Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold Corp. is facing a stepped-up international campaign against its Pascua Lama gold mine project on the border between Chile and Argentina, high up in the Andes Mountains.
The firm -- the world's largest gold-mining company -- obtained approval Tuesday from authorities in the western Argentine province of San Juan, where it already operates the Veladero mine and plans to begin mining in Famatina.
A Citizen's Tribunal, which met on Nov. 26 in Santiago during the second Chilean Social Forum, declared that Barrick was responsible for serious environmental, social, cultural and economic damages as a result of its policies, programmes and actions in Argentina, Chile and Peru.
Some 20 Chilean organisations took part in the tribunal's symbolic hearing. Barrick Gold was invited, but excused itself through a faxed message on the argument that its representative was not in the country at the time.
"The tribunal was able to consolidate the coordination of the three countries against the Canadian firm. Its ruling is the charter, the central outline, that will orient our protest campaign," Lucio Cuenca, director of the non-governmental Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told IPS.
Cuenca said the activists want to establish an international day against Barrick Gold, which operates 12 mines on four continents, and step up opposition to Pascua Lama during the southern hemisphere summer, which begins this month.
Pascua Lama is one of the biggest untapped gold reserves in the world, with 18 million ounces of gold and 685 million ounces of silver. It is located 150 km southeast of Vallenar, in the northern Chilean region of Atacama, and 300 km northwest of San Juan, the capital of the Argentine province of the same name.
The company plans to invest 1.5 billion dollars in the project.
Despite the years of opposition by environmentalists and local citizens in Chile, the Regional Environment Commission (COREMA) in Atacama gave the mine the go-ahead on Feb. 15 after approving the company's environmental impact study.
However, COREMA set several conditions: it prohibited the removal of three glaciers -- Toro I, Toro II and Esperanza -- near the mine, and ordered the company to protect the local flora and fauna and to treat the waste it dumps, which could affect people living in the Huasco River valley, who are mainly small farmers.
In their verdict, the four members of the Citizen's Tribunal panel called on the new United Nations Human Rights Council to hold companies accountable under U.N. human rights law, and to design oversight procedures to be applied by international observers to Barrick and other transnational mining corporations.
Chilean lawyer Jaime Gallardo, who acted as Barrick's defence attorney in the Tribunal hearing at the organisers' request, told IPS that he used the information available on the web site of the company, whose slogan is "Responsible Mining".
Gallardo presented three arguments: "In first place, the company says it is continuously monitoring the quantity and quality of water in the rivers, which would make pollution unlikely."
"In second place, the company underlines the investment it has made in infrastructure in the area and the support it has given to schools and health centres. And in third place is the creation of between 4,000 and 5,000 direct jobs, without counting the indirect jobs," said the lawyer.
"After participating in the citizen's trial, I was left with the impression that if we focus on the testimony, Barrick is ethically guilty of what it is accused. But a formal court would not have convicted the company, because at least in Chile, the environmental, economic and sociocultural impacts are not classified as crimes," he added.
"I absolved Barrick of responsibility and put the blame on the government authorities because they were the ones who gave permission for the mining companies to come in, and they are the ones who have failed to perfect the environmental legislation," said Gallardo.
Over the space of several days, IPS attempted to obtain a response from the company, which merely pointed out that it expected to receive approval of its environmental impact study from authorities in Argentina.
The Pascua Lama project has been subject to a broad, in-depth review in Chile as well as Argentina, and there has already been healthy debate on the initiative, responded Vincent Borg, senior vice president of corporate communications, in an email from Canada.
On its web site, Barrick states that work is going ahead on Pascua Lama, and that it should begin to produce in 2009.
But Mario Mautz, a farmer from Huasco Valley who was among the witnesses that testified at the Citizen's Tribunal hearing, told IPS that the work has come to a halt.
"A while back they began to lay off dozens of workers who had open-ended contracts to work on the Pascua Lama project, arguing that the roads had been completed," said the farmer, who grows organic avocados.
Local farmers from the valley also say the waters of the Chollay River are no longer murky.
The project has been held up by legal action in Chile based on charges of irregularities in the purchase of land around the projected mine. The courts have not yet handed down their verdicts in these cases.
But after receiving permission from the authorities in San Juan, the company said in a communiqué that it was ready to resume work on the project. It must still obtain several sectoral permits, and the two countries have to work out fiscal aspects.
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