World Rainforest Movement

Argentina: The struggle against mining takes on different forms

The struggle of the people of the town of Esquel, in the Argentine Patagonia, against the intentions of the Canadian mining company, Meridian Gold Inc. to exploit a gold mine in Cerro 21, have been going on for over seven months now. Ranging from mobilizations to “escraches” (mass demonstrations outside the homes of those responsible for the mine), from a plebiscite and legal action to the symbolic closing down of the access to the camp, from the graffitti and murals to the parliaments of the Mapuche People and the “No! Forum”. This Cordilleran city, located 2000 km to the south-east of Buenos Aires has become a national reference for the struggle against mining and encroachment by the corporations on the country’s economic and political life.

This town, located in the north-east of the Province of Chubut, hosted the “First “No!” Forum” organized by the Assembly of Self-Convened Neighbours of Esquel (Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados de Esquel – VAE). Members of human rights, trade union, social, indigenous, environmentalist, and women’s assemblies and organizations, community communication media and platforms against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) and the consequences of neo-liberal globalization, gathered there from 4 to 7 June. The same struggle against mining and for the preservation of the environment that has enabled many of the inhabitants of Esquel to understand the demands of the Mapuche People and support them, has paved the way for the 4-day “No to the Mine” forum to become “No to FTAA, to the auctioning of Patagonia, to evicting aboriginal families, to the handing over of natural resources, to the “judicialization” of the social conflict, to the war.” All these NOs synthesized a “YES to life.”

Although over the past months no further threats have been made to those neighbours who have become “anti-mine” referents, neither have the members of the Workers Building Union of the Argentine Republic (Unión Obrera de la Construcción de la República Argentina – UOCRA) and other sectors close to the Provincial Government continued with their intimidations, tension has now been transferred to the Mapuche communities. During the middle of March, the local police attempted to evict the Fermin family of the Vuelta del Rio community. The operation included the total destruction of a house, although the Esquel Court Judge, Jose Colabelli said he had only ordered the “eviction” of the indigenous family. It is now possible that an impeachment process will be started against the magistrate because of his presumed aversion for the Mapuche People and because his wife is the owner of a quartz mine in the region.

In this same area, to the north-east of Chubut, some 20 families of the Cushamen indigenous community have been notified of prospecting by the Teck Argentine company (a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Teck Gold), which is interested in locating first and second category minerals over an area of 10 thousand hectares. The Cerro Centinela community (on the Andean Cordillera) have also received notification of the intention to prospect another 10 thousand hectares, this time not in the arid (but living) steppe, but in an area of forests and springs.

In the meanwhile, the misleading provincial legislation, sanctioned after the plebiscite held on 23 March (in which 81% of the inhabitants of Esquel said No to the Mine), has become evident. In fact, it was made known recently that very few environmental NGOs will sit on the commissions regulating the standard prohibiting open cast mining and cyanide leaching, although exception zones will be foreseen. The neighbours of Esquel and the region will be excluded from the debate, as they do not enjoy a legal status. The authorities’ spirit has once again been shown up: to play at listening to the people but to govern behind their backs.

Furthermore, the recent election of the Justicialista candidate, Nestor Kirchner as President of Argentina has given rise to varied expectations. His Patagonian background has fuelled hopes in some, as has the apparent honesty of his public management. However, others do not forget that when he was Governor of Santa Cruz, he initiated exploitation of the Cerro Vanguardia gold fields.

Presently, the works at Cerro 21 have been halted because of the court sentence, although this does not imply that Meridian Gold has given up the Cordón Esquel Project. The company declared that it would take a year to redesign their communication strategy and to revert their poor image. Until it achieves this, it will move its administrative enclave to a village in the plateau.

Meanwhile, the Esquel neighbours are seeking new ways and opportunities to express and enrich their opposition to exploitation of the gold mine. These range from the local assembly to a debate on global society, from the plebiscite to the Mapuche Parliament, from the march to the mural. Resistance to the mining project takes on various forms and continues its projection towards the rest of the country.

By: Hernán Scandizzo, e-mail: herscan@data54.com

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