The crusade for the Second Initiative was launched in June 2020 and achieved massive support
Published by MAC on 2020-09-29
Source: Latin American Bureau, MiningWatch Canada (2020-09-28)
They owe us a law. The campaign for the discussion and approval of a new bill to prohibit mega-mining in Chubut is advancing steadily. The over 25 thousand signatures of provincial registered voters collected (at the time of writing) are being carefully foliated by tireless hands. Signatures are given and added on daily bases. Although the intention is to present them to the Legislature in Rawson in October, logistical restrictions imposed by the pandemic could delay those plans.
The crusade for the Second Initiative was launched in June 2020 and achieved massive support in all departments, municipalities and rural communities. However, the mining companies banned in Chubut, Yamana Gold, Pan American Silver and Patagonia Gold, are trusted by the current Argentina’s highest legislative authority, whose family has governed the neighbour province of Santa Cruz for the last three decades, in which those same companies operate a piacere.
Chubut province has led the movement against big mining in Argentina since 2003, when the town of Esquel became the first to hold a referendum and pass a resolution rejecting Meridian Gold’s open pit gold-silver project. Right after, the provincial Legislature passed the Law XVII-Nº 68 (former 5001), which prohibits open-pit mining and the use of cyanide in mineral processing. This successful action marked the beginning of the commodities supercycle and was mirrored by similar movements in other regions. In the following years Rio Negro, Tierra del Fuego, Córdoba, San Luis, Tucuman, La Rioja and La Pampa passed anti-mining laws (two of them later overturned, La Rioja in 2008 and Rio Negro in 2011). Mining promoters have challenged legal restrictions in the courts, but its constitutionality has been confirmed by the National Supreme Court of Justice in Chubut and by the highest provincial courts in Córdoba and Mendoza.
Mining companies never left Chubut. In 2014, the citizen assemblies introduced the first Popular Initiative through the mechanism provided by the provincial constitution. Backed by 13,000 signatures, the proposal was tougher than the law 5001 and included explicit negative aspects of mining and specific dangerous minerals, such as uranium. However, in a controversial session that undermined the bill a provincial legislator was photographed as he read a text message from the then-director of Yamana Gold, Meridian successor, who was instructing him on how to modify an article. The provincial legislature ended up passing an ineffective and diluted law that was then repealed by the governor. They owe us a law and the assemblies are determined.
Esquel residents have been marching in defense of water, life and in opposition to large scale gold mining on the 4th day of every month for the last twenty years. They don’t even allow Yamana Gold to have a commercial office in the town. The monthly march is now replicated in the capital Rawson and the towns of Trelew, Puerto Madryn, Dolavon and Comodoro Rivadavia, as well as the rural communities Chacay Oeste, Laguna Fría, Gan Gan or Paso del Sapo. Amid the pandemic, Yamana announced in April that it had agreed to let a privately held real estate and investment company acquire a 40% stake in the Suyai gold project. Under the agreement, the company owned by Argentine businessmen Eduardo Elsztain “is in charge of obtaining permits and all environmental, social, and governance issues”. The price of gold continues to edge higher, reaching a record of US$2000/toz. Gold is a great vehicle for laundering money.
Meanwhile, Pan American Silver´s subsidiary Minera Argenta just applied for a water permit for industrial purposes to be used in the Navidad de facto mining camp. The Provincial Water Institute published the request in the official bulletin last week. The water permit, open for public comment for one month, is aimed at facilitating the extraction of thousands of tons of lead, to be transported more than 300 km and shipped in Port Madryn. Lead is a poison of little economic value. According to UNICEF, around 1 in 3 children – up to 800 million globally – has dangerous blood lead levels. A painful example is lead mining inheritance in Patagonia. A Community Multisectoral Commission fights against all odds to remedy the contamination inflicted to San Antonio Oeste (260 Km north from Madryn) and its magnificent bay, a history of negligence, pollution and loss.
