Argentina: government launches pro-mining campaign

In response to a judicial order, on Feb. 16 supporters of open-pit mining at the Bajo de la Alumbrera gold and copper deposit in northwestern Argentina ended a roadblock they had set up in Andalgalá in Catamarca province. The mining supporters began their protest on Feb. 11 after the repression of similar roadblocks that local opponents of mining had set up in several towns and cities in Catamarca and neighboring Tucumán province. Provinicial authorities violently dispersed three of the anti-mining protests on Feb. 8 and Feb. 10, with dozens of protesters arrested or injured.

Some sources describe the mining supporters in Andalgalá as miners, their families, and suppliers for La Alumbrera. But Radio Popular Che Guevara, a station in the northeastern province of Santa Fe, described the counter-protesters as “a street gang” (una patota) that blocked reporters and human rights investigators’ access to the area. On Feb. 12 the mining supporters attacked a delegation sent by the Peace and Justice Service (SERPAJ), a human rights organization, and the police only intervened to warn the human rights activists to leave, according to the station. The delegation was followed for 50 km by a van without license plates. Local residents say the counter-protesters also blocked access to residents who opposed the mine, and journalist Gabriel Levinas, a columnist for Radio Mitre and the website, told BBC Mundo that he was kept from entering the area by counter-protesters who had the assent of the police.

Although there seems to be no definite proof of what forces are behind the counter-protest, the national government and various provincial governments have partial ownership or some other financial interest in many mining operations; the mines themselves are largely controlled by foreign multinational corporations.

Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner backs the expansion of open-pit mining, and her center-left faction of the Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist) has the capacity to mobilize demonstrations through unions and some grassroots organizations. On Feb. 9, as the anti-mining protests were growing, Fernández appeared on a nationally televised program. During the show she spoke by video conferencing with a worker identified only as “Antonio” in the city of OlavarrĂ­a, in Buenos Aires province. “We mineworkers want to work in peace,” “Antonio” said, “and we don’t want four or five pseudo-environmentalists blocking our roadway.” He insisted there were no environmental dangers: “We’re the ones who know the work best… We’re not suicidal, we want to live, so we’re not going to put ourselves in an unsafe place.” Fernández thanked him and added: “You’re not a political director, you’re a worker defending his source of work.”

The media quickly discovered that “Antonio” was actually Armando DomĂ­nguez, secretary general of the OlavarrĂ­a section of the Mine Workers’ Association (AOM), which is an affiliate of the country’s largest union federation, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT). DomĂ­nguez is also vice president of the local Justicialist Party branch.

Journalists like Gabriel Levinas believe the president’s support for mining reflects the government’s need to generate more resources as the country’s deficit grows. Miguel Bonasso, a former legislative deputy and a leader in the political wing of the Montoneros rebel group of the 1960s and 1970s, has accused Fernández herself of having ties with the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation, which is developing the Pascua Lama mine. (Adital, Brazil, Feb. 16 from Radio Popular Che Guevara; Página 12, Argentina, Feb. 17; BBC Mundo, Feb. 17; La RazĂłn, Buenos Aires, Feb. 11)

On Feb. 18 Julián Rooney—vice president of the local subsidiary of Swiss-British mining company Xstrata PLC, which operates La Alumbrera—weighed in by denying anti-mining protesters’ charge that the mine uses cyanide in the extraction process. He claimed a study shows that “there are no effects on the health of the people who live around the project.” Rooney admitted that the mining companies had sometimes had failures of communication. (La Nueva Provincia, BahĂ­a Blanca, Feb. 18, from DyN, Agencia Diarios y Noticias)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 19.

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