On 25th November, the province of Chubut made history: a democratic initiative allowing for a Congressional debate on a bill sponsored by the public was put into practice for the first time. According to the provincial constitution, the debate is required when signatures of 3% of the local electorate have been collected, amounting to around 11,000 people. Collecting the signatures took almost a year, and then it took another six months for legislators to meet their obligation to debate it.
The bill presented by the voters prohibits large-scale mining for metals and radioactive minerals such as uranium or thorium. It also seeks to protect water sources and increase the area in which all mining activity is banned under current legislation.
They always knew the vote would be close. “[We thought] they would approve it or reject it, but not do what they did,” summed up Pablo Lada of the Social and Environemental Forum in Trelew.
The legislators, a majority from the ruling Frente para la Victoria (FpV) party who answer to Governor Martín Buzzi, modified the bill: they suspended mining projects for just four months in order to have a “serious debate” on the extractivist model, while leaving open the possibility of mining companies getting the green light via local referendums in small towns and settlements.
To understand how a bill seeking to restrict mining activity ended up turning into something that could expand it, you just have to look at the image of legislator Gustavo Muñiz receiving instructions from Yamaha Gold director Gastón Berardi during the debate. Berardi sent a message asking for article four of the bill to be modified to allow mining in the west of the province. The legislator responded that this would be sorted out when the law was signed off by Governor Buzzi.
Canadian mining company Yamaha Gold already operates the Gualcamayo mine in San Juan, is leading the Cerro Moro project in Santa Cruz, and owns a 12.5% stake in Minera Alumbrera, the country’s oldest mining project, in Catamarca.
It is also driving the Suyai mining project in Esquel; it is the same one that was rejected in a popular referendum in 2003, only now with a new name.
What happened in Chubut is not an isolated case. A new report – The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility – details how the corporations act. It found that:
– 80% of mining companies operating in Latin America are Canadian
– They have 80 active mines and 48 more in construction.
– They are most present in Mexico (169 Canadian mining companies), Peru (77), Argentina (47), Chile (46), Colombia (40), and Brazil (37)
– The main Canadian companies operating in the region are Barrick, Yamaha, Tech, Goldcorp, Kinross, Pan American Silver, and Gran Colombia Gold.
The report, created by a group of seven organisations that form the Working Group for Mining and Human Rights in Latin America, notes that Canada boasts of its “mining prowess”. The 126-page study analyses 22 projects in nine countries. In Argentina it covers Pascua Lama (Barrick Gold) and Bajo la Alumbrera (a Swiss-Canadian consortium made up of Glencore Xstrata, Goldcorp, and Yamaha Gold).
The first section examines the environmental, social, and economic consequences of these mining projects, while also detailing the violations of rights. The second part deals with the obligations of the state, and finds that governments of all political leanings fail to prevent violations of rights or provide reparations for incidents that put lives in danger.
The third part looks at the similarities among the Latin American states in which Canadian mining companies operate, including legal or constitutional vacuums, contradictory legislation, or the absence of adequate laws or plans to shut down mines. “There are legislative processes conducted amid meddling from Canada or its companies, and offer disproportionate benefits to the mining sector,” says one line, written a year before the latest incident in Chubut.
Countries that allow large-scale mining do not tend to allow active participation of the communities affected by it. As a rule, laws requiring that indigenous communities are given a “free, informed, and preemptive vote” are not enforced.
The report also highlights the responsibility of the mining companies’ home nation. It notes that the Canadian Agency for International Development (CAID) has financed reforms in mining laws in Latin American countries in order to make them more acceptable to the Canadian companies.
State support for Canadian mining companies comes via three channels: embassies; the Canadian parliament; and Corporate Social Responsibility, or the funding of NGOs to try and achieve social consensus through cronyism. “The Canadian government provides its mining companies with political, economic, and legal support,” it summarises.
The report concludes that: “The aggressive and accelerated expansion of extractivism, particularly in Latin America, generates multiple and diverse violations of human rights.” It adds that states and companies seek to criminalise any social resistance, and that governments have found it “impossible” to control environmental aspects. As far as the economy goes, it describes Latin American countries as “hosts with legislation that forms a neoliberal and extractivist model, supported by international financial institutions and industrialised nations.”
Finally, it points the finger at the Canadian government: “It knows about [the reports] but has acted with great indifference, supporting the companies financially, politically, and legally.”
The Argentine Chapter
Any chapter on Argentina about violations of human rights by Canadian mining companies should include the following examples:
– In October 2008, Congress approved the so-called ‘Glacier Law‘. It established the need for a survey of bodies of ice and the prohibition of mining activity in those areas. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner vetoed the bill in November 2008, summed up best by the then-president of INTI [National Institute of Industrial Technology], Enrique Martínez, who called it the “Barrick veto”. It was not until September 2010 that another law was sanctioned, which set a 180-day deadline to conduct the survey. Four years on, and this still isn’t finished.
