When the church bell rings in Famatina, it is not summoning the town’s 7,000 residents for prayer. For several months, the chimes have been used as an early warning system; a call to arms for the sleepy town in La Rioja province that has taken centre stage in the debate over big mining in Argentina.
Since 2nd January, residents in Famatina have maintained a permanent roadblock at Alto Carrizal, a few kilometres from the town’s central square. The purpose is to cut off the only access road to the Andean foothills that surround the town, where Canadian gold mining company Osisko was due to begin exploring at the start of the year.
“At the start there were 800 people there day and night,” says Carolina Suffich, a teacher and spokesperson for the Famatina Assembly driving the anti-mining protest. Suffich has been leading the fight against the arrival of mining since 2005, when she found out another Canadian company, Barrick Gold, had been prospecting near the town. “Back then, we never thought it would have all these repercussions,” she adds.
On 30th January, Osisko announced that it would suspend operations until it obtains a ‘social licence’, meaning broad support for the project in the local community. But the roadblock remains in place, and protestors say they are ready to fight until Osisko cancels its operations in Famatina entirely, just as Barrick did in 2007.
“The people are much more aware now than when we drove Barrick away,” says Carina Díaz Moreno, another leader in the assembly. “We know that even if we are just one or two at the roadblock, if something happens we can ring the church bell and the town will be there.”
Open Pit Debate
While the Osisko project remains in limbo, the ripple effect of Famatina’s resistance against these global mining giants has reached far beyond the hills of La Rioja. Today, the slogans ‘Famatina no se toca!’ (Hands off Famatina!) and “El agua vale mas que el oro” (Water is worth more than gold), which appear on walls, flags and banners all around the town, have become the mantra of a growing social movement against open-pit mining running all along the mineral-rich Andean mountain range.
When the ratio of metal to rock in the mountain is low, open pit mines rely on economies of scale. Millions of tonnes of rock are excavated with dynamite every day, with the ore then ground down and treated with water and chemicals to separate the targeted minerals and metals. As the valuable product is sent for refining, a large quantity of waste material – a slurry known as tailings – is stored in artificial lakes or treated and discharged into the local water system.
Some of the dangers associated with this production process include the leaking of untreated tailings into local water supplies, acid drainage from excavated rocks, and a reduction in air quality in the area surrounding the mine. These dangers can persist for decades after the mine shuts down.
Faced with these concerns, local environmental groups and neighbourhood assemblies all along Argentina’s 5,000km of cordillera are alarmed at the advance of open pit mining. According to the National Mining Secretariat, the number of mining projects in the country increased from 18 in 2002 to 614 in 2011, with a record of over one million cubic metres of land under exploration last year.
The national government says this expansion is driving economic growth in the country, aiding development, particularly in the arid Western provinces, which have traditionally lagged behind the fertile pampas and port cities. It highlights that the sector employed 517,000 people in 2011.
Mining professionals argue that the fears of pollution are relatively overblown, and that other commercial activities, such as large-scale agriculture, are equally likely to deplete water supplies. Statistics from the mining secretariat in the heavily-mined San Juan province, for example, show that mining accounts for only 1% of commercial water usage (compared to 90% for the agricultural sector) but over 70% of its exports.
However, local communities say they see little or none of the economic benefits of large-scale mining projects, despite being most exposed to their environmental side-effects. Argentina’s biggest open pit mines are run by foreign companies that are only required to pay the local province royalties of up to 3% of the value of material extracted, after deducting operational costs. Meanwhile, the mining sector receives generous tax benefits that are guaranteed by law for 30 years.
The Alumbrera Precedent
Today’s social movement against new mining projects is largely based on the experience of Catamarca province, home to Argentina’s biggest metal mine for nearly two decades.
In 1994, Minera Alumbrera, a consortium of mining companies led by Swiss-based Xstrata, began installations for Argentina’s first open pit mine, Bajo La Alumbrera, promising jobs and economic progress in the region.
However, after 15 years of round-the-clock extraction, Bajo La Alumbrera has not only failed to live up to expectations of development – the provincial capital has the highest poverty rate in Argentina’s north-west region – but is now held up as the model case for the damaging environmental and social impact of open-pit mining.
Some 40km southeast of the Bajo la Alumbrera pit, the 18,000 residents in the town of Andalgalá have witnessed first-hand how the initial enthusiasm over the new project gradually turned to disappointment and concern over pollution and its implications for crops, wildlife, and local health.
“This activity has already caused a lot of harm in terms of illnesses in the community,” says Sergio Martínez, former environment secretary in Andalgalá and activist with the local Asamblea El Algarrobo, who says medical professionals in the town have reported an alarming rise in various types of cancer and respiratory diseases since the mine began operating.
The Asamblea el Algarrobo is now fighting to prevent Minera Alumbrera from opening a new open pit mine, called Agua Rica, just 25km north of Andalgalá’s central plaza. “We don’t want a mega mining project like Agua Rica, which is bigger than Alumbrera and much closer to our population. That is what drives us to defend the land that we are a part of,” adds Martínez.
The Burden of Proof
In the face of numerous accusations from local families, former employees, and environmental groups, Minera Alumbrera stands resolute, denying it is behind any health problems or pollution. The company’s 2010 sustainability report includes a reminder that “in its years of operations, Minera Alumbrera has not been fined or penalised for failing to observe its environmental obligations.”
