On July 20 soldiers, police and supposed “pro-mining activists” broke up an encampment that environmentalists and area residents had set up at Cerro Negro in the northwestern Argentine province of Catamarca to protest open-pit mining. The environmentalists–who came from Córdoba, La Rioja, Santa Fe, San Juan and Buenos Aires as well as from Catamarca—had camped out at the intersection of national highways 40 and 60 since July 9 to block trucks heading to the massive Bajo de la Alumbrera gold and copper deposit near the border with Chile. The protesters let other traffic pass.
About 120 people who identified themselves as “pro-mining” arrived at the encampment in the afternoon of July 20, followed a few minutes later by some 30 soldiers from the infantry; 10 police agents were already at the scene. Catamarca provincial prosecutor Silvia Alvarez announced that she had a court order to allow the passage of a truck carrying explosives to the Alumbrera. To avoid a confrontation, the demonstrators let the truck go through. But 30 minutes later the “pro-mining” group–thought to have been organized by local governments–began throwing rocks and stun grenades at the encampment. Prosecutor Alvarez then announced that she had a court order to close the encampment down. The soldiers, masked and carrying clubs and shields, advanced on the protesters, who again conceded in order to avoid violence.
When 56 protesters attempted to regroup across the border in the nearby province of La Rioja, the Catamarca police followed their bus and forcibly prevented them from getting out. Protesters said they weren’t allowed to stop until they’d reached Córdoba province, some 250 km from Cerro Negro.
Provincial governments and the federal government of center-left president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner have repeatedly repressed the mining protests, which were started in the northwestern provinces in January by area residents who believe the use of cyanide in mining is contaminating their scarce water resources. “We’re not against mining,” protester Darío Moreno explained. “We’re against transnational mega-mining,” which he said was similar to foreign multinationals’ introduction of genetically modified soy and their “theft of petroleum.” The Bajo de la Alumbrera mine is owned and operated by a consortium including the Swiss-British mining company Xstrata PLC and two Canadian companies, Goldcorp Inc. and Yamana Gold Inc.
In the morning of July 20, just hours before the operation against the Catamarca protesters, human rights activist and 1980 Nobel peace prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, accompanied by legislators and representatives of civil organizations, presented the Supreme Court of Justice and the National Human Rights Secretariat with a document calling for an end to “the criminalization of social protest.” “The people currently participating in the selective blockade in Cerro Negro are defending human rights, the territory, health, life, biodiversity and our common assets,” the document said, “and they are exercising their right to preserve and protect the environment and other fundamental rights.” (Adital, Brazil, July 16; Plaza de Mayo, Argentina, July 21; Clarín, Buenos Aires, July 21)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 22.