In the Argentine province of La Rioja, an astonishing series of events have lead to the ouster of a corrupt pro-mining provincial governor and the apparent withdrawal of gold mining giant Barrick Gold from operations on the Famatina range. Who was responsible for these events? A small group of dedicated neighbors who are fighting tooth and nail to save their mountain range from open-pit mining exploitation.
On March 13, 2006 the capital city of La Rioja was rocked by turmoil and disturbances marking the sudden ouster of governor Ángel Maza. His ouster was based on charges of corruption arising from his relations with Barrick Gold, and was marked by violence, hired thugs and a systematic burning and destruction of evidence linking the gold mining giant to the now-deposed governor. The new interim governor has pledged to outlaw open-pit metals mining with cyanide and set a date for a public referendum on the issue. Barrick Gold announced the dismantling of their mining camp, and withdrawal from exploratory activities in the Famatina range.
As of this moment (March 21 2007), activists still positioned in Peñas Negras 5,400 feet up on Mt. Famatina, are entering the third week of a blockade of the road winding up Famatina to the Barrick Gold encampment. They are permitting Barrick employees and machinery to leave, but not to enter. And they vow to not abandon their vigil until Barrick Gold is gone for good, and a provincial law is in effect prohibiting open-pit mining on their beloved mountain.
What happened in La Rioja? This brief description of the events is based on observation, history and a very nice article published by the Argentine journal La Vaca (www.lavaca.org ). By analyzing what took place in La Rioja, we can perhaps hone our strategies in other locations where the metals mining giants may appear to have a firm foothold – but in the face of popular movements, perhaps their power isn't as strong as they would like us to believe.
Barrick Gold In San Juan and La Rioja, Argentina
Up to now, Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold mining firm, has been accustomed to operating with total impunity in Argentina. Barrick Gold has been a major player for years in the Andean province of San Juan where their Veladero project was approved and constructed without any form of public input, and is now in production. The huge Pascua Lama project was railroaded through environmental approval processes against a great deal of protest in both Chile and Argentina and construction is now eminent.
Barrick has carried out an intense campaign of social and economic insertion in the province of San Juan, hosted by provincial Governor José Luis Gioja. Gioja, a local strongman in this poor, beautiful and sparsely populated mountain and desert province, has built a political power structure entirely dedicated to the promotion of transnational mining. In San Juan, Gioja and Barrick have kept opposition at bay by manipulation of the media, strong-arm tactics, political manipulation and, more than anything, the use of poverty and hunger as a threat against those questioning big mining development.
It came as no surprise when, in early 2006, Barrick Gold announced a new gold mining project high on Mt. Famatina in the neighboring province of La Rioja. The governor of La Rioja, Ángel Maza, like Gioja, was a key ally to mining firms in the neoliberal "reforms" of the 1990's: He and other officials worked alongside former President Carlos Menem, mining companies and international finance organizations to privately rewrite the mining codes of the country, handing transnational mining companies breathtaking incentives, tax breaks and legal protection and environmental impunity for their extractive projects. Among the authors of these mining code reforms are the current governors of San Juan, Catamarca, La Rioja and Tucumán, as well as the current national Secretary of Mining Jorge Mayoral. It should be noted that the Kirchner government, down to Secretary of Environment Romina Picolotti, solidly advocates in favor of the process transnational mining insertion begun by Menem.
Gov. Maza had ruled La Rioja with an iron fist, and was looking forward to an unprecedented fourth term in office. During that time Barrick Gold was distinguishing itself throughout the world for a the destruction, contamination and death left in the wake of its mining projects in Rwanda, Tanzania, South Africa, Australia, Nevada and Peru. The links between Barrick Gold founder Peter Munk with Augustus Pinochet, Iran-Contra arms and drug trafficker Adnan Khashoggi, George Bush Sr., the Carlyle Group and even Bin Laden have been documented in depth. At the same time, In La Rioja, Gov. Maza "somehow" became co-owner of the YAMIRI (YACIMIENTOS MINEROS RIOJANOS S.A. - http://www.yamirigold.com) and the formerly state-owned mining concessions on Mt. Famatina, a property which he was to later pass on the Barrick Gold.
