Chlieans protest Barrick Gold

Fifty environmental activists protested Barrick Gold’s controversial Pascua Lama gold mine in Chile on May 8. The event went unnoticed by Chile’s mainline media—La Tercera and El Mercurio—but was reported in La Nacion, the state-owned daily. The demonstration coincided with Barrick’s shareholders meeting in Toronto, Canada, and with Barrick’s 25th anniversary as a company officially traded on the Toronto stock market. The Santiago demonstrators celebrated the company’s anniversary with a birthday cake of their own, and large bags of ice to represent the glaciers that will allegedly be destroyed by the project. Several of the demonstrators also dressed in black plastic bags to give homage to the 15 individuals related to the project who have died since it first was proposed almost 20 years ago.

Fourteen of those killed were Chilean, while one was a Canadian pilot who died in a helicopter crash on Feb. 8. The activists spray-painted the sidewalk in front of Barrick’s office at 222 Ricardo Lyon with the names of the dead workers. Police did not intervene until the protesters began spray-painting the company’s floors.

Two of the most outspoken demonstrators were Luis Faura, from Alto Del Carmen, and Enrique Gaytan, from El Transito. The two communities are in the valley below the Pascua Lama mine and both men are elected city counselors.

Gaytan said he was concerned about the glacier contamination the will result from the mine and noted that no rainfall has occurred in the valley for the last the six years, meaning his community is completely dependent on glacier melt for its water supply. Gaytan said the government had failed to properly monitor Barrick’s activity and said that the mountain glaciers near the mine site are now mostly destroyed. “I am not just shooting my mouth off,” said Gaytan. “I have seen what they have done with my own eyes.”

Faura spoke briefly about Barrick’s January 2008, celebration of the fact that 1,000 days had passed at the mining site without an accident. “Then they had a helicopter crash in February, but the event got little or no coverage in the national media,” said Faura. “The newspapers and TV channels are all controlled in Chile.”

Barrick’s Pascua Lama gold mine project was approved by Chilean environmental officials in 2006, but has not advanced due to unresolved tax issues on the Argentine side of the project.

The company’s original plan to remove two mountain glacial ice fields to allow construction of an open-pit gold mine was strongly opposed by Chilean environmentalists, forcing the company to opt for tunnel excavation to mine the gold. Still, witnesses like Gaytan report that the glacial fields are already largely destroyed due to preliminary road and development activity carried out by Barrick and unchecked by environmental authorities.

The Pascua Lama gold mine straddles the border between Chile and Argentina, and its development required a special international mining treaty between the two countries. Although 80 percent of the gold deposit lies on the Chilean side of the border, Argentina has been unhappy with the prospect of receiving only 20 percent of the tax revenues the project will create.

During the Toronto shareholders meeting Barrick’s president Greg Wilkins called the mine’s progress disappointing. “We are increasing our efforts to push this one over the goal line,” said Wilkens. During a conference call to shareholders they again made a promise to begin construction in September of this year.

Communication company Extend, contracted by Barrick to manage its corporate image in Chile, was asked to comment on Tuesday’s demonstration, but did not respond. Extend is partially owned by two well connected sisters, daughters of one of Chile’s most important Christian Democratic Party politicians – Belisario Velasco, a former Interior Minister to President Michelle Bachelet and a top political operator for the past 20 years.

Christian Peña for Upside Down World, May 16

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