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Mining, the New Latin American Conquest

April 8, 2011

By Sister Anita

The Pascua Lama mega-mining (open) hell pit project is the world’s first bi-national project involving the Andean region of Chile and Argentina with its mountains, forests, glaciers and rivers. It plans to exploit in 20 years: 5,000 tons copper, 615,000 ounces of gold and 18 million ounces of silver.

The three companies developing the project are: Nevada Mining Company Inc. in Chile; Barrick Argentine Explorations SA and Argentine Mining and Exploration Inc. in Argentina.

The project was planned since before 2001 and is based on a treaty signed by Chile and Argentina (Presidents Frei and Menem) in December 1997 that allows for exploration and mining without restrictions in the Andes, on both sides of the border. In it neither the integrity of the beautiful national parks (about nine in Argentina with glaciers and vast reserves of pure water) nor ecological provincial and national reserves are protected.

Pascua Lama was launched in May 2009 and 15 million tons of minerals will be extracted annually. This material is “washed” to separate the metals. This poisons the Pacific and the Atlantic Rims (putting at risk the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers) and also the earth and air with lead, arsenic, uranium, chromium, mercury and sodium cyanide. Already three workers are known to have died. But it is difficult to know what actually happens in the high peaks.

Environmental organizations, civic regional associations, religious groups and some lawmakers opposed this project by exposing and disseminating information. Some sisters signed the petition for a Glacier Protection Act in Argentina, which was approved in 2009 but vetoed by President Kirschner. Again we signed the request to take it back to the Congress, which adopted it with amendments in October 2010, and since the pressure continued, they just regulated it so that it could be put into effect.

Like many other mega-mining projects, they want to carry them out through the silent complicity of the media and local and national governments and misinforming the people with promises of jobs and economic growth. They hide the scandalous negotiated looting that causes environmental devastation, destruction of the farming economy and serious health problems for people.

Perversely, these powerful multinationals offer grants to schools, universities and churches (e.g. Caritas) to show their “social sensitivity.” But, when they consider the opposition very dangerous, they use pressures of all types: threats, rare accidents, imprisonments and everything they can to accomplish their objectives. In the case of Pascua Lama, Greenpeace activists were jailed in Argentina recently because they cut access to the mines.

As background we could mention that in 2005-6 in the province of Chubut an (open) hell gold mining project was stopped. I was able to participate in the discussions of these organizations and sign documents opposing them, despite the publicity, pressures and threats that the company made in the Esquel region.

In 2009 another copper mining project arose in the province of Neuquen (Campana Mahuida) and as a regional and diocesan Social Pastoral team of the opposition movement we participated in leafleting, sending letters to the mayors, newspapers and radios. For now the project has stopped.

These and other examples too many to mention are examples of the people’s struggle that seeks to stop this renewed and powerful looting of Latin America, 500 years after the first conquests. This looting is supported in many countries by mining laws that promote it or allow it as is the case of Argentina whose mining law (approved during the Menem government) prohibits the state the exploitation of its own goods and legalizes that less of 3 percent of the gains remain in the country.

In our continuing effort to share the concerns of our Sisters in Central and South America, Sister Anita of Argentina sent this report about the efforts of the Sisters and other religious workers to oppose destructive mining practices in their country. In the original Spanish version, her description of the “hell pit project” contrasts the reality with the term used for open-pit mining, cielo abierto (open heaven) mining.

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