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Pascua Lama… the mega harmful mega project

Creating this opencast mine would affect 70,000 people in the Huasco Valley and would damage the major glaciers in the Andes. It is not yet fully operational, but its effects are already being felt in the communities.

Inés Gimenez Delgado

This project’s case, underway in the border region of Chile and Argentina, was recently brought to a Public Hearing at the Latin-American Water Tribunal.

The Tribunal urged, after hearing the evidence, the states of Chile and Argentina to hold a mining moratorium on this project.

“Until very recently we would take water from the river for uses and traditions, one of the last cleanest rivers that remained in Chile. Now we rely on help from the council, who bring a 200 litres drum to our house to feed us” – recounts Rodrigo Villablanca, community representative and president of the Ecological and Cultural Life Expectancy in the Huasco Valley Committee, from Buenos Aires.

“However, he adds, we have to wash clothes, wash ourselves, feed our animals and cultivate our land with river water. We know that today there is a high arsenic and lead content. The batrachians have disappeared. These are the first signs of contamination; we have reported illnesses to the authorities, but it has not been rigorously investigated”.

A native from the valley that he is defending, Villablanca travelled to the Argentine capital this 5th of November, together with Jorge Guerrero, a representative from the council for the defence of  the Huasco Valley; Valeska Urqueta, a resident and a representative of the Pastoral Safeguarding of the Creation and Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin-American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts.

Their aim is to report at the  Public Hearing at the Latin-American Water Tribunal on the environmental effect that the mega Pascua-Lama mining project is having in the Andes and, specifically, on the waters that are damaging the indigenous people’s lands.

Since it was made public 12 years ago that  the Nevada Ltd. Company (subsidiary of Barrick Gold) was responsible for the dredging, which took place at an altitude of 5,000 metres, and is the home  for 70,000 inhabitants of the Huasco Valley, it has been the break-up of community ties, water contamination and the militarisation of the area.

This mine and other projects in the region, such as El Morro, El Relincho, Pachuy and Paso de Flecha – almost all by Canadian multinationals – are affecting the human rights and indigenous ancestral traditions of the Mapuche, Aymara, Quechua and Colla populations, among others, such as that reported to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in 2009.

Community Division

“They arrived offering bicycles, sweets, balloons, books, computers, doing charity work and saying that this project was going to bring a lot of work. They related to us a wild tale of what mining would be like. Through money they have corrupted a lot of people and destroyed friendships. That is the saddest and most painful thing.” – states Valeska, with a broken voice.

“The Huasco Valley is an agricultural oasis in the middle of the Atacama desert. I had a daughter and I wanted to leave her a free and peaceful world in which to live and now this huge monster has arrived” – she adds.

As far as Jorge Guerrero is concerned, he specifically emphasises the agricultural activity in the Huasco Valley and the environmental impacts from the mine that are casting new uncertainties. Also, he demythologises the idea that mining activity is a means of development and work for the region.

“Mining uses little man-power because it changed 20 years ago, with the aim of extracting the largest amount of possible gain in the least possible time, and the system is automated. Also, altitude work is very dangerous; people have heart or fertility problems” – he indicates.

The glaciers

Lucio Cuenca talks specifically about this altitude work and water stress; he highlights that glaciers are found in the high peaks that feed the waters of the Huasco Valley, such as different bowls that overspill onto the Argentine slope.

“After various irregularities and the fact that in 2006 they were awarded an official project licence, on the condition that they could not touch the glaciers, the company positioned their seat of operations within the glaciers which they were going to move” – he recounts.

Javier Bogantes

“This cynicism is what ignited the conflict at a national and an international level, because it was an insult to the intelligence of the people. No-one believes that it is possible to move a glacier” – he notes.

“The company has not respected any of the mitigation measures agreed to undertake this project and has continued to cause damage, which is in official reports of the National Water Directorate of Chile and has been sanctioned by different Chilean environmental authorities without the company having amended its attitude”.

Lucio Cuenca notes that some of the glaciers have already been damaged (Toro I, Toro II and Esperanza) since “there is an accumulation of dust on the surface of the glacier, a very sensitive hydraulic system that is altered with any slight change”. Also, he comments that “the baseline glaciers have not been completed and it is not known how that is going to affect the glacier”.

“To this must be added the bombardment of clouds that the company and government are making, under the guise of La Niña. These are intended to prevent snowfall in areas close to the project in order to extend the working season for the company”.

Crisis of environmental legality and tax poverty

Lucio Cuenca emphasises the crisis of environmental legality existing in Chile. In spite of sanctions, the mining managed to corrupt various government departments and obtain its licence to operate in 2006.

Thanks to the work of the mine, the Chilean State has hardly any tax gains. The Canadian multinational has been presented with a minimum fee for the use of water.

Pascua Lama is not an isolated case: “There is an institutional inheritance for mining and water management from the time of the dictatorship through the Valid Mining Law. Private ownership of subsoil rights is handed over to the companies and water is converted into a commodity. Only 28% of Chilean mining is managed by the State and 72% is under the control of mining companies”.

Through this Law, Argentina and Chile signed a Mining Treaty that facilitated mining at altitude, but the scale of Pascua Lama and the resulting protests have propelled the topic of glacier damage to national debate.

“In Chile there was a planned drafted law, but in the end President Bachellet, faced with pressure from the miners, did not approve it. As far as Argentina is concerned, there was a much more successful process through pressure from organisations and threats of vetoes, resulting in the approval of a Glaciers Law. Now there is still an important challenge: that the law is not a dead letter”.

The Tribunal sentencing

After hearing the claims and presented evidence, the jury of the Latin-American Water Tribunal – formed of Philippe Texier, Alexandre Camanho de Assis, Silvia Nonna, and Giselle Boza Solano, a Costa-Rican lawyer and journalist – urged in its verdict the states of Chile and Argentina to consider a moratorium on Pascua Lama.

Also, the Tribunal recommended establishing ties with the Canadian Government and consulting the indigenous peoples under the demands of Convention 169 of the ILO [International Labour Organisation].

As far as Javier Bogantes, president of the Tribunal, is concerned, he noted that “the governments that approve these types of projects can commit an error of calculation, since they are short-term exploits that could damage aquatic ecosystems definitively mortgaging a more comprehensive development”.

(Translated by Claire Donneky – Email:

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