However, since 1999, the company has been under investigation for environmental crimes, based on data published in its own environmental impact assessment report, which acknowledged the presence of chemicals and heavy metals in water above the levels permitted in the country’s hazardous waste law (No. 24,051).
Federal District Attorney in Tucumán, Antonio Gustavo Gómez began investigating the case in 2002, and found high levels of heavy metals in samples taken from the DP2 canal, where Minera Alumbrera discharges residual water from its filtration plant in Tucumán.
“Soon after the company found out that the case had been reactivated, it obtained an administrative resolution from the health ministry in Tucumán with indices of acceptable contamination far in excess of those detailed in law 24,051,” says Gómez, highlighting what he says is a clear case of the corruption that provides companies like Minera Alumbrera with the impunity to pollute as they choose.
Meanwhile, Gómez is also investigating the company on accusations of contraband and tax evasion, based on evidence that it was exporting many more minerals and precious stones than it declares. However, when a local prosecutor and gendarmerie went, on a judge’s orders, to search the mining site and take samples of the minerals that were being extracted, they were blocked by the company’s private security force.
“It makes you realise that the company is more powerful that the national gendarmerie with a search order,” says Gómez.
Gómez says this imbalance of power makes it difficult for average citizens to bring major companies like Minera Alumbrera to justice. “People see that the judge who should be resolving conflicts just stalls the case – that is what provokes these outbreaks of unrest in places like Famatina, Andalgalá, and Tinogasta.”
While the environmental cases against Minera Alumbrera remain frozen in the courts, those who have taken to the streets to interfere with its operations have come under intense pressure from politicians and the law.
This was most evident in Tinogasta, another town in Catamarca, where local residents have, since January, held a selective road block on the inter-national highway 60, a key route for tankers transporting supplies to and from Bajo La Alumbrera.
In front of news cameras, riot police used rubber bullets, batons, and dogs to disperse the group, which included women and children. Rattled but resolute after this repression, the group reformed the roadblock, only to find that 50 of its members had been charged with disturbing the peace and obstructing transport.
For the Tinogasta assembly, which in 2011 managed to suspend the installation of an open pit uranium mine just 7km from the town centre, the brutal response to a peaceful protest was evidence of the political influence that Minera Alumbrera has in the province.
“We talk about environmental pollution, but there is also the socio-political pollution that is exposed when the government comes to look after the interests of the company – circumventing laws and constitutions, vetoing environmental legislation,” says Darío Moreno, member of the Asamblea de Tinogasta, who was beaten and arrested along with two other activists in a second bout of police repression on 12th May. “In all these issues, the only aim is to protect the company’s interests and bank account.”
After seeing several politicians turn from outspoken critics of open pit mining to fervent supporters once elected, protestors in Catamarca and La Rioja have drawn the same conclusion: that their local governments, regardless of their political allegiances, are little more than business partners for international mining companies.
This is why activists have taken to blocking streets and highways, “the only place we can exercise real power,” according to Moreno. “We are up against the municipality, the provincial government, and the mine’s money, and with all those powers they haven’t been able to remove the roadblock… we are constructing an alternative power.”
A United Resistance
This activism has yielded some small victories: in May, the Federal Appeals Court in Tucumán ruled that selective roadblocks, such as that in Tinogasta, could not be considered criminal. In the province on Neuquen, the town of Loncopué achieved what those in Andalgalá have been demanding for years and held a public referendum on open pit mining in the area; 82% voted no.
Buoyed by these developments, on 14th July, local assemblies from around the country are due to meet to create another selective road block at Cerro Negro, where the national highways 40 and 60 meet near the provincial border between La Rioja and Catamarca. The aim now is to completely cut supplies to Bajo la Alumbrera and make the anti-mining movement more visible on a national scale.
Back in Famatina, the town remains on alert despite Osisko’s decision to put the project on hold. Here, the municipal government supports the anti-mining protest, but this has soured relations with the governor Luis Beder Herrera and left Famatina under intense political and financial pressure.
As vice-governor, Beder Herrera championed the anti-mining cause, securing a law (no. 8,137) banning open-pit mining in the province and forcing then governor Ángel Maza to resign in March 2007 after denouncing corrupt dealings with mining firms. However, one year later, Beder Herrera, as governor, officially repealed the law, and is now a fervent supporter of mining in the area.
Since the protest against Osisko began, funds normally distributed by the provincial government have been cut. To cover basic services, town officials have agreed to a wage cut and the municipality has opened a bank account to receive donations.
“We are paying a high price as a town and as a government, but we are not about to give up. This reinforces our stance – we know the public is with us, and we are with them,” says Ariel Luna, secretary of government in the town municipality.
Activists like Suffich and Díaz Moreno share the same determination, though both acknowledge that the seven-year struggle against the mining lobby has taken its toll. “We have had to give up many things, including family and work,” says Díaz Moreno. “Like it or not, we are the figureheads in this fight, and we have to stay strong and keep going because before we were an assembly, but now we are a whole town fighting.”
500,000 tonnes of concentrate produced a year (mainly copper and gold); export value of $6.4bn.
$2.5bn paid to Catamarca province in 13 years of operations.
Employs 1,397 people - 554 (40%) from Catamarca, 99 (7%) from Andalgalá; another 632 contracted.
Uses 245 million litres of water a day; 63 million of which is fresh water.
3.4 million litres of treated residual water discharged into the DP2 canal in Tucumán per day.