A few days earlier, the former British now Canadian Patagonia Gold “secured ownership of Mina Angela”, the main antecedent of metal mining in the central plateau of Chubut. The final payment must be made “thirty (30) days from the lifting of the Chubut Province mining ban”. The mineral deposit is located approximately 50 km east-southeast of Patagonia’s Calcatreu gold project in Rio Negro. The communities affected by this project forced the government to ban the use of cyanide in gold mining back in 2004, but the restriction was derogated in 2012. The project was acquired by Pan American in 2009. Pan American Silver let Calcatreu sit there for years, until it traded it to Patagonia Gold in 2017. By its part, Patagonia Gold ceded the Joaquín and COSE deposits, adjacent to the Manantial Espejo mine that Pan American Silver operates in Santa Cruz. The Navidad silver and base metals deposit is located 45 km further to the south-southeast of Mina Angela. The Cerro Castillo company, owned by UK Lonmin and the Argentine group Garovaglio & Zorraquín, brought Mina Angela into production under the last military dictatorship in 1978. While the exploitation was exhausted twenty years later, it will continue to pour cadmium into the Maquinchao stream indefinitely.
Luis Manuel Claps
Argentina: Chubut communities unite against the mines
The fight against Pan American Silver…and other mega-mining companies.
By Kinga Harasim
August 23, 2020
’We are the people of the territory that suffers and is exhausted; the one that is crushed by the political-economic power that leaves us even without the most vital element: water. We fight for a law that guarantees pure water to all residents of Chubut; but also, to express to the governors and businessmen that metal mining in Chubut does not have a social licence’ – Unión de Asambleas de Comunidades Chubutenses
For almost 20 years now Chubut has been fighting the Canadian mining giant Pan American Silver (PAS). Project Navidad, located in Patagonian plateau, is one of the largest unexploited deposits of silver in the world. It was acquired in 2010, despite the fact that the provincial Law 68 of 2003 (also known as Law 5001) prohibits ‘open pit mining and the use of cyanide in mineral processing’. The company routinely lobbies local and national authorities to change the law in favour of the mining activity. In response, civil societies have organised to draw attention to the lack of social consent and to demand that the authorities strengthen the legislative framework to protect the environment, public health and well-being.
‘[for] a law based on the principles of prevention, precaution, sustainability and intergenerational equity, principles that must guarantee the present and the future, that must prevent the collapse of nature, that must modify the anthropocentric direction of human activities and thus to be able to locate ourselves in a balance with all the other beings that inhabit the planet .’ Call for the Iniciativa Popular
The Union of Assemblies of Communities of Chubut launched the second campaign for the Popular Initiative (Iniciativa Popular), which would enshrine in law protections for the province from the mining companies.
Popular Initiative is a civic right drafted in the provincial constitution (art.263) which allows citizens to present a bill to be debated in parliament, as long as they gather support from more than three per cent of the electoral roll. On 22 June, the assemblies across the province started to collect signatures.
The most important addition to the new law is a blanket ban on mining in all its stages: prospecting (search), exploration (defining the value), development (opening for production), exploitation (large-scale production) and reclamation (restoration of the land).
The existing Law 68 does not specify all of these stages with the result that mining companies take advantage of this legal loophole. Pan American Silver has remained in Chubut for years in the exploration stage trying to convince people and lobby government officials to amend the existing law so that they can move forward with the project.
Second Popular Initiative. Video: No a la Mina Esquel, YouTube, 22 June
The governor of Chubut, Mariano Arcioni, declared earlier this year that he intends to modify the provincial regulations in favour of mining activity which, he said, ‘is the backbone of a strategic plan for economic growth and social development’. President Alberto Fernandez has also expressed his support for mineral exploitation, ‘the issue of mining is of paramount importance (…) this is where our wealth is, it is to intelligently open ourselves to the world ’.
Zoning – the thin end of a massive wedge
Chubut had already become a national paradigm of resistance to mining ventures. The land is rich in natural resources and thus it has always been a target for mining industries in pursuit of profit. The first Popular Initiative was held in 2014. Although the Union of Assemblies had collected enough signatures, the attempt failed because of an attempt to falsify the text of the proposed law while it was being debated. Deputy Gustavo Muñiz, was caught receiving text messages with instructions from the manager of the Yamana Gold mining, Gastón Berardi.
