Argentina: police repress anti-mining roadblocks

Police in the northwestern Argentine province of Catamarca used tear gas and rubber bullets the morning of Feb. 10 to disperse some 100 local residents who were blocking a road near the town of Tinogasta to protest open-pit mining. “[B]etween 12 and 13 people went to the hospital with some type of contusion or wound,” Catamarca governance secretary Francisco Gordillo reported, but he claimed that 11 anti-riot police were also wounded. The police operation was necessary, according to Gordillo, because trucks carrying explosives for a nearby mine were being held up on the highway, which he said represented “a danger for society.”

Several hours earlier on Feb. 10 provincial police had broken up an anti-mining protest by about 50 residents at the town of Amaicha del Valle in neighboring Tucumán province. The protesters there had been blocking a road since Jan. 28. Catamarca police attacked another roadblock in the town of Belén on Feb. 8, arresting 26 protesters, who were released later.

Anti-mining protests gathered momentum in the northwestern provinces in January when thousands of residents blocked access to a site at the Nevados de Famatina mountain in La Rioja province. The protests in Catamarca and Tucumán have been blocking trucks heading to the massive Bajo de la Alumbrera gold and copper deposit near the border with Chile; area residents believe the use of cyanide in mining is contaminating their scarce water resources. The Bajo de la Alumbrera deposits belong to a joint enterprise made up of the Catamarca and national governments and the public National University of Tucumán, but the 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 2010 the mine was producing an annual net profit of more than $1.2 billion.

As the police moved in on them on Feb. 10, the protesters at Tinogasta chanted slogans against Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. On Feb. 9 Fernández, who heads a center-left faction of the Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist), had called for “responsibility and seriousness” from the protesters, who she said had taken “dogmatic and obstinate” positions. (AFP, Feb. 10, via Univision; La Gaceta, Tucumán, Feb. 11, from DyN, Agencia Diarios y Noticias; La Nueva Provincia, BahĂ­a Blanca, Feb. 11, from DyN)

Despite the police violence on Feb. 10, Tinogasta residents returned to the highway by Feb. 12 to continue blocking access to Bajo de la Alumbrera. Meanwhile, Belén residents have responded to the police action there by holding an open-ended popular assembly. Protests also continue in the Catamarca cities of Santa María and Andalgalá.

The protesters gained an ally in environmental attorney Romina Picolotti, who was environment secretary in President Fernández’s government before being fired in 2008. She charged that the president is following the neoliberal mining policies of former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999). “For 10 years they’ve been mining in Catamarca in one of the largest gold mines in the world,” she said, “and the people have received no benefits.” The mine has made $11 billion, according to Picolotti, while many citizens in the area don’t have sewers, water, streets or schools. (La Gaceta, Feb. 12, from DyN)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Feb. 12.

See our last posts on Argentina and regional struggles for water and minerals.