Last October, Chile’s environmental court ordered Canadian mining company Barrick Gold Corp to permanently close the Chilean side of its stalled Pascua-Lama mine project on the Chilean-Argentine border in the Andes Mountains, a move which ostensibly ended the long-running controversy over the project. But it appears that the company may be seeking to restart mining in the region, which is estimated to have the largest undeveloped gold and silver deposits in the world.
Barrick Gold, which has been seeking to mine these deposits since the 1970s, recently announced that it was reviewing a range of “new exploration opportunities” and re-evaluating its existing operations and projects in Chile. The company has also indicated that it is considering underground mining in Pascua Lama, in partnership with the Chinese company Shandong Gold.
The news has been greeted with some concern by environmental and human rights activists given the company’s past history in the region which impacted both the land and Indigenous communities living in the Huasco river valley below. Some are worried that the company intends to revive its original plan for what would be the world’s largest, high-altitude open-pit mine.
Barrick Gold owns the mining concession for Pascua Lama, 75 percent of which lies on the Chilean side of the border. The mining giant's original plan was to extract 615,000 ounces of gold, 30 million ounces of silver and 5,000 tons of copper annually from Pascua Lama over 17 years. However, much of the deposits lie under three Andean glaciers that feed the Huasco River, which waters the fertile Huasco Valley in the otherwise dry Atacama Region of northern Chile. The valley, which is also known as the “Garden of Atacama,” is home to some 70,000 people, including several Indigenous Diaguita communities. Most of the valley residents are small-scale farmers who grow grapes, olives, and other crops.
Since 2006, when the Chilean government first approved construction of the massive gold mine,
Chilean activists and Indigenous communities have campaigned relentlessly against the project. Environmental Impact Assessments for the mine carried out in 2006 excluded the participation of several communities in the Huasco valley. As a result, the Pascua Lama project became intertwined with Chilean government repression in terms of the neoliberal agenda of its successive center-left and right wing governments.
For the mining to commence, land belonging to Diaguita communities was appropriated and its residents displaced. In 2010, the community made a statement to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that by allowing Barrick Gold permission to mine in the area, the Chilean government was expropriating ancestral land.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has weakly condemned Barrick Gold’s lack of compliance with environmental issues in the past, but he has also described the Pascua Lama project as having the potential “to generate a lot of employment and opportunities in the Atacama region.”
Pinera’s statement and his policies are repressive and void of any environmental concerns which, for the Huasco community, are of paramount importance. The destructive repercussions of mining upon the environment has been evident since 2006, when Barrick Gold proposed the removal of ice from the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers in order to obtain better access to the gold located underneath.
Activism was instrumental in former President Michelle Bachelet’s initial rejection of the proposal, which eventually also prompted the inclusion of a clause stipulating glacier protection. The Huasco community is dependent upon water from the glaciers for their irrigation of agricultural land. However, mining activities have impacted water supply due to the toxic waste and chemicals from the mines being dumped in the rivers. In 2013, Chile’s environment agency, Superintendencia del Medio Ambiente (SMA), fined Barrick Gold $16 million for environmental-related damages caused by its mining activities, including contamination of the
Estrecho River, a tributary of the Huasco River, but the fine was later lowered to $11.5 million. The agency also found that mining had contaminated local groundwater with high levels of arsenic, aluminum, copper and sulphates. Following another five years of investigation and a series of community complaints about environmental infractions at the project site, in January 2018 the agency ordered the mine be permanently shut down. The order was upheld by Chile’s environmental court in October 2018.
Water was a prime motivator for the resistance against the mining company, Constanza San Juan, spokesperson for the anti-mining group Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto, told Earth Island Journal. The organization was formed in 2013, bringing together individuals and groups that had campaigned against Barrick Gold’s mining projects in the region since 2000. “We realized that this mine would contaminate our water and destroy our glaciers. It would have destroyed our valley and our lives,” she explained.