‘Can one term in Article 4 be corrected? It should say: encompassing the region or… ‘, suggests Berardi. ‘The executive board will fix it later,’ responded Muñiz.
The modified content was supposed to include zoning of the province so that land in the province could be divided into zones in which mining activities would be allowed and those where it was prohibited. At that time about 66 per cent of the plateau was to be sacrificed by inclusion in the ‘permitted’ zone, including a vast territory belonging to Mapuche-Teheuche communities.
Today, Pan-American Silver is trying the same trick under the label of ‘sustainable mining’.
Consent to exploitation
Zoning will allow the mining companies to negotiate a Social Licence for Operation more easily. This licence is based on an international standard which requires companies to acquire community consent to conduct their business. Mining activity often causes negative externalities, leaving behind political, social and environmental implications. Nonetheless, the companies, instead of ensuring transparency and being explicit as to how human rights will be protected, try to convince locals that the only way to stimulate economy in the region is by mining.
PAS’ website claims that its core values are ‘caring for the environment in which we operate, contributing to the long-term development of our host communities, ensuring safe and secure workplaces for our employees, partnering with our employees, local communities and government, and operating transparently’. Nonetheless, according to indigenous communities living on the lands of the Navidad project, ‘In no case were our right to free, prior and informed consultation of the Indigenous Peoples respected, as required by the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (art. 6 and 15), and other human rights declarations which Argentina has ratified. These should have been especially respected, since these projects would affect us all’ .
Instead of development, Pan American Silver has brought to the communities where it operates social disruption, polarisation, environmental crisis, loss of livelihoods and poverty. For example, in Santa Cruz PAS had guaranteed that at least 70 per cent of the jobs in the mine would be distributed locally. Instead they employed unskilled foreign workers.
Moreover, the company has failed in regard to health and safety. The Argentine Mining Association denounced ‘the risky conditions in terms of support systems, refuge and essentially the lack of maintenance of equipment that is in deplorable condition.’ In Huayllay, Peru, PAS was fined seven times for violation of environmental regulations by the Environmental Evaluation and Accounting Office (OEFA). Thus, behind the surface discourse of sustainable development and responsible mining lie the iron laws of extraction, exploitation and the ever-expanding reach of global capital.
The Natural Resource Trap
The abundance of natural resources in a country seldom translates into the welfare of its citizens. Paul Collier in his book The Bottom Billion talks about the ‘natural resource trap’, a paradox which implies that an economic system based on exploitation of natural resources, especially in poorer countries, slows down development and economic growth so that in the long run countries become poorer than before the exploitation began.
The case of San Juan
The Argentine province of San Juan is considered to be a ‘national model for mining’, with 15 years history of mineral exploitation. Yet a report by INDEC shows that in 2019 San Juan remained among the ten poorest urban agglomerations in Argentina, with 30.3 per cent of its people below the poverty line and 6.3 below extreme poverty line. According to the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security, in 2016-17 the mining and fossil fuels sector generated 2,789 jobs, which is only 0.89 of the total number of jobs. Carlos Ibarbe from the organisation Jachal No Se Toca affirms that years ago the department used to be known for its agriculture and livestock which have now been destroyed because of the mining.
‘Jachal is a productive livestock and agricultural area and what the government did with the complicity of the [mining] company was to push the countryside into crisis in order to have an unemployed workforce, despite knowing that we have good soil and water to cultivate. Afterwards they say that the only way out is by mining. That’s a lie, the countryside is destroyed, there is no workforce for the fields and beyond that the water is spoiled. Now we don’t have means to produce, and who will eat the products where the water is so contaminated?’
While the mine provides some temporary employment, it also destroys other sectors which, once the exploitation of minerals ends, will leave communities without essential sources of livelihood. Between 2012-2017 the number of agricultural companies in the province decreased by 14.3 per cent.
However, it is not the natural resources themselves which are the problem, but their irresponsible management aided and abetted by the lack of any legal framework to determine how resources should be developed and translated into economic wealth. Thus the natural resource trap is likely to occur in countries with weak institutions and high levels of corruption, with the additional adverse consequence that wealth once promised to the local community is distributed among the few in power.
