INSIGHTS: Barrick Gold Abandons Mining Project in Argentina

By Jorge Daniel Taillant

CORDOBA, Argentina, March 27, 2007 (ENS) - Canadian mining company Barrick Gold announced earlier this month that it will abandon a controversial gold mining project it planned in Famatina, a town situated in a quiet Andean enclave of La Rioja Province. The announcement came hours after the House of Representatives of the Provincial Legislature, led by anti-mining Vice Governor Luis Beder Herrera, voted to ban open air mining using cyanide in all of the province.

Local stakeholders, united in a Citizen's Assembly against the Barrick Gold venture celebrated the news. Immediately following the voting of the law Friday morning, the assembly marched to the site and closed off the entry to Barrick demanding they immediately remove their equipment and go home.

Famatina

Gold can be found in the mountains of Famatina, La Rioja province. (Photo courtesy San Luis Turismo)
Tense negotiations ensued between stakeholders and Barrick representatives, who could not exit or enter the mining camp due to stakeholder roadblocks at the site.

They reached a tentative agreement in which Barrick would remove its equipment in seven days, as opposed to the 60 days requested by the company. Twenty Barrick employees are now working on dismantling machinery.

Herrera, who controls the majority in the House of Representatives of the provincial legislature, is from Chilecito, La Rioja's second largest city, and home to the Mexicana Gold Mine at the Famatina site.

Herrera is in a tight race for the governor's chair to be decided in upcoming October elections.

Mirroring other governors who have chosen environmental protection platforms to underpin political campaigns, he chose his stance on environmental protection to distance himself from former Governor Angel Maza, who is said to be a stakeholder in the Barrick Gold investment. Maza was suspended March 14 by the provincial legislature, and Herrera is now interim governor.

Herrera led the legislative ban on open air mining in the province, a law which calls for a local referendum in June or July to support or reject the legislative decision.
Beder Herrera

La Rioja Interim Governor Luis Beder Herrera (Photo courtesy Datarioja)
Barrick seems not to want to wait for a public vote and has packed its bags. Government sources say that the province expects legal action from Barrick for losses.

Then Governor Maza announced that he intended to veto the law. However, a veto would only be a last cry before defeat as he does not have the two-thirds legislative majority to avoid a congressional override of his veto, which is likely particularly considering that the law received unanimous support, even from his own party.

All of his party representatives in the Legislature are from Chilecito, where Barrick's proposed gold mining project is sited.

Other Argentine provinces and mining ventures, including in San Juan, Tucuman, and Catamarca provinces, are following events in La Rioja closely, as they too have seen local communities rise to oppose equally worrisome mining ventures using outdated and contaminating techniques to extract precious minerals.

The Barrick pullout from Famatina comes on the heels of growing concern in Argentina over serious environmental problems around the country, including controversial pulp mills going up on the Uruguayan border, contamination from existing pulp and paper mills, polluting industrial tannery operations, open air garbage sites, petrochemical spills, and contaminated rivers and lakes.

"Environmental democracy," grounded on popular opinion and expression of what local communities want and don't want relative to their environment is emerging in Argentina with a strong zeal and with clear implications for Argentina's environmental future.

The creation of Citizens' Assemblies is appearing as a recurring method to promote democratic environmental social movements, such as the Gualeguaychu Assembly against the Botnia pulp mill on the Argentine-Uruguayan border.

Environmental social movements in Santa Fe on water privatization, in Esquel on gold mining, and now in Famatina again on mining, have made important recent contributions to forming new environmental public policy.

A new environmental era is opening up for Argentina, heralded by Environment Minister Romina Picolotti, last year's winner of the worldly recognized environmental Sophie Prize - a sort of nobel prize for environmental advocates given in Norway by private philanthropist and author Jostein Gaarder.

Picolotti

Environment Minister Romina Picolotti was an environmental attorney and human rights activist before she took over the ministry. (Photo courtesy Sophie Prize)
Picolotti was the lead advocate on the Uruguayan pulp mill case and has made unprecedented global progress in linking the human rights and environmental agendas.

At an EU-Latin American convening of presidents, held in Vienna last year, President Nestor Kirchner surprised Argentine environmentalists and the world with an inspiring environmental speech calling for an end to the export of contaminating industries from industrialized to developing countries.

The president then held a political rally in Gualeguaychu - the city opposing the Finnish and Spanish pulp mills to be built across the river - bringing the country's governors together to focus on environmental protection.

President Kirchner upgraded Argentina's Environmental Secretariat, quadrupled its budget and canned the Environment Secretary.
Kirchner

President Nestor Kirchner (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
Soon afterwards, and against all political expectations, he named Picolotti to head the newly created Environmental Ministry. He entrusted her with cleaning up the Riachuelo, a river that runs through the capital Buenos Aires that is probably one of Latin America's worst environmental disasters.

In an effort to rein in mining projects which do not meet basic social and environmental safety standards, in her first week as minister, Picolotti expressed concern publicly about irresponsible mining in Argentina. Mining companies like Barrick went on alert.

She then opened negotiations with Argentina's most advanced mining provinces, paving the road for greater federal presence and greater federal oversight of mining projects, which under Argentine law, are in provincial control. Before that, there was little the federal environment authority could do to steer mining policy and projects towards more sustainable solutions.

In exchange for environmental technical and financial assistance and investments, and through such agreements, Picolotti is bringing environment policy to the mining sector.

Picolotti recently signed a cooperative mining agreement with Governor Maza of La Rioja Province. Such agreements are helping get the federal environmental authority a foot in the door into mining, where before it was systematically left out of mining operations.
Taillant

Jorge Daniel Taillant is executive director and president of Centro de Derechos Humanos y Ambiente, the Center for Human Rights and Environment (Photo courtesy CEDHA)
Companies and mining interests alike are concerned about greater environmental controls over mining. Articles in local and national media, as well as privately financed ads, are appearing criticizing the gradual greening of mining policy and operations.

Nevertheless, other provinces are in line to sign their own agreements with Picolotti, including San Juan Province, where Barrick is hoping to exploit the controversial Pascua Lama project. Yet another key political agreement will be signed between the Environment Ministry and the Mining Ministry to set the future for more sustainable mining in Argentina.

{Jorge Daniel Taillant is executive director and president of Centro de Derechos Humanos y Ambiente, CEDHA, the Center for Human Rights and Environment, based in Cordoba, Argentina. http://www.cedha.org.ar/en. Contact him at: jdtaillant@cedha.org.ar}