The High Price of Gold
By Nick OlleFebruary 29, 2012
Opposition to open-pit mining in Argentina has reached fever pitch. Already 2012 has seen the suspension of a controversial mining project, the first use of an anti-terrorism law against anti-mining demonstrators, and the creation of an organisation of mining provinces. At stake are political, environmental and human-rights issues.
In the town of Famatina, at the upper limit of Argentina's northern La Rioja province, there is an elaborate roadblock.
Set against a jaw-dropping Andean backdrop, this anti-mining corte is replete with a permanently manned lookout tent, a kitchen and even satellite television. Since it was set up on January 2, 2012, its population has fluctuated from 50 to upward of 3,000 as activists and well-wishers from near and far pass through in solidarity.
And their message is clear - large-scale, open-pit mining ventures are not welcome here. These projects aim to exploit the gold, silver, copper and other minerals that lie beneath large swathes of northwest Argentina.
"We are against this type of mining and the conditions in which it is installed," says Claudio Garrott, 34, of the Asamblea Ciudadanos Por La Vida (Citizens for Life Assembly).
Open-pit mining, says Garrott, endangers the environment through the use of toxic chemicals, such as cyanide, and vast amounts of water, which is scarce in Famatina.
And beyond environmental concerns is the question of who benefits economically.
As Garrott puts it: "It is not just a question of how and where, but for whom?"
The argument for mining - including the open-pit variety - is that resource-rich provinces can cash in on high global commodity prices and benefit from associated job creation.
Arguably Argentina's most outspoken mining advocate is just over the La Rioja border in San Juan, where governor José Luis Gioja attributes the progress of his province to the industry. He points to 60,000 Sanjuaninos - living directly off the mining industry.
"Eighty per cent of our topography is covered by mountains, 17 per cent is desert and 3 per cent is for agro-industry," he says. "Luckily these mountains contain treasure."
Gioja says there have been no cases of contamination in San Juan. But many disagree, especially with regard to Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold's notorious Pascua Lama project, which straddles the Chilean border. Barrick has been widely condemned for contaminating water on the Argentine side of the border.
Back across the San Juan-La Rioja border in Famatina, Garrott and schoolteacher Flavia Gasetúa, 36, reject Gioja's "progress" argument, saying it is being imposed from above, by the provincial government, without consultation.
"They don't ask us what we want as development, they tell us, 'This is development,'" Gasetúa says. "La Rioja is historically agricultural and we want to keep that."
Argentina's constitution dictates that natural resources belong to the provinces in which they are found. But oddly, the Mining Code indicates that the State can neither exploit nor dispose of mines. Practice of course is another matter - and it is commonplace for state mining companies to team up with transnational companies to do precisely what they are prohibited from doing.
This is the case not only in La Rioja but in several of Argentina's Andean mining states, including Catamarca, San Juan and Tucuman.
The villains of the piece in Famatina, according to Garrott and his cohort at the blockade, are La Rioja governor Luis Beder Herrera and another Canadian mining company, Osisko. Garrott and the protesters already boast a victory against Barrick and intend to repeat the dose with Osisko. In 2007, in the face of strong community opposition, Barrick abandoned its exploration project in Famatina. At the time, the company said that Famatina was not a priority among its 100-plus projects and that in Argentina it would concentrate on its ventures in San Juan province.
So far, Osisko's Famatina Mine Project has also been purely exploratory, but an agreement with Herrera's government would provide La Rioja province with a 30 per cent stake in any future mining activity carried out with the state mining company EMSE.
Right now, though, the project is in limbo. On January 30, 2012 Osisko announced that it was suspending operations in order to seek a "social licence" - majority community acceptance - before continuing.
Herrera echoes that "there'll be no further activity … as long as people oppose."
Given this victory, one might ask why the Famatina blockade is still there?
The answer is that there is widespread mistrust of the governor and his motives.
And it's easy to understand why.
In 2006, the then vice-governor Herrera spoke of defending Famatina from contamination. Campaigning in 2007, he defiantly insisted, "We are going to make a law prohibiting open-pit mining." But as governor in 2008, he executed a remarkable political backflip and vetoed the very law he'd so ardently promoted just a year before.