The Corruption Perception Index developed by Transparency International, gave Argentina a score of 45 out of 100, where the lower the score the higher the level of corruption in public sector. Other extractive economies in the region received even lower scores, such as Peru (36) and Brazil (35). The exception is Chile (67), which is among the least corrupt countries in Latin America. In contrast, Western countries which invest in mineral exploitation in Latin America are situated on the other end of the spectrum Canada has 77, UK 77, France 69. Weak institutions give an advantage to profit-seeking companies, which are far more concerned with increasing their own revenues than creating any benefits for society. Lobbying a government to appropriate a particular source of revenue is a common form of profit-seeking activity.
Company ‘rights’ before the needs of the community and the environment
However, the ‘natural resource trap’ in the context of Latin America cannot be understood without consideration of historical North-South power dynamics. The extraction-based development model is a product of the neo-liberal economic system and free trade agreements which foster foreign direct investment and allow transnational exploitation of natural resources, as, for example, in the Canada-Argentina Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement.
These agreements establish arbitration tribunals which enable corporations to sue governments at all levels if their policies diminish the companies’ profits. A study by UNCTAD from 2018 shows that Argentina has the largest number of disputes resolved through the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Dispute (ISDS) and the highest number of cases won by investors. For example, the dispute between Mobile Exploration and Development and Republic of Argentina from 2004 was resolved in favour of investors in 2016. The company claimed the government had violated the Bilateral Investment Treaty between Argentina and USA, specifically by its failure to encourage and protect investment and fair and equitable treatment.
This parallel legal system was designed to enable corporations to pursue their interests and secure immunity from penalties for the human and environmental rights violations they commit. It diminishes the power of government decision making and seriously threatens state soverneignty and democratic institutuions. As a consequence, even if governments wish to protect their citizens they often lack the resources and legal expertise to enter into and pursue a dispute with transnational companies.
The backlash against this type of free trade agreement is growing worldwide. UK NGO War on Want has been campaigning for many years against The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and recently The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which are founded on similar principles as Argentina’s bilateral investment treaty. These deals were discussed behind closed doors and War on Want demands that they be debated in the UK parliament to ensure transparency of the negotiation. The involvement of civil societies is crucial in this struggle as they press the government to include citizens in decision-making. After all democracy is a system based on people’s power, thus decisions should be taken in accordance with people’s will and to foster wellbeing, not to line the pockets of corporate elites.
Canadian Mining Companies Beware: Communities in Chubut, Argentina Launch Second Campaign for Law to Protect Water Against Mining
25 June 2020
On June 22, the Union of the Assemblies of the Communities of Chubut, Argentina (UACCH) officially launched its second “Popular Initiative” campaign, #NosDebenUnaLey (“they owe us a law”) to collect signatures from residents of the province to present a law which would protect water and the environment from the devastating impacts of industrial mining. This campaign marks over 17 years of organized resistance to protect water and the environment in the southern province.
The launch, which involved coordinated actions across the province, was felt in towns and communities, as well as internationally, as many assemblies posted emotional videos of their respective launches and actions on social media.
The Assemblies released a jointly-produced statement (translated to English, below) and launched a new website to mark the start of the campaign to raise consciousness and collect signatures.
The draft bill notes its central objective as “guaranteeing that the mining industry is compliant with preventative environmental principles that are also precautionary, sustainable and equitably intergenerational,” to:
- guarantee the rational and sustainable use of national resources;
- protect hydrological resources;
- maintain the equilibrium and dynamics of ecological systems;
- ensure biological conservation;
- prevent harmful or dangerous impacts that anthropogenic activities create in the environment;
- facilitate sustainable, economic and social development;
- minimize environmental risk;
- prevent the possibility of environmental emergencies; and
- remediate the environmental impact that has been caused to date.
Three Canadian mining companies are called out in the statement for their clientelist relationships with members of the communities affected by their mining projects who, despite years of trying to ensure legislative change to permit the further development, “have not been successful in overturning the rejection of the mining projects and the constant increase of communities who are conscious that this is not a pathway towards provincial growth.”
