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Open Cast Mining in Latin America: Water Pollution and Human Rights Violations

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Four people dead, many injured and a priest battered by the police following massive protests in Cajamarca, Peru, are just the tip of the iceberg. Conga gold mine threatens the water of four lakes. The same story repeats throughout several Latin American countries. Multinationals (surprise, surprise!) are involved. Financial crisis fuels Gold (and other minerals) Rush

As Financial Markets fight attempts at regulation to save their right to speculate without any limitations, the run for the safety net of Gold gains pace. This scramble for other people’s natural resources is not always orderly or ethical. Here are some examples.

Peru

A London demonstration in front of the Peruvian Embassy was one of the events to raise awareness about the Conga Gold Mine unfolding conflict in Cajamarca, where Father Marco Arana, a well known environmentalist, defender of farming and indigenous communities, was beaten and arrested by a dozen police officers while sitting peacefully on a bench in the city’s main square. The $4.8bn (£3.1bn) Conga project would be the biggest mining investment in the country’s history.

Upside Down World reports that “Father Marco and other regional leaders have declared an indefinite state-wide strike against the proposed ‘Minas Congas’ gold mining project, which would destroy 4 sacred lakes in the province of Celendin. Last night Peru’s government declared a state of emergency in the region, suspending civil liberties, after 3 protesters were killed [and another in a near by area] and at least 20 people wounded during a violent encounter with police.

‘Minas Congas’ is a massive expansion project owned by Yanacocha, South America’s largest [open cast] gold mine, located in Cajamarca province. Yanacocha is owned by Newmont of Colorado and Peru’s Buenaventura with minority shares held by the World Bank. Farming communities accuse Yanacocha of contaminating their water supply and the mine was responsible for a mercury spill that poisoned over 900 people — the focus of our first film: ‘Choropampa, The Price of Gold.’.

… Marco’s defence of farming and indigenous communities has also earned him powerful enemies. In 2006, he and other Peruvian activists were victims of a spy-ring called ‘The Devil Operation’. One of Marco’s main farming allies was assassinated and Marco and other activists were harassed, photographed and video-taped.

Determined not to be victims, the activists launched a counter-espionage campaign, and captured two of the spies, along with photos, videos and detailed reports of the operation.

This evidence became the basis for ['The Devil Operation'](https://vimeo.com/14472835), by Director/Producer Stephanie Boyd, a real-life suspense documentary that has won multiple awards, including the ‘International Human Rights Film Award’ sponsored by Amnesty International and given by the Cinema for Peace Foundation at an event parallel to the Berlin film festival.”

The Environmental Impact Study of Conga carried out by the Government has been criticised by independent scientists but such concerns have been dismissed.

More Information from Peru Support Group

Colombia

From Colombia Solidarity Campaign, London.
“Students and lecturers at the University of Tolima in Ibagué, Colombia, are voicing their strong opposition to the imminent signing of a contract with AngloGold Ashanti worth £500K/year to carry out the environmental monitoring of the *Cajamarca*[!] La Colosa gold mine, currently in the exploration phase. AngloGold Ashanti, which was fined last year for not requesting all the necessary environmental permits for the exploration, is now stipulating that any research results must be kept confidential by the university, thereby jeopardizing the objectivity of the study.

The projected site of the Cajamarca gold mine, in the central Colombian mountains, includes an area of forest reserve and 161 water sources. It is an important agricultural hub for the whole country. The results of the exploration so far indicate that the gold mine would be the largest in South America. Opencast mining exploitation, planned to start in three years’ time, would result in complete destruction of the ecosystem. The use of cyanide to treat the gold ore would inevitably contaminate water sources for a large area of the Tolima department. The Machín Volcano a few kilometres from Cajamarca presents a potential unimaginable ecological disaster for the region.

AngloGold Ashanti has invested heavily in order to win over the hearts and minds of the people of Tolima. It sponsored the annual carnival in Ibagué last year, as well as Deportes Tolima, the departmental football team. It has organized free trips for farmers from the Cajamarca region to attend the recent national football finals in Ibagué, given away free lunchboxes to children, and donated paint for schools in Cajamarca. Despite widespread opposition to the project, the concern of many is that, if the University of Tolima appears to support the Cajamarca mine, it would legitimize the project …”

According to Wikipedia AngloGold Asshanti has recently drawn unfavorable comment from Human Rights Watch for its handling of its exploration operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo… In August 2007 British charity War on Want published a report accusing AngloGold Ashanti’s parent company Anglo American of profiting from the abuse of people in the developing countries in which the company operates… in Colombia, Ghana and Mali… According to Forbes AngloGold Ashanti was accused in 2007 in Colombia for “murders of trade union and community leaders who opposed the company’s activities in the region…In January 2011, AngloGold Ashanti was named the world’s “Most Irresponsible Company” at the Public Eye Awards, hosted by the Berne Declaration and Greenpeace in Davos, Switzerland. The nominating organisation, WACAM (Wassa Association of Communities Affected by Mining), catalogued the company’s history of “gross human rights violations and environmental problems.”

