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By Javier Rodríguez Pardo
Just a few thousand meters from the eternally snowy summit, Barrick Gold Corporation is preparing to exploit the scattered remains of gold and silver from the old English mine La Mejicana. The towns of Chilecito and Famatina organize to prevent the only water course they receive from the Andean foothills from disappearing.
Just a few thousand meters from the eternally snowy summit, Barrick Gold Corporation is preparing to exploit the scattered remains of gold and silver from the old English mine La Mejicana. The towns of Chilecito and Famatina organize to prevent the only water course they receive from the Andean foothills from disappearing. They swore to give their lives in defense of the only spring that comes from the Famatina. They know that every drop of water in the province of La Rioja is worth more than a gold ingot, and it is tears that run off the mountain.
Chilecito, forty-eight thousand inhabitants, the second city in the province of La Rioja, warns that it will suffer the same consequences as the seven thousand inhabitants of Famatina. Both towns live in a state of permanent assembly before the announcement of the Canadian transnational company Barrick Gold to exploit the gold deposits of the La Mejicana mine, located in the Nevados del Famatina 277 kilometers from the city of La Rioja and more than 4,500 meters high above sea level.
Organized like so many other communities affected by the new extractive open-pit mining and chemical leaching, the assembly members aim to avoid the destruction of their regional economies and the diaspora of the populations at the foot of the emblematic mountain range. In the crowded facilities of the Newll’s Old Boys club in Chilecito we exhibited about this mining that invades the Andes Mountains and its foothills. The Cordón del Famatina offers a single watercourse whose springs are precisely in contact with the mineral to be extracted. The system that Barrick would use is the same as in the rest of the mountain range, open-pit mining with blasting of hills, rock glaciers and wetlands to obtain stones the size of an inch that they will irrigate with the chemical soup composed of various reagents, dominated in this case, by sodium cyanide, or by sulfuric acid for the copper concentrate.
The assemblies of Chilecito and Famatina planned our meetings with councilors and forces of these localities. In the Deliberative Council and in Capra, the entity that groups Riojan agricultural producers, we held several conferences with our colleague, the mining engineer Hugo González, dedicated to analyzing the Famatina Project Environmental Impact Report. The debate was later extended with the presence of the head of Mining and Environment of the province of La Rioja, Abel Nonino, and a large body of advisers to that secretary, unable to refute the questions, to the point that a local journalist asks him to the official "if he does not intend to resign by not answering any of the questions from the attendees." There was no journalistic medium that did not allude to the result of the debates and the inability of the rulers to give answers: three days later, Governor Ángel Mazza decided to separate Mining from the Environment, granting the latter the rank of Secretariat; Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Luis Beder Herrera did not hesitate to distance himself from the mining policy of the head of government in light of the general discussion in La Rioja regarding this mining: "If they are going to use cyanide or mercury, you have to tell them no" and also " They are going to leave us crumbs, as happens in other places ”.
The Famatina water is sacred
In the environmental impact report, Barrick acknowledges that the Famatina project is located at the headwaters of the Yellow River, with a basin of 550 square kilometers and an average flow of 0.76 cubic meters per second, that is, almost nothing. In other words, according to data on the capacity of this river at its best, they indicate an average flow of 782 liters per second, "being the annual average maximum of 2,165 liters per second and the minimum of 341 liters per second." Based on information from similar mining operations, