A small town in Patagonia is at the heart of the anti-mining struggle in Argentina. Ten years ago it voted against a proposed gold and silver project, and now – a decade later – it has mobilized to reaffirm it’s rejection of mega-mining projects.
Esquel is a small town at the foot of the Andes in Argentina’s Patagonia. It is surrounded by postcard scenery of mountain ranges and deep blue lakes. Dedicated to tourism, in 2003 the town made national headlines for being the first to reject a mega-mine gold and silver project. In a referendum vote, 81 percent of voters said “no” to the activity. This was a milestone in Argentina’s socio-environmental struggle and set an example for dozens of new neighboring assemblies who also oppose mining. Ten years later, Esquel celebrated by holding a march in the streets with thousands of participats. The “No to the Mine” (slogan of 2003) remains valid.
In 2002 the town of Esquel learned from the media that a Canadian company (Meridian Gold) was to begin an open pit gold and silver mining project, using cyanide. The planned project site was just 10 kilometers from the city where the water wells that feed the population are located. The company had the support of the provincial government.
In Argentina the 2001 crisis and the process of neighborhood assemblies were still resonating.
In Esquel, a confluence of academics from the National University of Patagonia and individuals not belonging to political parties or organizations formed the Esquel Neighborhood Association (AVE) to confront the mining project.
In Argentina little was known about mining. The most important project (called Alumbrera, in the northern province of Catamarca) was advertised as a blessing and the echo of criticisms toward the activity had yet to arise.
“The provincial government and the Mayor tried to defuse any possible challenge to the mining project, planting in the media the idea that the mine was good in every way”, said Gustavo Macayo, activist and one of the lawyers of the Assembly.
With a population of 30,000 people, a process of forming assemblies began to grow (in late 2002) amounting to more than 600 neighbors. Then came the first alarm bells about mining: cyanide, explosions, the danger of contamination, the huge consumption of water for this activity.
And so they began to march through the streets of the city.
On November 24, 2002 the first massive march occured, something unusual for Esquel. On December 4 the same was repeated with much more force. Thousands of Esquel citizens mobilized to reject the project.
In February 2003, the City Council approved holding a popular referendum. The first time that such a vote would take place in Argentina.
“In the summer of 2003, unemployment was rampant and the mining project promised work. They thought that the ‘yes to the mine’ would win,” recalled Alexander Corbeletto, from the Assemblies of Self-Organized Neighbors of Esquel.
The two major political parties of the country (Peronist and the Radical Civic Union) supported the mining company and promoted the YES vote.
The neighbors were alone, but organized.
On Sunday January 23, 2003, 81 percent of voters said “no” to mining.
The overwhelming vote produced other strengths and new victories: The provincial government passed Law 5001, which prohibits mining in the province, the Esquel city council passed an ordinance declaring the community a “nontoxic and environmentally sustainable municipality,” and the Judiciary ordered the total ban on mining operations without first having completed all the precautions required by the Provincial Act 4032 of the Environmental Impact.
Perhaps the greatest achievement was that socio-environmental assemblies multiplied across the province and the country. “The Esquel effect” was baptized by sociologist Maristella Svampa, who accompanies assemblies and studies the consequences of mining. Svampa remarks that Esquel had a positive effect on social struggles, and that it is considered a referent point. However, he also underscores that it is examined as a “case study” by governments and corporations so as to try to interpret what happened in Esquel and thus prevent their mining projects from being stopped.
In the 1990s Argentina passed laws to legalalize engineering to develop mega-mining projects (Laws 24,196 and 24,228, which provide economic benefits to businesses). In 1994 construction began on the Bajo la Alumbrera project funded by Swiss-Canadian capital. Today there are another 13 projects: Cerro Vanguardia, San Jose Green Eggs, Spring Mirror, Mirror and Martha (Santa Cruz); Veladero Casposo and Gualcamayo (San Juan); Pirquitas and El Aguilar (Jujuy), Salar del Hombre Muerto (Catamarca), Campo Quijano (Salta) and Andacollo (Neuquén). San Juan has two projects under construction: Pachon and Pascua Lama, the first binational mega-deposit in the hands of Barrick Gold.
The Mining Ministry Office stated in a report in January 2012: “Historical risk investment. 1,031,600 meters drilled. 41.3 percent more was drilled than in 2010 and 664 percent more since the beginning of 2003. Lets promote new productive enterprises,” said the Ministry (“meters of drilling” is the way that exploration activity is measured).
The announcement noted that “the record confirms Argentina as one of the most dynamic countries for this kind of activity.” It explained that “the sharp increase in exploration activity led to the emergence of new enterprises of every kind, with already more than 600.” It also mentioned that the main provinces with mining projects are Santa Cruz, San Juan, Salta, Catamarca, Jujuy, Mendoza, Neuquen and La Rioja.
According to official data from a 2009 report titled “Mining in Numbers”, in 2003 there were only 40 mining projects. In 2009 it increased to 336 (by 840 per cent) and in 2012 it reached 600, a 1500 percent increase since 2003.
