Source: (June 29, 2005)
CHILE: Gold mine protested

Glenn Walker

Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold is facing increasingly fierce opposition to its proposed bi-national “Pascua Lama” open-pit mine on the border of Chile and Argentina. The powerful multinational, notorious in Australia for its relentless push into the sensitive Lake Cowal area, plans to relocate three Andean glaciers in order to extract an estimated 17.5 million ounces of gold (along with silver, copper and mercury) over a 20-year period.

On June 4, simultaneous protests were held in Chile’s capital, Santiago, and the northern city of Vallenar, close to the Pascua Lama site. Each was attended by 2000 people, with a lively mixed atmosphere of carnival and traditional dance and ritual. Protesters condemned Barrick Gold's plans as an environmental and social nightmare. “Barrick! Listen! Chile will not surrender!”, “No to Pascua Lama!”, and “We are not a North American colony!”, the Santiago crowd roared.

The Pasuca Lama mine, like the Lake Cowal one, will employ cyanide leaching for on-site processing of the ore. The people of the Huascar Valley — where the headwaters of the mine site flow to — are extremely anxious about the risk of poisoning of their currently clean water source, along with the significant problem of large dust plumes released by mining activity.

A recent letter to the Chilean president from Huasco people and environmentalists said: “The air we breath, the water we drink and the land we cultivate have more value than the gold coveted by multinationals”.

There are also severe occupational health and safety issues with the mine. According to Cesar Padilla of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), many deaths have already been reported as part of the initial construction.

The pinnacle of disquiet is around Barrick Gold’s plan to “relocate” three glaciers — 816,000 cubic meters of ice — in order to dig open-pits under their current locations.

“A glacier isn't just a chunk of ice you can pick up and move”, said OLCA’s Lucio Cuenca. “It's part of a water basin, and if you move it, you'll disrupt that ecosystem.”

Predictably, Barrick Gold denies the impact will be on such a scale. “The impact on water quantity is minimal, the impact of water is none”, Vince Borg, Barrick Gold's vice-president of communications, told reporters on May 5. “We're not terribly 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.

However, the regional environmental commission CONEMA has expressed concern that the company's information on the local water basins is insufficient and that there is “inconsistency in the figures Barrick Gold has presented”.

The CONEMA report also called for the glacial relocation plans to be scrapped and for the mine to instead be established underground so as to lessen potential environmental impacts. Barrick Gold is still compiling a response.

In the meantime, the company has released a major TV ad campaign championing “responsible mining”, as well as offering US$10 to fund local educational and cultural community projects.

The fund has been dismissed by mine opponents as an attempt to buy silence. They claim the money offered is miniscule in comparison to the profits that will be made and the damage that will be done.

As the world's second-largest exporter of gold, and with a 40% growth target by 2007, Barrick Gold is not short of cash flow. What's more, it is not required under Chilean law to pay taxes on its takings and has so far avoided having to pay a bond.

As Barrick Gold expects to have environmental approval by the end of the year, the people of the Huascar Valley and their supporters will continue defiantly to mount pressure against the powerful multinational.

From Green Left Weekly, June 29, 2005.