So, rather than appeasing anti open-pit mining activists, the suspension of the Famatina project has inspired them.
The message, in fact, has become a movement. "Citizens' Assemblies" from around the country are speaking out and seemingly in unison against what they see as the "environmental and social contamination" wreaked by what they call "mega-mining". Slogans such as "Water is worth more than gold" and "Hands off Famatina" are being adopted and adapted with increasing regularity.
The movement is taking to the streets, too, and in some cases the results have been ugly.
Roadblocks have been violently repressed in the provinces of La Rioja, Catamarca and Tucuman, with demonstrators beaten and shot with rubber bullets.
Most alarming of all has been the first implementation of National Law 26.734 - the so-called "Anti-terrorist law", passed in December 2011 - against demonstrators
Catamarca public prosecutor Julio Landívar charged nine people blockading the national Road 40 in the town of Santa María, with terrorism. Though they were released several hours later, Landívar has been roundly criticised for illegally attempting to apply a federal criminal charge in the provincial justice system.
Selene Herrera, the lawyer representing these and other demonstrators, says the anti-terrorism law is so vague that virtually any social protest can be construed as an act of terrorism.
While the illegal detention of the Santa María protestors was a gross abuse of power on the part of Landívar, she says there have been numerous incidences in which officials have overstepped the mark.
"In the town of Amaicha del Valle in Tucuman province [Governor José Jorge Alperovich] sent police in to remove people at 3am without a judicial order," Herrera says.
"It was completely illegal and also an advance by the executive against the judiciary."
Hotelier Fernando Olivera says he has witnessed the gradual "criminalisation of social protest" in his native Tinogasta in Catamarca province. On February 10, police dismantled a roadblock on national road 60, injuring demonstrators with rubber bullets and tear gas.
And Olivera warns that the heavy-handedness is not just meted out by police.
"There are also private security groups and militias using violence against communities that are resisting open-pit mining," he says. The private security groups are presumed to be hired and paid for by pro-mining groups, mining companies and, some suspect, even the government.
In a December 2011, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urged Argentina to "protect social activists and human rights defenders against any form of intimidation, threat and disproportionate use of force."
The committee expressed concern about "instances in which security forces and agents, both public and private, resorted to reprisals and disproportionate use of force against persons participating in activities in defence of economic, social and cultural rights, in particular in the context of land disputes."
For its part, the federal government has denounced the recent violence, with senator and former cabinet chief Anibal Fernández saying the administration had "never supported the repression of social protests":
"To be clear, I do not agree with the use of violence in Tinogasta or any other part of northwest Argentina, whatever the cause."
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is a renowned supporter of the mining sector but she lost face on the issue during a televised videoconference on February 9. On the other end of the video feed the hard-hat wearing "Antonio", surrounded by miners, spoke on behalf of the mining industry. The president clarified: "Antonio, you're not a political activist, you're a worker defending your workplace." Within a day it emerged that Antonio was in fact Armando Domínguez, a pro-government activist.
On February 15, the president was a prime mover in the creation of the Federal Organization of Mining States (known by its Spanish acronym OFEMI). OFEMI consists of 10 provinces that have mining industries, and its purported aim is the development of mining activity in "a framework of environmental and social sustainability".
The organisation's success in achieving this goal could have a big impact on whether or not companies like Osisko can win "social licences" with the communities in which they operate.
Professor Bruce Hebblewhite, head of the University of New South Wales's School of Mining Engineering, says it is "possible" to operate an open-pit mine without using huge amounts of water and chemicals like cyanide but that it "really does depend on circumstances relating both to the planned nature of the mining operation and also the prevailing conditions in the region".
In Famatina, though, the battle lines are drawn. Activists say that dialogue with Osisko not only has been fruitless but has actually, inadvertently, shown the contempt in which the company holds them. After one meeting Osisko representatives left behind a folder of documents that included a "black list" detailing activists' personal details and identifying some as "ringleaders".
Osisko says the company compiled the list of people with "strong anti-mining positions" so they could meet with them to discuss their concerns.
With so much history, it looks a very hard sell.