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Environment - Chile:

Conflict Over Andean Glaciers Heats Up

Daniela Estrada - Santiago, Nov 11, 2005 (IPS)

Environmentalists and the police clashed violently Friday in the centre of the Chilean capital when activists presented the government with a petition containing 18,000 signatures to protest a planned mining project on the Argentine border which could destroy three glaciers in the Andes mountains.

The Carabineros, militarised police, charged the activists when they tried to place chunks of ice in the Plaza de la Constitución in front of the La Moneda government palace. The ice represented the glaciers that might be destroyed by the Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold Corporation.

The Anti Pascua Lama Front, made up of several environmental groups, accused the police of insulting and shoving them, and Marcel Claude, director of the Oceana Foundation, said the police aggression was "one more proof that in Chile the much-touted democracy that President (Ricardo Lagos) talks about doesn't exist and that what we have is an authoritarian and repressive model that does not listen to the citizens."

Speaking with IPS, the environmentalists also cast into doubt the credibility of a report that the Canadian corporation announced to the press Friday, which included modifications of the Pascua Lama mining project.

In the report, the company says it scrapped its plans to move three glaciers in order to gain access to the rich gold, silver and copper deposits underneath. The original plan involved "transplanting" the three to another glacier, with which they were to bond.

The signatures were delivered by a group of activists led by Senator Nelson Ávila of the co-governing Radical Social Democratic Party, who complained about Barrick Gold's attempts to cover up the environmental impact that would be caused by mining the rich mineral deposits in the border area located 660 km north of Santiago.

Pascua Lama is a binational open pit mining project with an estimated total investment of 1.5 billion dollars. The deposits, which would have an expected mine life of 17 years, straddle the Chilean-Argentine border high up in the Andes mountains, with 75 percent of the deposits in Chile and 25 percent in Argentina.

The proposed mine is located 150 km southwest of the Chilean city of Vallenar, in the province of Huasco, and 300 km northeast of the Argentine city of San Juan, the capital of the western province of that same name.

Environmentalists say that moving the glaciers would hurt the water supplies for 70,000 small farmers in the Huasco Valley. They also complain that Barrick Gold provided "social assistance" to the local community and nearby towns to help persuade them to approve of the initiative.

Fernando González, chairman of the council of Huasco Valley farmers, backs the changes proposed by Barrick, including the decision not to move the glaciers, and the construction of a dam that would make more water available for irrigation, the Santiago newspaper La Tercera reported Friday.

Environmentalists say the biggest consumers of irrigation water in the Huasco Valley, who were initially opposed to the project, are now working closely with Barrick, and that if Pascua Lama is given the green light, they will receive 60 million dollars from the company for infrastructure works.

Oceana spokesman Diego Valderrama told IPS that it is unclear as to how feasible the company's modified project is, and that the press reports fail to clarify what will happen to the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers. "We are wary of this supposed change. A mining project that does not consider the exploitation of underground deposits is very strange," he said.

Barrick allegedly handed in the report just before the Friday deadline set by CONAMA, the national environment authority, for the company to respond to observations and questions on the project's environmental impact.

But when asked by the Anti Pascua Lama Front, CONAMA did not confirm that it had received the report, which was based on "a supposed scientific investigation that they were unfamiliar with as well," said Valderrama.

The local environmental group Sustainable Chile Programme denounced last week that Barrick Gold had manipulated scientific reports to indicate that the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza were not glaciers but merely masses of ice that could be destroyed - contradicting what the company itself had stated just two months earlier.

And Diaguita indigenous communities in the area accuse Barrick of illegally acquiring part of the land needed to carry out the mining project, which, they say, historical documents prove forms part of their ancestral territory.

The non-governmental Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA) noted that Barrick has been working on the project since 1996, pushing for a border treaty between Chile and Argentina that would make the project legally and economically feasible.

In December 1997, the two countries signed the "mining integration and complementation treaty", and in 1999 they signed a "complementary protocol" to that agreement.

Three years later, Minera Nevada, Barrick's local subsidiary in Chile, presented the first environmental impact study, which neglected to mention the three glaciers standing in the way of the projected open pit mine.

It was the farmers of Huasco Valley, along with church groups, who warned the environmental authorities of the environmental and social risks posed by the project. The warnings were backed by residents of Argentine towns like Calingasta and Iglesia, as well as the wine producers in the province of San Juan.

In 2001, COREMA, the regional environment authority, approved the company's environmental impact study on the condition that it would submit a glacier management plan. In December 2004, Barrick presented a proposal for the expansion of the project, which would involve "relocating" the glaciers.

In February, CONAMA issued its observations, which the firm responded to in April. The following month, the government agency set forth new observations.

Barrick operates 12 gold mines on four continents, which produced approximately five million ounces of gold last year. It is also involved in prospecting activities in 16 countries. According to company data, South America has reserves of 42.1 million ounces of gold, or 47 percent of the company's proven and probable reserves.

Indonesian missionary Cristina Hoar with the Servants of the Holy Spirit is one of the driving forces behind the movement to defend Huasco Valley from the mining project.

"When I was living in the area, I saw how the company provided funds to the community to get them to change their mind about the project," the missionary, who now lives in Santiago, told IPS.

Hoar found out about Barrick's plan in 2000, with the release of the first environmental impact study, which she immediately had doubts about. She began to work on the issue along with local residents, and discovered that the company was not providing reliable information.

That prompted her to go public with the case in Santiago, which drew activists as well as a greater number of local residents.

OLCA director Lucio Cuenca said that in Chile as in the rest of Latin America, there is an unequal distribution of natural resources and of the environmental and social costs of their exploitation, and poor rural communities and indigenous people are hurt the most in projects of this kind.

"In Chile, the worst cases of social and environmental injustice are seen in the commodity export sectors, like forestry, mining and agriculture," he added.

To illustrate, he cited the two highest-profile recent cases: the disaster in the Río Cruces nature reserve in southern Chile, where hundreds of black-necked swans died as a result of the pollution caused by a pulp mill, and the current conflict over Pascua Lama.

According to Cuenca, the large number of environmental conflicts reflect the weakness of Chile's environmental policy.

"During the military dictatorship (1973-1990), companies got used to excessive profit margins, which makes it difficult to introduce improvements in the country's laws and regulations. The companies do not want to assume the costs that they are currently transferring to the environment and society," Cuenca told IPS.

The activist said the protests triggered by these and other conflicts are giving rise to a new social awareness on the need to preserve the environment.

"The government has been incapable of channeling or incorporating citizen participation," he said, recalling the case of the demonstrators who were arrested in October for interrupting a speech by President Lagos in the southern city of Valdivia, when they protested against the pulp mill accused of killing the swans.

Cuenca called for structural changes that would ensure that business initiatives are environmentally, economically and socially sustainable, and said that if such changes did not occur, conflicts like the one over Pascua Lama would continue to flare up. (END/2005)


Inter Press Service News Agency

Copyright © 2005 IPS-Inter Press Service. All rights reserved.

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