Residents of Jáchal, San Juan province, have stepped up protests against the reopening of the Veladero mine responsible for several cyanide spills into the local river system.
Protesters from the movement ‘Jáchal No Se Toca’ ‘(‘You Don’t Touch Jáchal’) took over the local town hall this week after Barrick Gold resumed operations on the Veladero site, after less than a month of suspension following the second reported cyanide spill in the last year.
The demonstration ended last night after a court order was issued to evict the protesters, but the group pledged to continue to fight against the mine’s activities.
The protesters occupied the municipal building on Wednesday after the results of a test of the metal content in the local water were released. One of the leaders of the protest, Marcela Alonso, told La Nación that: “The trigger is the result of the analysis done in August, where there are high levels of metal and metalloids shown in the subterranean waters”.
Alonso added that: “mercury has been found for the first time in the water from the wells in the localities of Tambería and Mogna”. This follows fears that the eight towns that take water from the Río Jáchal are being impacted by a potentially dangerous increase in mercury, aluminium and e-coli.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca posted a photo of four female protesters chained to a column inside the town hall on their Facebook page, with the caption “We are angry at the municipality for the lack of answers and constant belittlement. Stop the abuses by the justice system and current government.”
They have also posted an image of a letter sent by members of the protest to the provincial subsecretary of human Rights, Dr. Jorge Ariel Rodriguez. In the letter, they complained that the human rights of the protesters were being violated by a police blockade preventing basic provisions being supplied to those occupying the building. It also stated that: “we have not received any explanation or orientation about what is being done by the departmental and provincial authorities in relation to the serious results about the contamination of our water.”
San Juan’s Governance Minister Emilio Baistrocchi stated that: “institutional matters are very important in Jáchal, which is now without its democratically elected authorities or administration of justice. We will restore order.” He also added that “a tiny group cannot be allowed to prevent institutions from functioning.”
On Thursday, after the protesters had spent 24 hours in the building, a press conference was given by the attorney general of the court, Eduardo Quattropani. He clarified that “We have no mining nor anti-mining stance, because we are not state power and we do not set economic policy.”
He made their desire for the protesters to remove themselves from the building clear, stating that “There is a right to protest and petition, but there is not a right to stop a state power from functioning”. He also requested the “identification of perpetrators, accomplices and accessories” but explained that the police had been asked to go unarmed and not use any form of violence to prevent “the perpetrators appearing like victims.”
In the space of 12 months, there have been two reported cyanide spills from the Veladero mine that have locals concerned about the contamination of the local water. The first occurred in September 2015, with Barrick Gold first denying the impact on local rivers only to later admit that over 1m litres of the cyanide solution had been released into the system.
A study by the National University of Cuyo released in October that year revealed that the river was contaminated with heavy metals up to 1,400% above safe levels. The study found dangerously high levels of manganese, boron, sulphates, aluminium, chloride, and arsenic in water in Rio La Palca and Pueblo de Mogna. It also found high levels of E. coli bacteria. Members of Jáchal No Se Toca responded to this news with a protest blocking the entrance to the Veladero mine, after which twenty-three people were arrested and several people severely injured in what witnesses called a “brutal” reaction by law enforcement.
Days before the one-year anniversary of the spill in September 2016, a second spill occurred, leading Barrick Gold to release another statement claiming that the spill had not reached any local water source and that there “was no threat to the health of workers, local communities, or the environment.”
The mine’s activity was subsequently suspended by authorities in San Juan, but operations were allowed to resume this week, sparking new protests.