– Pan American Silver is a world leader in silver mining. It won the concession for the ‘Navidad’ reserve, one of the biggest undeveloped silver and lead deposits in the world in the geographical heart of Chubut. The company has never respected its legal requirement to consult with the Mapuche-Tehuelche communities living in the area.
– The community of Calingasta, province of San Juan, was close to holding a vote on mining activity on three occasions: 2005, 2006, and 2007. All three times it was suspended due to the joint intervention of the judiciary, the mining companies, and Governor José Luis Gioja. The same happened in Andalgalá in 2010.
– Andalgalá was put under siege in February 2012, amid a mobilisation of people in protest at a proposed new mining project (Agua Rica). In an unprecedented act since the return to democracy, political henchmen and pro-mining gangs blocked the access to the town to prevent activists and journalists from entering.
– Osisko mining sought to explore the mountains of La Rioja near Famatina and Chilecito, but resistance from the local residents – who had already blocked a Barrick project – prevented it from doing so. In December 2011 it was revealed that the mining company had been spying on community activists. It had created lists of names of residents, including occupation and level of involvement the local environmental assembly.
– Bajo la Alumbrera, the pioneering open-pit mining project, began operating in Catamarca in 1997 without completing a Environmental Assessment Report (EAR) as stipulated by law. It did not present one until July 1998. The Mining Secretariat officially authorised the exploitation of the mine in 1999, two years after the Swiss-Canadian consortium had begun extracting minerals.
The report, which was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) highlights the paradigm of corporate interference in state policies with the example of the mining treaty between Argentina and Chile. Signed by the governments of Carlos Menem and Eduardo Frey, it established 5,000km of the Andean border range as a ‘free zone’ – almost like a third country – with numerous tax benefits for companies. The report lists many complaints from both countries, and says the treaty was drawn up by Barrick Gold.
Law of the Jungle
Canada’s Mining Watch is one of the organisations involved in preparing the report that was presented to the IACHR. Jennifer Moore, coordinator for Latin America, says what has just happened in Chubut is serious and a step backwards, but adds that she is not surprised. She sent MU an article with dozens of proven cases in which the Canadian government and companies exert influence over state decisions in favour of mining corporations.
“It’s like the continuation of the colonial policy of the Canadian government in terms of the looting of natural resources from territories belonging to indigenous communities. There is a growing criminalisation of those of resisting this extractivist model,” says Moore. She is referring to what goes on in Canada, and of course Latin America, where it is usually done with much more violence.
Meanwhile, Antonio Gómez, a federal prosecutor in Tucumán who has been bringing forward cases against pollution, highlighted the possibility of transnational justice where the mining companies have their headquarters. He also notes the role of the International Criminal Court, which recently took on the case involving Chevron and its alleged polluting of Ecuador, where for the first time an environmental crime was presented as a crime against humanity in a legal setting.
Gómez says the judiciary has excellent environmental protection laws which could end the impunity of extractivism: “The issue is that our magistrates do not enforce them because governments and businesses are always on the side of the polluter.”
The report’s conclusions note that judicial and institutional requests have had “little effect” in putting limits on private companies in the sector, meaning “social protests have been the only mechanism to protect communities.”
These communities are the ones that have already managed to expel three gold mining companies – Barrick, Shandon Gold, and Osisko – from La Rioja in the last eight years, and have also blocked the path for uranium mining for the last ten months.
In 2003, the town of Esquel chose another option: a popular referendum which became a reference point for other assemblies and organisations in Chubut and throughout the country. It was from that legacy that activists drew up the proposed bill at a provincial level, only to be betrayed by legislators on 25th November. “It showed us the limits of democracy and exposed the corruption of a political class that continues to be in bed with transational mining powers. Our democracy has been kidnapped,” sums up Pablo Lada, of the Socio-Environmental Forum in Trelew.
The response from the assemblies was swfit. On 27th November, two days after the vote, there were marches in Esquel and Rawson. On 4th December there were more protests in Lago Puelo, Rawson, Trelew, Puerto Madryn, Esquel, and Comodoro Rivadavia. Each one denounced the legislative fraud, demanded that the law be repealed, and reiterated a condemnation of large-scale mining.
In Esquel, the protest was diverse and included a 6km march to visit the houses of three local legislators who were involved in the fraud. Corina Milán, of the residents’ assembly in Esquel, pointed out that all governors have been in favour of mining: in 2002 the Radical José Luis Lizurume, then the Peronist Mario Das Neves, and now FpV’s Martín Buzzi. “They changed a democracy for the people into a pseudo-democratic illusion directed by company managers.”
Her conclusion is a warning for both legislators and mining companies: “Now more than ever we are standing here, and we will continue to fight for the future of our territory, our water, and our children.”
Translated by Marc Rogers