CHILE: Gold rush threatens glacier

Hernan Calderon says he is just an "insignificant insect" to the owners of the Pascua Lama gold mine high in the Andes mountains in northern Chile.

The cattle herder used to be able to check his herds in the fields of the Huasco Valley via a public road.

He now requires a key for a gate erected after the land was bought by the Canadian company Barrick Gold, the largest mining company in the world.

A new gold rush is under way as mining companies seek to supply the ever-increasing demand for the precious metal from emerging economies such as India, and with reserves dwindling all over the world they are going to extraordinary lengths to extract it.

Since time immemorial man has risked much to obtain gold, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to look for it so high in the Andes mountains, too much trouble and expense to extract.

However next to the Toro I, Toro II and Esperanze glaciers 5,000 metres above sea level deposits worth an estimated 12 billion dollars have been discovered by satellite.

Verdant valley

Barrick Gold were awarded the contract to mine the site by the Chilean government last year but hostility towards the company is widespread in the verdant Huasco valley just south of the world's driest desert.

Hernan Calderon told Al Jazeera: "All this belongs to those people from Barrick. Now the foreigners are the new owners of Chile and we are just insignificant insects to them."

It has not rained in the valley for ten years, yet the Huasco produces some of Chile's best grapes, avocadoes and olives for export thanks to careful irrigation with the water that comes from the glaciers above.

It is a source of water that farmers like Bernardo Torres, fear will become contaminated with the cyanide used when mining for gold.

"It's a highly toxic activity that will prejudice us all," Torres said. "The leaks and explosives, the impact of the heavy metals will affect our plants and our health, even if they say it won't." 

Others worry that the glacier itself may just melt away once the mine opens.

Because they are white glaciers reflect the sun's rays, this is why they do not melt. But if they become dark brown from the explosives and dust generated every day, as environmentalists predict, the glaciers could disappear.

Chile's national chamber of deputies recently called for an inquiry into the Pascua Lama project after the findings of a report from the country's General Water

Directorship from 2002 was publicised by local media and revealed the three glaciers had already dwindled by 50-70 per cent during the exploratory phase of the project.


Rodrigo Jimenez, a spokesman for Barrick, dismissed the report and blamed the melting on global warming.

When he spoke to Al Jazeera he said one of the conditions to the contract awarded to mine Pascua lama is not to affect the glaciers in any way.

"There are 400 additional conditions," he said. "And we are going to adhere to them 100 per cent."

"And this is why we can say with confidence that we will not affect the quality or the quantity of the water for the Huasco valley."

Barrick says that where it goes, it leaves progress and development behind, so Al Jazeera travelled south to La Serena, where Barrick exploited a gold mine called El Indio until it closed five years ago.

Mario Gonzalez, who said he worked for Barrick until shortly before the mine closed, explained that despite precautions being taken there were several occasions when highly toxic waste leaked into the river that goes into La Serena's water supply.

Jobs boost

"Every time it happened, a few hours later the alarm was sent and a sanitary emergency was declared," he said.

"No drinking water for three or four days until the waste was washed out into the ocean."

But there were benefits from the El Indio project for the local community. At least a thousand families were able to build their homes in the area because of the jobs generated by the mine over a 20 year period.

The promise of jobs in the new Pascua Lama gold mine is important to residents of nearby Vallenar, the provincial capital where unemployment is high and part of the argument that helped win Chilean government approval for the controversial project.

Enrique Accorsi, the president of the natural resources commission of the chamber of deputies said: "We're talking about a project worth billions of dollars and the investment always seens to weigh more than the negative impact it could have."

Yet a sign in the Huasco Valley reads: "The thirst for gold will leave us without water."

Despite the assurances from Barrick, farmers like Don Manuel believe it, yet he concedes: "I don't think this can be stopped. We're talking about big business, and big business always wins."

AMP Section Name:Natural Resources
  • 110 Trade Justice
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 181 Food and Agriculture
  • 183 Environment
* indicates required