World-wide, mining operations have been associated with exploitation, corruption, violence, environmental devastation, human rights abuses, and impunity. However, despite threats and violent attacks, local movements resist mining operations and associated devastating effects. Residents in Northern Argentina have protested the opening of an open pit mining site in the town of Andalgala in the province of Catamarca. A recent police crackdown on the protest has sparked a popular uprising of citizens saying, ‘no to the mine’. Following massive protests in response to police repression this month, a judge temporarily halted further mine works planned to open in 2012.
Andalgala, man of the high mountains
The word Andalgala, in the ancient indigenous language of the Andean region, means ‘man of the high mountains’. The river Andalgala that flows between the high Andes Mountains of Catamarca has spawned an oasis. The pristine mountain water and rich valley has given life to a land of olive groves, peach orchards, sheep herds and mineral deposits. Transnational mining companies now threaten this Andean oasis, the social network in Andalgala and the entire water basin. If the company finds gold from drilling expeditions and decides to build the open pit mining site, the entire population of 20,000 inhabitants could be displaced, leaving transnational mining interests as the only man of the high mountains.
The mine is owned by Agua Rica, a subsidiary of Yamana Gold Inc., a Canadian-based gold producer which plans to begin mining operations in the town of Andalgalá in 2012. Yamana Gold has mining sites in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Honduras. Yamana failed to comply with the law in conducting a study on the environmental impact required by the provincial Mining Secretary, making exploration illegal. The Agua Rica site in Andalgala would be three times the size of another mining operation in Catamarca, La Alumbrera which has caused environmental and health risks for residents since it opened in 1998. La Alumbrera is currently the largest open pit mining site in Argentina.
Activists from the Citizen’s Assembly of Andalgalá have been blockading the mine site for two months. The Assembly, made up of a wide array of residents, has called for a local plebiscite on mining operations. Their request was met with police force.
More than 60 people were injured on February 12 when police escorted excavating equipment through a protest blockade to the controversial open pit mine site. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters –women and children are among the injured. Nearly 50 demonstrators were arrested, of which 12 are still being detained. The passionate police attack against anti-mining activists sparked an uprising, with protestors breaking windows, attacking mining offices and trucks owned by Agua Rica in response to the arrests and crackdown. Less than 20 hours after the police attack, more than 4,000 gathered in Andalgala’s center to protest the mine.
Leading up to the February 12 repression, the mayor of Andalgala, Jose Perea, who is so enthusiastic about the prospects of a mining invasion said in an interview with a local radio station, FM Z “if it is necessary we would kill the people maintaining the blockade against Agua Rica.” The mayor also lead a pro-mining march with nearly 100 public employees participating, which prompted a march of over 4,000 residents resisting the Agua Rica mine.
Andalgala resist the mining site having seen the negative effects of the La Alumbrera which has contaminated water sheds provincial wide. “After 12 years since the La Alumbrera, the largest open mining operation, the promises of wellbeing and distribution of wealth from mining has not been fulfilled in the province of Catamarca,” says the Union of Assemblies of Catamarca. The Alumbrera site uses between 600 million to 1 billion liters of water of day from depleted water tables to process the ore in a process which involves exploding mountains, removing ore, crushing the ore and mixing it with chemicals such as cyanide to make a metal rich slurry. The slurry is process and de-liquefied. The contaminated water is pumped back into aquifers and rivers. The site at Andalgala would be three times the size of Alumbrera and estimated to use 3 billion liters of water a day. The pristine waters from the mountain springs will be the source to be mixed into the pools that contain cyanide and heavy metals.
“Not only has mining generated pollution and health problems, in addition it hasn’t created jobs or resources. Catamarca continues to be or is more poor than before, Andalgala has the highest unemployment in the province,” said Urbano Cardozo in an interview with Lavaca, an alternative media collective in Argentina. No more than 40 local residents from Andalgala, out of a population of 20,000 are employed by the mine, which Mayor Parea has admitted.
“We share the air and soil, work with local suppliers, hire local employees and build relationships in the same regions in which we operate,” says Yamana Gold Inc on its website. Public relations for the Canadian company adds, “We listen to and value input from communities, embrace the rich local cultural and economic opportunities and as a result our community relations are incredibly strong.” The citizens’ demands against mining operations and the threat of displacement have fallen on deaf ears.
Threats and abuses
In a report conducted by the UNESCO Chair of Higher Education Management, from the Technical University of Catalonia in Spain reports serious human rights violations and environmental pollution as a result of mining activities in Argentina. The report titled, “Human Rights in Northeastern Argentina 2008-2009,” describes “pressures and threats against the populations that protest against damage caused” from mining activity. In Andalgala, Raul Martinez, Diola de Martinez, Ruth Vega, Carmen Chaile and Teresita Nieto, all participants in the Andalgala Citizen’s Assembly resisting mining activities have received threats on separate occasions. The activists were called into the police station and were warned by the police chief that “if they don’t change their attitude about the blockade, next week the Border Guard and police will evict them by force, and we will beat you.” The citizen’s assembly says that one long time activist, Aldo Flores, has been the target of death threats and police harassment in the days leading up to the crackdown.
The UNESCO report defined the social responsibility of the mining companies as “an example of private assistance, that seeks to manipulate and condition freedom of thinking and consciousness of the residents in the affected that receive minute benefits from mining firms with the only objective of gaining a ‘social license’ to extract natural resources.” Among the companies mentioned in the report include Barrick Gold, Meridian Gold, Xstrata, Wheaton River Minerals y Northern Orion Resources. Currently in Argentina, there are more than 200 mining sites operating. In many of the communities, companies construct libraries, schools, public health clinics that resemble cheap warehouses, which will likely collapse shortly after the mining companies operations dry up.
Mining companies only have to pay 3 percent in royalties on minerals extracted from Argentine territory and are allowed to pollute the environment with chemicals like cyanide, used to extract mineral ores from open pit mining sites. Three percent is a small price to pay for the billions of dollars extracted in mineral ores from Argentina’s soil. Minerals have become Argentina’s largest export, valued at nearly 80 billion dollars over the past decade. In places like Catamarca, royalties represent nearly 80 percent of fiscal income. “Which is why the government does not investigate or control studies conducted by the companies,” according to the UNESCO Study.
Community groups throughout Argentina have tried shut down open pit mining sites, which national legislation permits. The struggle against mining in Andalgala has lead to a court order temporarily suspending Agua Mina from conducting further explorations. Now residents want a permanent sanction against the mining site which could literally displace the entire population, since one proposed site is located directly under residents’ homes. Nearly 600,000 people have been displaced due to mining operations and the expansion of agro-industry such as soy since 2000 according to a study conducted by environmental group Redaf, Red Agroforestal Chaco Argentina. Throughout Argentina, social movements are resisting mining, which they say is turning the nation’s natural resources into a cheap commodity for foreign transnational companies to exploit.
Marie Trigona is a writer based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog www.mujereslibres.blogspot.com