Argentina

IPS reports that “Thousands of people in the northwest Argentine province of La Rioja are mobilising to stop an open-cast gold mining project in the Nevados de Famatina, a snowy peak that is the semi-arid area’s sole source of drinking water…

…Residents of Famatina and neighbouring Chilecito have set up a partial roadblock at Alto Carrizal, a stop located 4,000 metres above sea level on a gravel road leading up to the highest point of this mountain chain, Cerro General Belgrano (better known as Nevados de Famatina), which stands at 6,250 metres…Today, modern mining methods require large explosions, huge volumes of water, and the use of cyanide to extract the mineral, which is why local residents are protesting.

The activists maintain the Alto Carrizal roadblock day and night, but are selective in whose passage they block. Local residents and tourists are allowed through, while provincial authorities are stopped, along with anyone representing the Canadian company authorised by the Argentine government to mine the area.

Protesters are backed by a number of national and international environmental NGOs, including Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, Greenpeace, and Los Verdes, which in recent days voiced their concern about the activists’ safety, reporting threats and harassment. Political parties from the opposition and celebrities are also stepping forward to support the anti-mining campaign.

The conflict was sparked in October 2011, when local residents learned that the La Rioja state-owned mining and energy company Energía y Minerales Sociedad del Estado (EMSE) had signed an agreement with the Quebec-based Osisko Mining Corporation, to mine Nevados de Famatina.

The agreement was never made public, and the government failed to hold the public hearings and perform the environmental impact studies stipulated under the 2002 General Environmental Act. Even Famatina authorities were left out of the agreement…

Héctor Artuso explained why the local population opposes the project. “We’re not environmental or anti-mining activists. We’re just regular people who reject this foreign-led model of natural resource extraction, which uses cyanide and large volumes of water.”

Amazon mining

Source: TED Case Studies. Extracts

“Gold is an important resource for all of the 8 countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Surinam, and Venezuela) included in the Amazon watershed, at least potentially. Experts have called the Amazon region home to the largest untapped reserve of gold in the world…

The amount of mercury entering the environment from gold mining activities is estimated to be 200 tons last year alone. Mercury enters the environment during each of the two steps involved in acquiring the gold. First, the sediments are taken from river bottoms and land mining sites and forced through a number of sieves. The sieves are coated with mercury, which bonds with the gold in the sediment separating it from the rest of the material. Obviously, considerable amounts of mercury are left in the gold depleted soil and enters the environment when this material is discarded. Second, the gold-mercury amalgam is heated to purify the gold by vaporizing the mercury. If the heating is done in an unsealed container, it enters the environment in gaseous form. This is particularly dangerous to the miner or smelter purifying the gold, as the person invariably inhales the mercury through breathing. Experts say that for every pound of gold produced a corresponding two pounds of mercury enters the environment.

The mercury pollutes the air through the separation of the gold and the mercury, during which, the mercury is boiled off as a toxic vapor. The water pollution is caused by the addition of mercury to gold laden silt, the mercury bonds with the gold
making extraction easier, but the process also contaminates large amounts of water when the processed silt is returned to the water. This is particularly harmful in the tributaries which experience a more difficult time disposing of the mercury build
up. Additionally, the miners dredge the river bottoms in their search for gold rich silt, disrupting the river bottom ecology and making it more difficult for the fish to breath due to the sediment suspended in the water. This has resulted in a decline
in the Amazon river fish population.

Currently, the levels of mercury are dangerous only in isolated hot spots and to those whose primary diet consists of river fish (which, when contaminated, have high levels of methylmercury), but if the contamination continues to increase the damage could become devastating to the environment. Randua Marques, a Brazilian environmental journalist, has judged the current problem and its potential as “a tragedy without precedent in the history of our country.”

Not only Pollution

Chile‘s policy towards multinational mining companies that extract its copper has been severely criticised by Humanist politician and Presidential candidate [Tomas Hirsch](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom%C3%A1s_Hirsch) for allowing most of the profits to benefit such private companies rather than the Nation.

Bolivia has been a mining country since the Spanish conquest 500 years ago (and before that, the Incas were at it). Now it is facing the dilemma between preserving the environment or allowing massive exploitation of Lithium, the food for batteries, with French and Korean multinationals studying the menu.

About The Author

Silvia Swinden - Author of “From Monkey Sapiens to Homo Intentional: The Phenomenology of the Nonviolent Revolution” – Adonis & Abbey, London 2006

Number of Entries : 358

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