In late 2011, the Legal Aid Network (REDAJ) presented to the Public Defenders Office a survey titled “Preliminary Report on the Violation of Rights and the Socio-environmental Conflicts Related to Mining”, which focused on mega-mining projects. It counted 121 projects in “advanced exploration” (whose location and quality of reserves are known but whose financial solvency to begin operation is not). Santa Cruz topped the list (36 projects), Salta (17), Chubut (14), San Juan (11) and Jujuy (eight). Followed by Neuquén (seven), Mendoza, La Rioja and Black River (six each) and Catamarca (four).
“The installation of transnational mining implies different social, legal and environmental issues and conflicts, among which are the intensive use of highly toxic chemicals and the mass consumption of water and energy. This situation places the activity in a structural condition of tension with local populations and presented economic activities,” the report warns.
Argentina has 5000 kilometers of mountains. In a hundred towns there are socio-environmental assemblies that are mostly members of the Union of Citizen Assemblies (UAC). Seven provinces limit in some way, mega-mining projects (Tucuman, Mendoza, La Pampa, Cordoba, San Luis, Chubut and Tierra del Fuego).
Soledad Sede of the REDAJ, said that “The advancement of mining has a direct connection with the violation of human rights, we note that at every attempt to begin a project there is a high level of social conflicts that take years to resolve.”
A process of organization and mobilization has remained in Esquel, and as no coincidence the provincial governments (first Governor Mario Das Neves, and now Martin Buzzi) attempt to repeal the 5001 Act so as to enable mining. The Esquel [mining] project, despite the ban, continues to advance with another Canadian mining company called Yamana Gold.
A decade since the first protests, Monday [March] 18 began with the city covered with the 2003 voting ballots.
“Vote NO to the mining project”, stating explicitly what 81 percent of voters had chosen. Posters of rejection were re-posted on the main streets, and on that Thursday a photo exhibit was opened that displayed the previous decade of struggle. Also giant banners in the shape of envelopes with the word “No” were hung. On Friday and Saturday dozens of talks and presentations about the impacts of mining were held. Some of the topics included; unconventional hydrocarbons, uranium mining and sustainable productive activities that could be undertaken in the province (but that do not receive state support).
On Saturday 23, at 3pm, the Plaza San Martin (the main plaza of Esquel) began to fill with neighbors. There was music, speeches, a giant cake was shared (made by children in a school) and three street bands performed.
One of the bands that formed for the occasion, called “The 23”, gave an overview of the ten years of struggle which provoked many of the attendees to weep. “I never crossed a mine that I wanted to leave so badly, I want to see you lose, so that hope can be reborn again. Never was there a withdrawal so hoped for, shouted from the balconies, and repeated by the neighbors from Ceferino to Cañadón (neighborhoods of Esquel). When there is nothing left, no pizza or empanada, stone or button, there will be a flag like the first: no is no. The (female) neighbor opens the window in the morning, to breathe better and to yell at Yamana (mining): go back to the whore that gave birth to you!”
Later a march began through the streets of the city. In each corner neighbors gathered. Organizers estimated about 6000 people participated (a lot for a population of 35,000). There were many banners: “No is no”, “yes to life, no to mining”, “fracking and mining are wealth for the few and pollution for the many”, “Here struggle is breathed.” There were also the banners and flags of the indigenous peoples of the area (Mapuche-Tehuelche).
There were many black and white T-shirts with the phrase “ten years of struggle, the mountain still stands thanks to its people.”
Marta Sahores, one of the founders of the Neighborhood Assembly, wept: “All of the memories of the last ten years ago are coming back. We are much bigger, we have struggled a lot, our children and grandchildren all here for the same thing. All of this solidarity and union confirms that the mine will not be installed here. We are growing. “
The march traveled almost twenty blocks. Night fell. The neighbors were joined by more people from every block. From the windows people cheered, and the cars honked their horns.
As the march returned to its starting point in the main square, a final document was read: “We believe that true democracy is this, we build it each day as we are truly engaged with our own history rather than participating in a Sunday electoral ritual every once in a while which some manage to reach a position of power. Here they do what they please, as if our votes suddenly convert them into political royalty (…) We believe in the love of the other, the neighbor, and comrade. We believe that the people organized have a lot to teach and learn.”
Esquel’s citizens have suffered persecution, threats and layoffs for opposing a project that was brokered by institutions of power (economic and political). They also suffered being considered discredited, being called (both by officials and the media with mining advertising): “naive”, “with little reality”, “not wanting progress.” And, of course, they said they were going to lose the election.
The Neighborhood Assembly’s statement prior to the 23rd, questioned the current model in Argentina. “We believe that March 23, 2003 is a symbolic date in the history of Esquel and fits into the history of resistance to the neoliberal model.”
A week later, the final document went a bit further in tone: “It doesn’t seem that we have been so naïve, right? But look, what is this day? Is it not a day of dignity? Is it not a day to be remembered when a community with a majority of unemployed, in a place far from the mountains, said no to the false bribery of jobs and wealth? Gentlemen, dignity exists and it’s a human right.”
Ten years after those first days of struggle, Esquel again said “no” to mining and the message continues to resonate among Argentina’s socio-environmental struggles.