|cartoon by Khalil Bendib|
“Barrick! Listen! Chile will not surrender!, No to Pascua Lama!,” roared a crowd of protestors as they paraded through the streets of Santiago, Chile. The crowd was addressing Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold, in response to the company's proposed bi-national “Pascua Lama” open-pit mine on the border of Chile and Argentina.
In what has so far been the climax of a campaign that is quickly gaining momentum, the protestors gathered on June 4th in both Santiago, Chile's capital city, and in the northern city of Vallenar, near the Pascua Lama site. Each protest drew an estimated 2,000 people in a lively atmosphere of carnival and traditional dance and ritual. The groups condemned Barrick Gold’s plans as greedy, heavy-handed, and called the proposed mine an environmental and social nightmare, shouting, “We are not a North American colony!”
Barrick Gold, a powerful multinational already notorious for its dealings in North America, Australia and Africa, plans to extract an estimated 500,000 kilograms of gold (along with silver, copper and mercury) from the site over a 20 year period. Before doing so, however, the company will relocate significant parts of the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza, three giant Andean glaciers. Barrick hopes to transfer the three glaciers to an area with similar surface characteristics and elevation by merging the three into the larger Guanaco glacier.
The anticipated environmental impact, coupled with the removal of a major source of water for surrounding communities, has local Chileans up in arms. But Barrick Gold appears un-phased by the opposition. After all, Pascua Lama is one of the largest foreign investments in Chile in recent years, totaling US$1.5 billion.
As with many gold mines, the Pasuca Lama mine would employ cyanide leaching for on-site processing of the ore. Cyanide is a chemical compound which, even in very small quantities, is extremely toxic to humans and other life forms. If leaked from a mine site or spilt during transportation, it can quickly cause massive toxicity problems for an entire ecosystem, while mobilizing other persistent and toxic heavy metals, as well.
For this reason the people of the Huasco Valley – the area where the headwaters of the mine site flow – are extremely anxious about the risk of poisoning their water source, along with the significant problem of large dust plumes released by mining activity.
“The air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate have more value than the gold coveted by multinationals,” wrote the people of the Huasco valley and a number of environmentalists recently in a letter to the Chilean president that pleaded for a halt to the project.
Barrick's plans to “relocate” three glaciers – 816,000 cubic meters of ice – by means of bulldozers and controlled blasting, is seen by mine-opponents as symbolic of the company's utter insensitivity to the environment. As headwaters for a water basin in an arid region receiving very little rainfall, many opponents are gravely concerned for the ice. They say the mechanical action involved in moving the glaciers will irreversibly melt much of it, jeopardising a delicate ecological balance further downstream.
“A glacier isn’t just a chunk of ice you can pick up and move,” says Lucio Cuenco, from Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA). “It’s part of a water basin, and if you move it, you’ll disrupt that ecosystem”.
The three glaciers also constitute a precious source of environmental knowledge. Ice is a natural preservative and glaciers this large undoubtedly carry information on the flora and fauna of the area and the history of many thousands of years of the South Andes.
There are also severe occupational health and safety issues with the mine. According to Cesar Padilla, also of OLCA, several deaths have already been reported as part of the initial construction.
Nataneal Vivanco, an organic farmer from the Huasco Valley, also voices deep worries about the safety of the mine workers.
“They say they are a “responsible” company but I don’t know to what level because right now, although they haven’t even started to work fully, there’s been 15 deaths,” Vivanco says.
Vivanco’s claim is echoed by activist groups campaigning against the mine, who allege that at least 15 workers have been lost. But details of exactly how the deaths occurred are unclear and the municipal councillor who is said to have an official list of the deaths was unavailable for comment.
Barrick Gold did not wish to comment on the issue to CorpWatch, but has consistently denied the potential scale of their effect on the Huasco Valley and its inhabitants. They maintain that the project is good for the region in that it will generate thousands of local jobs, that safety standards are high, and that the environmental effects of the mine are negligible.
“The impact on water quantity is minimal, the impact of water is none,” claimed Vince Borg, Barrick Gold’s vice president of communications last month in a statement to the Dow Jones Newswire.
“We're not surprised at all by a number of activists coming out and offering their view and distorting some facts rather than focusing on reality,” he added.
Despite the company's claims, the regional environmental commission CONEMA, in a recent report, has expressed concern that the company has shown little consideration for the possibility of down-stream pollution and that there is “inconsistency” in their related figures.
The CONEMA report has called for the glacial relocation plans to be scrapped and for the mine to instead be downsized or established underground so as to lessen potential environmental impacts. Barrick Gold is still compiling a response.
In the meantime, in an effort to stymie the growing opposition to the project, Barrick Gold has released a major TV ad campaign championing “responsible mining.” The company has also offered US$10 million to fund local educational and cultural community projects.
The fund has been dismissed as an attempt to buy silence by mine-opponents who claim the money offered is miniscule in comparison to the profits that will be made and the damage that will be done.
Indeed, as the world’s second biggest gold producer with 13 major mine operations worldwide, and another five in development, Barrick Gold is certainly not short on cash. What’s more, they are not required under Chilean law to pay taxes on their takings and have so far avoided having to pay a bond as insurance if something were to go terribly wrong.
These fierce accusations of corporate irresponsibility and greed are certainly not the first the massive mining company has had to handle. In the past they have been accused of burying alive 50 miners in Tanzania (through a company they now own), of playing a heavy-handed role in attempting to silence opposition through expensive libel cases, and of blatantly disregarding community and environmental concerns all over, from the US, to Latin America, Africa and Australia.
George W Bush Sr. also appears in the long list of grievances about the company. From 1995 to 1999 he was the "Honorary Chairman" of Barrick's "International Advisory Board," during which time he was said to have forced laws favourable to the company.
Barrick Gold expects to have full approval for their Pascua Lama project by the end of the year. Meanwhile opposition continues to swell.
Nataneal Vivanco says that on top of the safety problems and potential contamination to water (which he worries could ruin his chance at organic certification), Barrick's presence has caused another kind of contamination.
“The conflict that we are having -- one against the other, those in favor and those against the mine -- is a type of contamination, a social contamination."