'' for the environmental authorities, citing the supposedly successful removal of a glacier for one of its mines in Central Asia.
''No glaciologist, no scientific institute, no known study supports the risky experiment that the Barrick firm conducted in the republic of Kyrgyzstan,'' said the ecologist.
The Toronto-based transnational, the world's third leading gold producer, hopes to rise to second place with the Pascua-Lama project. It launched studies in the glaciers in 1991, and in 1997 acquired, through its Chilean affiliate Empresa Nevada, the Chañarcillo or Chollay rural estate at the location.
But the community of Huascoaltinos, made up largely of farmers of Diaguita origin (an ancestral indigenous group from northern Chile), filed a lawsuit against the company in 2001 for its seizure of their lands, because the purchase was made from just one member of the group.
Nancy Yáñez, an attorney with the Observatory of Indigenous People's Rights, said there are legal foundations for annulling the transaction, in virtue of laws protecting the heritage of indigenous communities that require the agreement of all its members in sales of their ancestral territories.
Those opposed to the project also point to the controversial history of Barrick Gold, purchased in 1983 by Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and also linked to Venezuelan magnate Gustavo Cisneros, owner of major communications media among other interests, and to the family of U.S. President George W. Bush.
According to the book ''The Best Democracy Money Can Buy'', by U.S. journalist Greg Palast, president George H.W. Bush (1989-1993), the current president's father, exerted pressure in Indonesia and Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the benefit of Barrick Gold mining and petroleum deals.
* Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent.