MAC: Mines and Communities

Lands, Hands And Cyanide: Mining Expansion In Northwest Santa Cruz

Published by MAC on 2006-06-15
Source: Perito Moreno

Lands, Hands and Cyanide: Mining Expansion in Northwest Santa Cruz

"My soul, in the meantime, was opening a furrow in the earth"

Carlos J. Gradin, 1999

Since the 1990's, various mining companies have arrived the northwest of the Argentine province of Santa Cruz, stimulated by successive governments and nurtured by a reformed legal framework. These foreign-owned mining companies have managed to identify large deposits of dispersed metals.

But the sparkle of gold threatens to sully other riches held in the zone: the thousand year old cave paintings and archeological riches of the basin of the Río Pinturas. Until now, the mining companies have held a political and territorial deadlock on the region. However, this situation could begin to change.

By Luis Manuel Claps – Perito Moreno, Argentina, June 2006

Something in the caves along the Río Pinturas speaks to us of our origins, touches our souls. Delicate, like a caress, the many hands painted on the cave walls appear to tell a story as long as the existence of humans. Leroi-Gourhan, who studied the cave paintings of Lascaux, pointed out the liberating role of the superior extremities for the development of the brain, and thus, the Homo Sapiens. There are hands painted in places all over the world, and in Patagonia as well.

The first reports of the cave paintings of Santa Cruz were made by English traveller Musters in 1871. In his accounts, he refers to the hill of God, which later Escalada (1949) would identify as the possible site of the origin of mankind and animals according to the Tehuelche cosmovision (Gradin, 1985).

But it was Carlos J. Gradin who in 1964 began an intensive study of the area. The magic of the paintings so moved him that he continued to visit Santa Cruz until his death in 2002. In "Accounts of Río Pinturas" (1999), a brief but beautiful book, the author had already abandoned the technical language of the archeologist to let the reader see the "spirits which pulse in the Río Pinturas." One can also read something of Gradin's intimate experiences in the zone: his particularviewpoint, also a philosophy of coming close to the land, based on respect and in contemplation. Anyone who enters the area with this way of seeing, through this experience, would be horrified to learn what is now happening here.

Mining Prospecting In Arroyo Feo

The Cueva de las Manos (the Cave of the Hands), occupied by groups of hunter-gatherers since over 8,000 years BC, located in the canyon of the Río Pinturas, was declared World Heritage site by UNESCO in December of 1999. The town of Perito Moreno (declared Archeological Capital of Santa Cruz) holds the authority for the administration of the area of the Reserve. In the past season, I am told that some 10,000 tourists visited the site. It is curious that this area, declared as protected, is restricted only to the Cueva de las Manos, leaving the caves of Arroyo Feo and Alero Charcamata outside the protective status. In the pamphlet that I was given in the office of tourism in Perito Moreno, one can read that the zone of the Pinturas "has the charm of the feeling of having discovered an unexplored site." They cannot be referring to mining exploration.

For it is precisely here that various mining companies, with permission of local landowners, are at work. They have opened enormous trenches, which can be seen from the Route 40, some ten kilometers away. They have built roads, and as tourist Carlos Astrada says, have poured liquids into the rivers and watercourses of the area. "We saw bulldozer tracks and finally we found them removing river stones, to make a road or something like that. We didn't understand why all these machines were there. When we arrived at the cave of Arroyo Feo, just in front of it, some 150 meters away, we found a mining exploration team. They are carrying out these operations some 200 meters from the cave paintings," said Astrada to Tiempo Sur (published also in on June 1, 2006). The alarmed tourist sent an email to the Secretary of Tourism in the town of Los Antiguos but never received a response. In the northwest of Santa Cruz, one does not take on the mining industry.

The Project San José

Built with $50 million dollars from Standard Bank (which also loaned $75 million dollars to the Canadian firm Wheaton River to buy its 12.5% of Alumbrera Mines in the province of Catamarca), the mining project San José involves exploration of two underground veins of gold and silver (Huevos Verdes and Frea). It is the most advanced project in the northwest of Santa Cruz, expected to be in full operation in the beginning of 2007. Located 120 kilometers west of Las Heras and 50 kilometers east of Perito Moreno, some 61,000 ounces of gold and 3,400,000 ounces of silver are expected to be extracted from the mines per year. The mining operation is centered about 7 kilometers south of the union of the rivers Río Pinturas and Río Deseado. Sodium cyanide will be used in the process of separating the gold and silver from the 750 tons of ore extracted daily.

The company in charge of this project is Minera Santa Cruz, made up of Peruvian Mauricio Hochschild, Inc, and and the North American Minera Andes. Although the project is located a relative distance from the cave paintings, the aggressive publicity campaign of the company has buried any community debate over the role of extractive industries in the region. In Perito Moreno, Las Heras and Los Antiguos, for years now all have heard the company discourse over "social responsibility" through allf the available medias. But many people are beginning to warn that something is wrong. All the more so if one knows of criticism of, and resistance to, the metals mining industry which is growing in neighboring provinces such as Chubut or Río Negro. In the face of these pressures, Minera Santa Cruz has tightened its relations with local, provincial and national public officials. And behind it have arrived many others.

"The community setting is the most important for the company."

Thus affirmed Juan Incháustegui Vargas, President of Mauricio Hochschild, Inc, in his presentation of the project in the South Hall of the national capitol building in Buenos Aires, in the presence of President Nestor Kirchner. The first thing that Minera Santa Cruz did was to sign an agreement with the Provincial Board of Education, whose director is Ingrid Bordoni, in Apriil 22, 2005. Through this agreement, participated in by the Ministry of Production and signed by the then-Governor Acevedo, all of the actions of insertion into the community carried out by the mining company are outlined, with the object of "cooperation in the academic and scientific planes, exchange of information and skills-building and training of human resources."

Spirit in Danger

Gradin commented that the first habitants of the area along the Río Pinturas, thousands of years ago, "managed to constitute a society of hunters, more and more organized and, perhaps more just than the society of now, more communal..." (1999). This statement is, above all, a political declaration. Nobody owns the truth. It is time that other sources of knowledge, arguments and experiences related to the extractive activities enter into the stage of public debate in northwest Santa Cruz. If not, the spirits of the Paintings could leave us forever.

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