Chile: mine workers occupy church in protest

A group of 23 contract workers occupied the San Ambrosio Church in Vallenar, capital of the northern Chilean province of Huasco, on the morning of Aug. 4 to protest labor conditions at Pascua Lama, an open-pit gold, silver and copper mine being built in the Andes at the border between Argentina and Chile. Eight of the protesters took over the bell tower, where they shouted and banged on the metal structure to draw attention to their complaints against the mine’s operator, the Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corporation.

The main motive for the protest, according to Ricardo Véliz, regional coordinator of the National Mining Union ((Sinami), which represents the contract workers, “is to let the community know…about the bad living conditions which the workers who provide their services in Pascua Lama are experiencing.” Several workers had to transferred out on an emergency basis because they had symptoms of hypothermia, Véliz said. The mine is at an altitude of some 4,500 meters above sea level, and temperatures go down to –20º C (-4º F). Rafael Castillo, the vice president of a workers’ group, told Radio Bío Bío that workers die every year for lack of medical attention at the site. The protesters said they wouldn’t leave the church until the authorities listened to their complaints. (Radio Universidad de Chile, Aug. 4;, Aug. 4)

The $8 billion Pascua Lama project, which is expected to be one of the world’s largest gold mines when it opens in 2014, has sparked protests by environmentalists and others in both Chile and Argentina. On July 26 the company acknowledged that technical and other problems were delaying the mine’s opening.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Aug. 5.