San Juan is adamant that no reparations from the mining company would be acceptable to the community. The goal is to preserve the terrain without any compromise, for the current and future generations, she said. Activism, therefore, has been about raising awareness, as well as stopping Barrick Gold’s projects. “We have publicized the reasons why we oppose the mining, bringing this issue to both national and international awareness to make clear the extent of the environmental damage, as well as achieve utmost solidarity with our way of life, in relation to our valley,” she said. “We have organized marches, lectures, created murals and made videos. The struggle has been long, difficult and asymmetrical. When Barrick announced the beginning of the construction site, we organized a community watch which enabled us to document the damage done to the environment and which were used in proceedings against the company. Had it not been for the empowerment of the community and the relentless lobbying of the authorities, Barrick Gold would have triumphed.”
San Juan says the order for total closure of the project is one of the highest punishments the Chilean government could have passed. The severity of the sentence is proportional to the irreparable damage caused to the vulnerable ecosystem, as well as the health risks and hazards which the people now face due to water contamination by toxic materials used by Barrick Gold.
But it seems that Chilean government is not quite ready to sever ties with Barrick Gold over this project. It was after meeting with the country’s Minister of Mining Baldo Prokurica in Feburary this year that company’s CEO, Mark Bristow, made the statement about re-evaluating Barrick Gold’s existing projects in Chile. Calling Chile “an investor-friendly country” Bristow said that the company was going to focus on “resolving legal, environmental and other issues” of the Pascua Lama project, indicating that the project might just rise up again from the dead.
“This latest news has come as a surprise,” said Jaime Kneen, spokesperson for the watchdog group MiningWatch Canada, which too, has been opposing the project. “We will have to talk with our Chilean partners and figure out what our strategy should be,” he said.
The link between Chilean governments and international mining companies dates back to the 1990s, San Juan noted. With the fall of former dictator Augusto Pinochet, Canadian mining companies supported the Concertacion governments, in return for concessions to facilitate their investments in Chile. “This led to an unprecedented treaty which was drafted by Barrick Gold itself and which allowed, among other things, the exploitation of minerals located on the border. Subsequent governments continued paving the way for this project, which was authorized in 2006 after irresponsible environmental impact assessments were published,” she said. San Juan alleged that in 2013 Sebastian Pinera’s right-wing government attempted to help the company cover up the water pollution caused by the Pascua Lama project.
“For sure we do not expect anything different from Pinera’s current government and his pro-investment agenda which is promoting the ‘perfection of legal texts to promote investment,’ she said, adding that Pinera has applied a revolving door policy that favors private industry over national interests. For instance, Maria Ignacia Benitez, who was the environment minister in the previous right-wing government between 2010 and 2014, has been appointed as Barrick Gold’s independent director in Canada. Given her previous ministerial duties, Benitez’s current appointment opens the door to influencing decision-making in matters related to the mining sector in Chile.
Additionally, last June, Pinera’s government decided to withdraw former President Bachelet’s legislation that protected the glaciers from mining activities. Miners have celebrated this decision, with Joaquin Villarino, the president of the Mining Council stating, “The authorities need to find a rational balance between the production sector and society, so that Chile will not be declared a National Park in its entirety”.
With the glaciers once again legally exposed to mining exploitation, there is no respite for environmental activists and downstream communities that depend on them for sustenance. “Most of these glaciers are already retreating [due to climate change] and may by gone in 10 years and that is in any case going to create water shortage downstream,” Kneen said. “If they start mining up there again, the mines will suck up most of the water that’s there, making the situation worse.”
Without glacier protection, which formed an integral part of activist opposition to mining exploitation, the companies now have many loopholes to argue the case for their profits. Local communities, meanwhile, are facing the slow extermination of their environment and livelihood, as well as further repressive measures by the Chilean government. But as San Juan said, the Huasco community is not going to compromise when it comes to protecting their ancestral lands and will continue to fight back until the fragile ecosystem they depend on is completely protected.