MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2007-06-10



Written by Monica Evans

10th June 2007

"Water is worth more than gold!" was the chief battle cry of protesters in a June 2 march against the Pascua Lama mining project and the company responsible, Canadian-based transnational Barrick Gold. The march has become an annual event for Region III's Vallenar (the closest main town to Pascua Lama) since news of the project reached the community over three years ago.

The Pascua Lama gold mine, which straddles the Chilean-Argentine border in the Andes mountains, has prompted strong local, national and international criticism. Opponents fear the project will destroy the ancient glaciers under which the gold deposits are located. The glaciers represent important fresh water reserves. Critics are also concerned the mine could contaminate the nearby Estrecho River with cyanide and mercury. The Estrecho is currently the only remaining uncontaminated river in northern Chile. Some 70,000 farmers rely on it for their livelihoods (VT, May 2).

The Chilean government approved the project last year on the grounds that the glaciers not be damaged. The mine is now in the initial stages of implementation, and partial destruction of three glaciers on the site has already been reported by environmental watchdog the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA) (ST, Apr. 12). Key archaeological sites relating to the Diaguita indigenous group have also already been destroyed by mining activity.

Three years on, the Vallenar community seemed well used to putting up a fight. "No a Pascua Lama" signs peered out of windows, anti-Barrick stencils branded the streets and visiting bands of noisy, oddly-dressed urban hippies didn't draw the same stares as in other small Chilean towns. Some protest banners and puppets looked extremely well-worn – a model of the mayor lost its arm during the march – and chants sounded extremely well-rehearsed. "We don't want to be a North American colony," was one of the more popular cries.

The 2,000-strong march arrived at the town square in the early afternoon, where Diaguitas in colorful costumes welcomed protesters with an energetic traditional dance. Speakers from the wide range of groups involved then had their chance to "sound off" against Barrick and Pascua Lama.

Environmentalist groups from as far away as Santiago and Valparaíso spoke of the symbolic importance of stopping the mine. "If this one goes ahead, it will open the door for many more foreign-owned projects that don't take Chile's environment and welfare into account," said Valpo spokesperson Francisco Marín, who also commented on the necessity of changing the Chilean Constitution to prevent such projects being conceived in future.

A Vallenar poet spoke of the project as just one more event in a "500-year-long project of exploitation of Latin America."

Local farmers showed a slightly different face. "I don't care about any of that. I'm just worried about my job," said one.

Religious groups also had a strong presence. Local station Radio Profeta (Prophet Radio) broadcasted the event live to the entire province, and priest Juan Barraza made a passionate speech "People have said this is a David and Goliath battle. But I say, who won in the end?" he commented.

Speaker Mario Mautz talked of the hope still remaining in a lawsuit against Barrick, regarding unlawful land acquisition for the Pascua Lama project. The corporation bought 8,600 hectares of land from illiterate farmer Rodolfo Villar for 10,000 pesos (US$19). Villar believed he was to be paid 10 million pesos (US$19,000) for the property. If the sale is deemed illegal, the loss of this key stretch of territory will make implementation of the project very difficult for Barrick.

The march ended peacefully, with a classically Chilean communal picnic lunch of "porotos con rienda" (beans with pumpkin and spaghetti) in the town square.

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