Gold mining, glaciers and water rights

November, 2006

Value Based Learning

The following is an excerpted account of the struggle over water rights between the Barrick Gold Corporation, Chilean citizens and their government.

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions based on the Earth Charter’s ethical principles which provide a values perspective on the situation.

Canadian-based Barrick Gold Corporation, the world's largest gold mining operation, comprising 22 mines on four continents, plans to soon launch a gold mine in a remote Chilean valley that will destroy regional water supplies and devastate local sustainable agricultural practices. The Pascua Lama mining project is 80 miles south - west of the Chilean city of Vallena, and involves mining a very rich field of gold and silver in the high mountains between Chile and Argentina at an altitude of over 4,500 metres. The company says the project will adhere to strict rules to avoid destruction or contamination of glaciers and water sources. "As with all of its other operations around the world, in Chile Barrick will maintain its philosophy of responsible mining," Barrick's Chile director Jose Antonio Urrutia said in a statement.

However, opponents argue that the Pascua Lama operation will lead to the destruction of glaciers, contaminating pure water sources necessary for Chile’s well-being, and affecting the livelihood of indigenous farmers. A recent report drawn up by Chile's Diego Portales University warned that the project could have devastating consequences for community water rights and for agriculture in the area.

As is typical for gold mining, the project will use cyanide and other toxic materials to extract small amounts of gold from huge volumes of mined ore. Toxic chemical waste including cyanide will be removed via drainage into nearby rivers, seriously polluting marvelously pure glacial fed rivers, and causing long-term environmental impacts for local peoples. Glaciers abutting and partially covering the proposed mine will be destroyed, posing a threat to the ecosystem and further contaminating the source of local water supplies, seriously harming agriculture and quality of life in the region.

 The Pascua Lama project has been categorically opposed by a broad cross-section of environmental groups in Chile as well as by many of the 70,000 irrigation farmers and small farmers whose livelihoods depend on the water originating in the glaciers at the mine site.

A letter asking for the cancellation of the Pascua Lama project – with over 18,000 signatures – was presented to the President of Chile on November 11, 2005 but was met with police violence. Police charged protesters when they tried to place chunks of ice, representing the glaciers that the project ill destroy, in the Plaza de la Constitución in front of the La Moneda government palace . More demonstrations were held in Vallenar and Santiago on November 12.

 Recently, however, the Chilean government gave final approval to proceed with the $1.5 billion project, hearing just two of 46 complaints filed against it. The company will contribute little to the local economy, making substantial profits at great expense to the ecological sustainability of those living near the mine and depending upon local water sources that will be devastated by toxic poisons.

 Despite the recent approval by the Chilean National Environment Commission (CONAMA), continued protests and litigation are expected. A dedicated group of local campaigners, who have fought against the proposal for a decade, intend to file further lawsuits, as well as pursuing existing lawsuits filed by indigenous rights groups who contest Barrick's ownership of the property.

With rising gold prices and most major mines exhausted in over-developed countries, there has been a surge in major mining operations in the developing world. Such cash poor but resource rich countries have less strict environmental standards and are rarely able to negotiate favorable deals that equitably contribute to national development without severe environmental costs, e.g. the Pascua Lama mine will operate on a tax-free basis. It is time to confront once and for all the global mining industry, which wastefully produces mostly unnecessary consumer products at great expense to the biosphere and local ecologically sustainable development potential.

Lack of global access to freshwater is the biggest immediate environmental threat to hundreds of millions of people. Global warming, deforestation, and unsustainable mining practices are worsening this water crisis. Water is more precious than gold, and its accessibility must be a global human right that surpasses all other considerations. There can be no further destruction of natural water systems upon which humanity is utterly dependent for life.

Based on Action Alert: ‘Water more precious than gold; stop Chile's Pascua Lama gold mine’ posted on Water Conserve, a project of Ecological Internet 6/21/06; ‘Barrick Gold faces determined opposition at Pascua Lama and Veladero’ posted on Mining Watch 12/21/05; ‘Chile approves Andes gold project” posted on BBC News 6/14/06

 A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and practices  Anita L. Wenden

Ecological sustainability
• How will Earth’s resources, her life-supporting systems and various forms of natural life be affected if Barrick Gold is allowed to move forward with the Pascua Lama project?
• Are attempts being made to remediate ill effects of gold mining? to ensure the preservation of Earth’s sources of water for future generations?

• Has Barrick Gold’s proposed plan led to conflict? If yes, between which groups? Why? Is there a power imbalance between them?
• How is the conflict being resolved? Through physical force or aggression? psychological violence? Or through nonviolent means? If so, how?

Social Justice
• Are power and wealth used to benefit all the groups in the area? to ensure that they have access to what human rights allow? Or are they used in such a way that the human rights are violated? If so, which groups are suffering the impact of this violation? How? Which rights are being violated?

Intergenerational Equity
• How will Earth resources and Earth’s life supporting systems be affected if gold mining, as proposed by Barrick, continue into the future ?
• How will this affect the wellbeing of people in the future? social stability and harmony ?

Participatory Decisionmaking
• In dealing with this problem, have the concerns of individuals and groups who will be affected by Barrick’s gold mining project solicited? Have their suggestions been taken into account?
• Have citizens taken their own actions to deal with the problem?
Who has a right to the glacier’s water? the citizens? the government? the corporation? Share your view with a friend or using the Earth Charter principles to defend your position.