Anti-Mining Protests in San Juan, Argentina (7/07/05)

I first saw the deserts of the Argentine west while crammed in the backseat of a pickup with three other people. Two of those people were friends from the United States. We had come to San Juan province for an activist’s holiday. The pickup belonged to Chaco, who owns and manages a farm, which grows oregano, garlic, apples and walnuts. In the front seat was Javier, a career activist who cut his teeth fighting nuclear plants in the province of Chubut. Javier had been hired by a grower’s association, of which Chaco is a member, to help organize against mining in the region. Finally, David, Josh and I shared the backseat with Hugo, an engineer and teacher from San Juan, who has been working to support anti-mining initiatives.

Careening along narrow, desert roads, we got a brief overview of the situation in Calingasta, a department in the Province of San Juan. Calingasta is located in the valley between the Pre-Andes and the Andes, which divide Argentina from Chile. Currently, mining corporations who have undertaken other projects in the Andes are showing interest in mining El Pachón, for copper, silver and gold. El Pachón is part of the Andean mountain range near Calingasta. A plebiscite was scheduled by the department council for July 3, 2005 to determine whether or not to allow open-pit mining in Calingasta. Even though the plebiscite wouldn’t be legally binding, the governor of San Juan province, who actively supports mining projects in the region, banned the plebiscite and has threatened to cut funds to the department if the head it, José Adolfo Ibazeta, tries to hold a plebiscite nonetheless.

Open pit mining contains two key steps. First, entire mountains are opened up and ore is extracted and crushed into a powder. Second, the ore is treated with chemicals (lixiviation) to collect the trace amounts of gold, silver and copper that naturally exist in the ore. The lixiviation process uses vast amounts of water and highly toxic chemicals such as cyanide.

Using large amounts of water doesn’t jibe well with residents of this desert province. In San Juan we found ourselves crossing over canals that ran between streets and sidewalks. First we were told that they were to catch drunks stumbling home in the night. Later we learned that the canals provide water to the trees that line streets and provide shade to the city. In an area that receives rain only one month out of the year, creative management of limited amounts of water is essential for survival.

When we arrived in Calingasta, we changed into read white and blue clothes and pinned on our magic-marker and glitter bedecked cardboard name badges declaring us members of Norte Americanos por la Destruccion Ambiental (North Americans for Environmental Destruction). We stood across the street from the town hall handing out fake Barrick Dollars, named after the Barrick mining corporation. David created these bills with a doctored image of the US dollar on one-side and information on the other side. The information contrasted the $4.6 billion that Barrick gold stood to make from a mining enterprise in San Juan with the tax breaks it was receiving, the $8 million/year that was promised to Argentina, and the hundreds of millions of dollars the clean up would cost.

Hugo stood by laughing as we handed out our Barrick Dollars shouting out "Sobornos! Sobornos de Norte Americanos." ("Bribes! Bribes from North Americans!") People were a bit confused as we handed them the fake money. We opted not to stay 100% in character, but explained our purpose as we handed out the flyers. We wanted people to be aware of the negative impact that mining would have on the environment. We also wanted to make sure that people knew that open-pit mining was outlawed in many states in the US, which is why companies were now trying to bring the process to Latin America.

We received a mostly positive reception. After receiving a "dollar," one young woman came back and asked for more to show her friends. A grocery store owner took a stack to distribute to customers. Another woman, however, accused us of making fun of them. I tried to explain that that wasn’t our intention and that rather we were making fun of ourselves as North Americans. Hugo steered me away saying dismissively that she was pro-mining.

Our first night, we went to Barreal and stopped by shops delivering our "pay-offs." David decided to enter the headquarters of the Justicialista party, the party of the pro-mining governor of San Juan. There happened to be a meeting inside, and confused by David’s "Billionarios por Barrick" badge they invited him in. Within a short period of time, they realized that he wasn’t on their side and they ejected him. When we returned to town the next day, to continue leafleting, a police officer approached us. A party hack had filed a complaint against David for disturbing the peace when he entered their party headquarters.

David spent a couple hours inside the local precinct, while we waited outside. Because it was a small town of 8,000 where everyone knew each other, anyone who saw us waiting outside the police headquarters would know that we were probably facing some negative consequences for speaking out against the mining industry. While I was pondering the chilling effect on freedom of speech that the complaint was having, Hugo continued distributing Barrick Dollars in front of the station house. David left the station with a court date a week away. The intimidation of anti-mining activists continued at a later demonstration. A member of the Gendarmeria photographed state employees, teachers and students who attended the demonstration.

We witnessed some heated debates between Javier, Hugo and Chacho about how to bring about a plebecite. At a meeting with the leader of the department of Calingasta it was proposed that they collect 3,000 signatures by July 3, 2005 to show public support for the election. In a county where the largest town has 8,000 residents this is no mean feat. Moreover, many potential voters live in the larger city of San Juan, the capital of San Juan Province, but outside the district of Calingasta. Chacho argued that many people would refuse to sign or vote for fear of crossing party lines. The activists also debated whether or not they had the time and resources to gather that many signatures in so short a time.

The vineyard and growers association is mobilizing against the mines as are a series of "autoconvocadas," (autonomous community groups that have formed around the issue) but there appears to be little communication between groups even within the province. One local artist is painting anti-mining messages on road surfaces for motorists and bikers to read as they pass by. Many mothers are leaders of these groups because they recognize that though the mines will provide work in the short term, in 20 years after the mining companies leave there will be no jobs left. The environmental destruction caused by the mines would proscribe the farming and tourism industries.

After two days in Calingasta we set out for the town of Jachal, about two and a half hours north of San Juan city, the capital of San Juan Province. On the bus, we met Jorge an anti-mining activist in his 60s who was traveling to Jachal with the same purpose we were: to take advantage of the town’s 254th birthday celebration to do some leafleting about mining.
In Jachal we met up with Lito and Rita who make a living selling the meat of the 15 cattle they raise on a few hectares of land outside of town. Pollution from the mines would also ruin their livelihood.

After fortifying ourselves with some homemade gnocchi and tomato sauce, we spray-painted some rocks gold creating golden nuggets. Then we went to the speeches and parade that celebrated the town’s birthday. Rita and Lito helped make up the group of about 10 local activists who stood directly in front of the governor of San Juan during his speech carrying signs linking mining to corruption and pollution. Rita expressed disappointment with the low turnout explaining that though many people are against the mines they are afraid to speak up.

Barrick is developing a mine that would span the Andes between Chile and Argentina. So far Barrick has succeeded in carving out a space in the UN World Biosphere Reserve for its mining and drafting treaties between Chile and Argentina that support the mining process.

The term Barrick Dollares has meaning in Jachal, and we wanted to make sure that that meaning included "bribery and payoff". As in Calingasta we were decked out in Red white and blue and passing out our Barrick Dollars.
After the governor and mayor gave speeches with only veiled references to mining in the form of development and "using natural resources" there was a rather leaden parade. School children marched in their uniforms and a rusty dump truck passed by. The only people who bothered to clap were the functionaries, the rest of the observers watched passively.

Most people blankly took our dollars. Children were drawn to the fake gold nuggets which had "maldito oro" (bad gold) painted on them. Two men, who I later learned were body guards of the governor, engaged me in a discussion starting with, "What are you doing here?" Their point was that while the US is exploiting people in Iraq, I shouldn’t concern myself with any possible exploitation in Argentina. I tried to explain that the mining company is from the north and therefore it is my business. Moreover in this age of globalization, corporations know no boundaries and therefore neither do I.

Renate Lunn is currently traveling in Latin America. Read her travel blog at 

Click here for coverage of this same story en espanol