Border Mining Projects in Latin America Before Ethics Tribunal

(IPS) – Latin American activists who want to call attention to mining developments located in border areas will gather in Chile to “pass judgement” on projects they regard as detrimental to local communities, the environment and national security.

“One of the features of mining today is its expansion into traditionally untouched areas, where entry was forbidden for geopolitical or national security reasons, like border zones,” Lucio Cuenca, of the Chilean branch of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told IPS.

OLCA is one of the organisers of the first ethics tribunal against border mining, to be convened Sept. 30 in the Chilean capital. Projects on the borders between Argentina and Chile, Ecuador and Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, El Salvador and Guatemala, Mexico and Guatemala, and Costa Rica and Nicaragua will be examined.

A typical example is the case of Argentina and Chile, which signed a mining integration and complementarity treaty in 1997. So far a bilateral commission has licensed five projects to operate in the glacier-rich Andes mountain range that forms the border between the two countries.

Foremost among them is the controversial Pascua Lama mine, belonging to Canada’s Barrick Gold, in the northern Chilean region of Atacama and the northwestern Argentine province of San Juan. Others include El Pachón, Las Flechas, Vicuña and Amos-Andrés, all owned by foreign capital; and the Cerro Cuadrado project in Patagonia, of the Canadian Desarrollo de Prospectos Mineros company, is in the planning stage.

All these projects face opposition from local communities and environmentalists.

According to Cuenca, the environmental, social and political effects of these mining projects, which are mainly in the hands of transnational corporations, constitute a “new reality” that needs to be made visible, since it is not being dealt with by “institutions that should protect human rights, whether bilateral or international.”

Activists are also critical of the whole-hearted support given to the mines by the governments of the countries involved. OLCA, for instance, has found similarities between the Chilean-Argentine mining treaty and some IIRSA (Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America) project documents.

The panel of judges will be made up of Latin American personalities, and verdicts will be delivered on three levels: states, mining companies and countries of origin of the companies.

In the Cóndor mountain range

In northern Peru, along the border with Ecuador, mining concessions since February 2005 nearly tripled by June 2010. There are two emblematic examples: the Afrodita mining company owned by Canadian capital, and Río Blanco, belonging to China’s Zijin company.

Afrodita has a goldmining concession in the Cóndor mountain range in the Peruvian province of Amazonas, home to the native Awajún people and widely known as the site of the brief 1995 border war between Peru and Ecuador. Río Blanco is a projected copper mine in Piura province, an area of small farms.

Both projects are at the exploration stage, and are unwanted by the majority of indigenous and small farmer communities, who fear the mines will pollute their rivers and forests. A similar situation holds in the southern provinces of Puno and Tacna, which border on Bolivia and Chile, respectively.

José de Echave of CooperAcción, a Peruvian NGO working for development in mining and coastal areas, told IPS: “The government has no policy that considers the safety risks and possible harm to the environment before granting concessions in border areas. It all just seems to be improvised.”

Peru’s constitution bans the granting of concessions to foreign capital within 50 kilometres of the border, unless a government decree is approved declaring the enterprise to be of national interest. Between 2002 and 2009, 23 such decrees were issued.

Magdiel Carrión, a small farmers’ leader in Piura and head of the National Confederation of Peruvian Communities Affected by Mining (CONACAMI), opposes Zijin’s project because of its possible effects on the high plateaus and the Blanco river, which gives rise to two other rivers on the border with Ecuador.

According to Carrión, mining projects generate division and violence between those who are in favour and those against. “I hope that at the ethics tribunal in Chile, what these companies are doing will come out into the open, and that they will be punished in some form,” he said.

The Pantanal wetlands

In Bolivia, there is concern over the Mutún iron ore mining project, worked by India’s Jindal Steel company, in the eastern province of Santa Cruz which borders on Brazil.

According to Patricia Molina of the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development, the Mutún mine would strengthen a steel making centre in the area around Corumbá, in the southwestern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, overriding Bolivian interest in access to the iron ore and finished goods derived from it.

Because iron ore processing demands enormous volumes of water, a huge environmental impact will immediately be perceived in the Bolivian sector of the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetlands, which have a regulatory effect on climate, Molina told IPS.

Four years after a contract was signed between Jindal Steel and the Bolivian government, there has been little activity on the project, but some indigenous communities have already been forbidden to use natural lakes as a water source, he said.

Central America and Mexico

The Washington-based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) asked the Guatemalan state May 20 to suspend gold and silver extraction at the Marlin mine, located in the southwestern province of San Marcos on the border with Mexico, as a precautionary measure to protect 18 indigenous communities.

However, the Montana Exploradora company, a subsidiary of Canada’s GoldCorp that has been accused of polluting several river basins, continues to operate the mine because of administrative delays in the suspension procedure.

Meanwhile Entre Mares, another GoldCorp subsidiary, is in charge of the Cerro Blanco mine in the southeastern province of Jutiapa, bordering El Salvador, which faces opposition by Salvadoran and Guatemalan social organisations.

“There is a risk of a binational political conflict, because El Salvador can legally argue that the human rights of its citizens are being violated,” due to alleged pollution of the Lempa river and Lake Güija, both of which are shared between the two countries and are water sources for the Salvadoran population, Rafael Maldonado of the Guatemalan Centre for Legal, Environmental and Social Action (CALAS) told IPS.

Natalia Atz of Asociación Ceiba, a Guatemalan social organisation, told IPS that holding mining companies accountable in an ethics tribunal is a great opportunity to show the serious harm the industry is inflicting on Latin American communities.

Ana María Alvarado, a leader with the Observatory on Mining Conflicts in Latin America (OCMAL), told IPS that she will present a case at the ethics tribunal in Santiago against Canadian company Blackfire Exploration, which mines barium oxide in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala.

In November, Mariano Abarca, a leader of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA) and a known opponent of Blackfire, was murdered. The mine has been closed since December.

A delegation of Canadian NGOs visited Chiapas this year, and found environmental damages, corruption and human rights violations had been committed by the mining company.

* With additional reporting by Milagros Salazar (Lima), Franz Chávez (La Paz), Danilo Valladares (Guatemala City) and Emilio Godoy (Mexico City).