Barrick on Mt. Famatina
With their announcement of exploration activities on Mt. Famatina, Barrick entered into La Rioja in 2006. Barrick Gold sent in their "insertion teams" to conduct public relations activities in schools, universities, and media outlets. They presented a discourse of "responsible mining" and "sustainable development." These teams began to offer donations to medical clinics, schools, community and business groups. This insertion strategy to buy "social license" is the modus operandus of deep pocket mining firms who force huge long-term profits for a minimal investment.
Mt. Famatina is an impressive 19,000 foot snow-capped mountain which supplies water resources to an entire region dependent upon agriculture for its highly esteemed wine, olives, walnuts, fruit and vegetables, livestock and a small but growing tourism industry.
Famatina Cannot Be Touched!
When the first Barrick SUV's began to ply the dusty roads of La Rioja, community members grew nervous, and they got busy. A group of four women met in the town of Famatina in March of 2006 and formed the "Self-Organized (Autoconvocados) Neighbors of Famatina for Life." They opted for a "horizontal" grassroots form of organization, used effectively in many community struggles in Argentina, where decision-making process is shared among all. Soon a series of smaller, inclusive groups sprung forth in towns and villages around Mt. Famatina: Autoconvocados, neighborhood assemblies from Famatina, Chilecito, Pihuil, Chañarmuyo, Los Sauces and others, joined forces, putting politics aside and, concentrating on the important issues at hand: Learning about and spreading the word about open-pit mining, and the environmental, social, cultural and economic consequences of modern mining projects.
Groups of autoconvocados met with other community groups struggling against similar mining projects throughout Argentina, in Mendoza, Esquel, San Juan, Catamarca. Word was passed through community meetings, local newspapers, flyers, tabling and town hall meetings. Residents gathered with agricultural producers, tourism guides, teachers and local political officials to talk about mining threats to the delicate glacier systems. They looked at the avenues they had chosen towards the sustainable development of the region, all dependent upon the health of Famatina. These producers, teachers and workers in turn met with their organizations and took their message to the capital of La Rioja: "If the mines are built, we cannot produce, and what little we do produce will be contaminated and we will not be able to sell it."
Unlike San Juan, La Rioja has a history of mining: The mining ruins of La Mejicana on Mt. Famatina are an ugly testament to this history. Says autoconvocada Carina Díaz: "In the early 1900's they built the second largest cable mineral transporter in the world, the first National Bank in Chilecito, and a railway, all paid for by the State so the English could haul away the gold. They told us: Famatina will become rich. But no. We are more poor than before, and our river Amarillo is still contaminated with acid mine drainage."
Carina continues: "Now they come to tell us about 'sustainable and responsible mining' but we know it doesn't exist. Instead of tunnels, now they blow up entire mountains with dynamite, grind up the rocks, extract gold with cyanide and acids, using tremendous amounts of water. They take the gold and the rest is called "tailings." The tailings and overburden are the remains of our destroyed mountain, which will continue to drain acids and heavy metals for thousands of years and contaminate everything, after leaving us without any water. What is sustainable about this?"
As the journal "La Vaca" points out, "in Argentina, anything is possible:" The national government sent geologists to schools and institutions explaining that cyanide is "biodegradable," that acids and heavy metal contamination would be safely contained, forever, by thin plastic membranes under billions of tons of rock.
The autoconvocados continued their outreach strategies, and began to carry out pickets and road blockades of routes to call attention to their message. Anti mining activists toured Famatina and participated in spreading news and information. On a few occasions autoconvocados suffered attacks from police and anonymous thugs. Meanwhile independent press members investigated into the "carnal" relation that Gov. Maza had with Barrick Gold, and allegations began to surface.
Legislation to Ban Open-Pit Mining
These allegations of corruption came at a time of growing political divisions in the capital of La Rioja. Vice Governor Beder Herrera, perhaps because of a change of core beliefs, or perhaps of political opportunism (only time will tell) began to champion the demands of the autoconvocados, whom he had previously characterized as "piqueteros, subversives and bums." On March 8 2007, he introduced a bill in the Provincial Legislature to prohibit open-pit metals mining in the province. This bill, approved by the legislature, called for a binding public referendum on the question of open-pit mining on July 29, 2007. The autoconvocados, emboldened but mistrustful of the entire political process, decided to initiate a blockade of the mining camp at Peñas Negras.