Pan American Silver (PAS) and Yamana Gold were criticized in 2019 for pressuring members of the provincial legislative assembly to modify Law 5001, which currently bans open-pit mining and the use of toxic substances like cyanide in mineral processing.
Law 5001 was in effect when PAS took over the Navidad project in Chubut from Aquiline Resources in 2009. It makes any further development of the project illegal and has meant that further development of the project has been stalled since 2012, when the company wrote down the asset. The company has continued to pump money into community relations efforts in the hope of modifying or overturning legislation.
The translated English version of the statement is below.
THE SECOND POPULAR INITIATIVE IN CHUBUT
Because they still owe us a law
The province of Chubut has a law which protects it from the havoc that large-scale mining produces. This law, sanctioned in 2003 as Law 5001 and now denominated XVII-Nº 68, prohibits open-pit mining and the use of cyanide for the extraction of minerals.
For this reason, in 2012, the neighbourhood assemblies of the communities in Chubut opposed to mining (UACCH in Spanish) proposed a push for legislation which would amplify the environmental protections of Law 5001. We decided to use a semi-direct democratic mechanism established in the provincial constitution, called the Popular Initiative.
Thanks to the arduous work of the assemblies that make up the UACCH, we were able to present a draft bill to the provincial legislature in May, 2014, to establish sustainable environmental parameters for mineral exploitation, accompanied by 13,007 signatures. The legislative deputies stalled the process until its last possible day of debate, and on November 25th, 2014, they committed “legislative fraud”, twisting the will of the people and approving a transformed Mining Law, with 15 votes in favour – a law that they had developed during the legislative session.
We were indignant, and requested that the session be nullified by a judicial review. The appeal was grounded in the fact that the essence of the bill was not respected, and that it was publicly known that the legislators had been influenced by the mining companies. The latter was made evident by a series of photographs that revealed text messages being exchanged between Deputy Muñiz and Gastón Berardi, Yamana Gold’s manager, during a legislative sitting.
The justice system did not nullify the session, and the legislature considered the bill to have been dealt with. Nevertheless, the new law, which dishonoured the role of our representatives in the face of this public scandal, was never applied, and was eventually repealed a year later. In this way we were robbed of our democratic participation in the first-ever application of the Popular Initiative.
The members of the UACCH have never given up, and we have continued to claim that they still owe us a law: a law based on environmental principles that are preventative, precautionary, and intergenerationally sustainable and equitable – principles that will guarantee the present and the future, that will prevent the collapse of natural systems, and that will change the anthropogenic orientation of human activity and place us in balance with all the other beings that inhabit the planet.
Human stupidity has brought on the pandemic that we are facing, stupidity that is rooted in the endless ambition of the powerful. They should instead be reflecting on how their conduct is quickly leading us to more voracious extractivism. Argentina has suspended all activities in the name of coronavirus prevention, but has given free rein to deforestation, fracking, and large-scale mining.
We are the people, those from the territory that is suffering and exhausted, those who are crushed by political-economic power that is leaving us without access to the most vital of elements: water. We are struggling for a law that guarantees water for all people in Chubut, but also to demonstrate to those in power and to business interests that metal mining in Chubut does not have social licence.
The social licence to operate is an indispensable prerequisite for the development of resource projects and is conditional on the approval and acceptance of the communities. Companies will find it useless to utilise mechanisms of social participation in projects of a type known worldwide for the ravages it produces and that do not have real guarantees of sustainability.
For their part, companies have been using corporate social responsibility as a tool to buy goodwill and garner a sort of clientelism. This mechanism, used by Meridian Gold, Yamana Gold, and Pan American Silver, has not been successful in overturning the public’s rejection of mining projects and the constant increase of communities who are conscious that this is not a pathway towards provincial growth. Moreover, these communities understand their surroundings and are placing their bets on economic alternatives that are much more friendly to them.
Because we believe in ourselves and in the dignity which characterizes us, and with the strength of the people and our convictions that we are on the road of life, and because they owe us a law, today we can say YES to this second Popular Initiative.
Union of the Assemblies of the Communities of Chubut
July 22, 2020, Chubut, Argentina