An email circling the world has conferred upon the pristine waters of Chile’s San Felix Valley the unlikely status of urban legend. While there is nothing even remotely urban about this oasis of vineyards and olive groves, it lies downstream from an undertaking of legendary scale – the proposed Pascua Lama gold mine.
Local residents liken the mine’s 18.3 million ounces (570 tonnes) of gold – worth some $9.5 billion at today’s record prices – to El Dorado, the mythical New World treasure that lured rapacious conquistadores on crazed quests to strike it rich by vanquishing nature.
Pascua Lama first grabbed world attention when Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation unveiled its audacious plan to ‘relocate’ three glaciers in order to get at the ore below. The ice fields, located between Andean peaks at 4,600 metres above sea level, provide water to the towns and valleys at the edge of the Atacama desert.
Chilean environmental authorities later approved a revised plan on condition that the Canadian company steers clear of the glaciers. While Barrick says it has now been through ‘one of the most rigorous approval processes in Chile’s history’ and that it will have to adhere to ‘stringent commitments and controls’ to protect water resources, its modified plan has not mollified opposition. Environmentalists and local community leaders fear that the mine will have a devastating effect on the fragile eco-system of the Huasco province, downstream.
Pascua Lama’s massive open pit will use a cyanide-based leaching process to separate minerals from crushed rubble. Tailings contain poisonous metals like arsenic, mercury and lead, which can contaminate groundwater. Francisco Bou’s third-generation family winery uses water from mountain streams to distill pisco, the local brandy. He slams the Huasco Water Users Co-operative, to which he belongs, for agreeing to a $60 million deal with Barrick to shore up irrigation and monitor water quality. ‘The farmers are selling out,’ he says. ‘They are putting the future of this valley at risk for a short-term golden fix.’
The mine will straddle the Chile-Argentina border, 150 kilometres southeast of Vallenar (Chile) and 300 kilometres northwest of San Juan (Argentina). It is the world’s first bi-national mining project, made possible by a 1997 treaty that critics say effectively cedes sovereignty to Barrick, the world’s largest gold producer. Construction of the $1.5 billion mine is scheduled to start late this year.
Surely gold mine proponents had hoped that by sidestepping the glaciers, public outcry would melt away. Instead, the opposition has broadened its sights, and new groups are emerging in response to the dispute. The mine has become a rallying point against a development model that critics say lures foreign investment with lucrative economic incentives and lax environmental controls. In Chile a straw poll conducted by a local newspaper revealed that just two per cent of the 28,000 votes cast welcomed the gold rush.
Opponents are reaching across the Andes to activists on the Argentine flank, where municipal authorities have twice blocked a referendum on the future of mining. Pascua Lama is also being firmly drawn into the international campaigning movement to clean up gold mining. A recent International Day Against Transnationals and Pascua Lama mobilized protesters in Barcelona and London with the battle cry: ‘Water is more precious than gold.’