The Fall of Governor Maza
Governor Maza said he would veto the bill (fellow governors in Mendoza and San Juan have done so to similar legislation). But he never got his chance: On the same weekend of March 11, the legislature passed a extraordinary measure to suspend Gov. Maza and bring him to trial for corruption. While mining industry spokespersons swiftly rose to decry the events and promised to fight any prohibition of their activities, Gov. Maza hunkered down in his office in the capitol building, refusing to leave. He and his party hired thugs, security guards and heavies to demonstrate, posing as Maza supporters. Some of these were personal heavies of Maza ally Governor Bussi (himself a torturer during the military dictatorship), sent in from the province of Tucumán. The hired rabble gathered outside the capitol building, preventing the lawful removal of the now ex-governor. They burned tires and a car outside Maza´s office. Gov. Maza had hired these heavies both to make it appear he had public support and to provoke a confrontation, with which he used to call upon the Executive government of Argentina to intervene to "maintain order."
The national government, however, didn't bite, effectively abandoning their former ally Maza. The next day, provincial police dispersed the "supporters" with tear gas and escorted the ex-governor out. When others entered, it was clear what had happened during the night: The Maza administration had carried out a systematic destruction of all the paperwork, burning of computers and files, of the Maza machine, along with all documents linking him to any improprieties. Also burned was paperwork for many public employees, causing a deliberate and malicious bureaucratic mayhem.
While all eyes were upon the incidents in the capitol, the autoconvocados were gathered in a quiet and orderly manner at the foot of Mt. Famatina and carrying out blockade of Barrick Gold's installations. Gabriela Romana of Chilecito said: "Here nobody wants disorder, because we are in the right. We don't want to give the federal government any excuse to intervene. Whoever intervenes the provience would veto the law prohibiting open-pit mining. Now we still have the chance that Beder will carry out what he himself voted for last Saturday."
Upon taking power, on March 11, the new Governor Beder Herrera pledged his allegiance to President Kirchner, and declared that a new elections would take place in the coming July. The law prohibiting open-pit metals mining with cyanide or other toxic substances now awaits now-Governor Beder's signature, and ratification by public vote on July 29th.
The Blockade Continues
The autoconvocados are watching the politicians with a suspicious eye. Beder appears to support the autoconvocados, but this is not a reciprocal relationship. "We are not with any politicians nor are we going to play a role in the upcoming elections," says Gabriela, and every asambleista who is asked. They all hope that Beder will keep his promise, but "they are all politicians," warns Carina, "and we are learning to not trust all of them. This is why in our assembly we decided to maintain the blockade for an indefinite time in Peñas Negras until Barrick Gold is gone for good, and until the government puts into effect the law which the Legislature has approved."
The journal "La Vaca" asks a good question: If politics is to be understood as the intervention in the public search for public good, and the debate and solution of truly important problems, it is interesting to ask if in this week, where were real politics taking place: In the provincial capital or in the assemblies at the foot of Mt. Famatina?
As of this day, Barrick Gold's work delegation has been reduced to two persons, security guards posted at company offices. Over thirty employees have descended and 8 or nine SUVS and trucks have left. Barrick Gold has released a statement saying that the Famatina project is no longer a priority, as they are concentrating on their other projects in San Juan and now Mendoza. They have pledged to remove the heavy machinery still at the camp within a week. Nobody believes them. "They always say these things, pretend to leave and then stay." Word has it that Barrick plans to open a new road from the town of Chilecito to the mountain "If that is the case, then we will block that road too. No problem." says Carina. And this week Barrick has said on the radio that it intends to go ahead with plans on Famatina. On the exact day of the good news from La Rioja, in San Juan, Gov. José Luis Gioja denounced the prohibition against open-pit mining, along with Kirchner's Secretary of Environment Romina Picolotti, as "irrational." Gioja then proudly announced that San Juan would be the site an entirely new source of environmental contamination, the likes of which Argentina still hasn't seen: Barrick Gold is to build a massive gold, silver and copper smelting factory, in 2009 in San Juan. Perhaps now the Autoconvocados of San Juan will need to communicate with their brothers and sisters in La Oroya, Perú, site of the Doe Run smelting plant, one of the ten most polluted places on Earth.
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