MAC: Mines and Communities

Argentina: Academics reject corporate miner's handouts

Published by MAC on 2009-07-27
Source: IPS

There's been heated debate in Argentina over whether its National Inter University Council (CIN) should accept funds from the country's largest open-pit mine, Minera Alumbrera. The mine is operated by UK-Swiss Xstrata, co-owned by Goldcorp and Yamana Gold.

Alumbrera's copper-gold deposit was first located around 1940 by Miguel Peirano, who donated the mining rights to Tucumán University. Decades later, the deposit was privatized under Carlos Menem's neo-liberal government. Tucumán University now receives only royalties from the mine; these started being paid more than 10 years after it started producing.

In 2008, the Tucumán justice system prosecuted Julián Rooney, the vice president of Minera Alumbrera, on criminal charges relating to environmental pollution. The mine is accused of polluting 2 river basins (the Vis Vis-Amanao and the Salí-Dulce river basins) affecting three provinces. See:

Last year the Esquel office of Patagonia University rejected funds deriving from the mine's royalties.

There are further debates in Argentina around partnerships (convenios) between Minera Alumbrera and many other universities.




ARGENTINA: Mining Funds Pose Ethical Conflict for Universities
By Marcela Valente
IPS, 22 July 2009

BUENOS AIRES - An Argentine non-governmental organisation has warned that a mining consortium under scrutiny for polluting the environment has been funding public universities for the past two years, bringing into question the independence of any technical reports the universities may be asked to submit.

The alarm was raised by biologist Raúl Montenegro of the Environmental Defence Foundation (FUNAM), who pointed to Minera Alumbrera Limitada's distribution of over 86 million pesos (22 million dollars) in 2008 and 2009 to 40 universities around the country.

Documents obtained by Montenegro show the proportional distribution determined by the National Inter-University Council (CIN), made up of the heads of Argentina's public universities, but neither this information nor details of the use made of the funds have been disseminated.

Montenegro, a professor of biology in the Faculty of Psychology at the National University of Córdoba (UNC), a city in central Argentina, urged his university to decline its share of the funds, create a commission to investigate how they came to be accepted, and "urgently" ask the other universities also to reject the money.

In response, the UNC's Faculty of Psychology decided to refuse the funds from Minera Alumbrera, and is so far the only university department to do so. It also asked the UNC, the oldest university in the country, to investigate the matter. The UNC agreed and said it would report its findings in August.

Montenegro, an academic and environmentalist who was awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2004, told IPS that the contributions pose an ethical conflict because they "undercut the independence of the universities when they are called on to present technical reports." The company making the donations "is being seriously challenged over environmental pollution," he added.

"To accept or reject the funds is not a financial decision, but a political one. The university should say no, because to do otherwise would be unethical," he said.

Silvana Buján, head of the Bios Foundation, told IPS she has asked the National University of Mar del Plata (UNMDP), in the eastern province of Buenos Aires, to refuse the funds accepted by the CIN, but has not received a reply.

"There are two clear-cut positions among UNMDP teaching staff. One is to accept donations from any source, and the other is to refuse certain funds on ethical grounds," she said. However, at some universities "professors are demanding explanations from the authorities about the acceptance of that tainted money."

"At many universities, higher council members were not even aware of the issue, although we do not think that is a valid excuse. It seems strange that such questionable funding should slip past undetected as part of a larger package of general income, without an item-by-item explanation of where the funds came from," she said.

"If that has indeed been the case, the possibility of returning the money should be looked into, and precautions should be taken with future donations, so that their provenance is known and their legitimacy and ethics can be evaluated," she said.

Darío Maiorana, chair of the CIN and president of the National University of Rosario in the east-central province of Santa Fe, said that the university heads had restricted their deliberations to the distribution of the funds, at the request of the Education Ministry. "The universities could eventually refuse to accept the funds," he acknowledged, but said the share-out determining their distribution was legal.

It is a complex and controversial issue.

Minera Alumbrera Limitada, owned by Swiss firm Xstrata Cooper and Canadian firms Goldcorp and Northern Orion Resources, entered into an unincorporated joint venture with Yacimientos Mineros Agua de Dionisio (YMAD) in 1994 to exploit the Bajo La Alumbrera gold and copper reserves in the northwestern province of Catamarca.

YMAD, which is made up of the national government, the provincial government of Catamarca and the National University of Tucumán, owns the exploration and exploitation rights to what is the largest open cast mine in the country. It receives 20 percent of the profits from the Bajo La Alumbrera mine.

By law, 60 percent of YMAD's share of the profits goes to the province of Catamarca, 20 percent to the National University of Tucumán, and the remaining 20 percent must be distributed among the other public universities. This distribution began when the mine started turning a profit last year.

The Bajo La Alumbrera mine produces 180,000 tonnes of copper and 600,000 ounces of gold a year. Mineral ore, concentrated on site, is pumped as a slurry along a 317-kilometre pipeline from Catamarca to the adjacent province of Tucumán. Electricity is supplied to the mine by power cables from a distance of over 200 kilometres.

Since the late 1990s, local people in Catamarca and Tucumán living near the mine have complained about the air and water pollution it causes. In 2008 the Tucumán justice system prosecuted Julián Rooney, the vice president of Minera Alumbrera, on criminal charges for environmental pollution.

Analysis of water samples from the DP2 canal in Tucumán, where the mining company discharges slurry liquids, found concentrations of sulphates, molybdenum, manganese, arsenic, iron and boron in excess of legal limits. The impact of leaks from ruptures in the mineral pipeline is also being investigated.

Urbano Cardozo, a member of Vecinos Autoconvocados por la Vida, a community association in the town of Andalgalá, near the mine, told IPS the group has documented five breakages of the slurry pipeline.

He pointed out that mining firm personnel sent to collect the leaked material wear special safety suits, gloves, helmets, masks, goggles and boots.

Heavy metals also frequently filter into the Vis-Vis river from the unlined tailings reservoir, local people say.

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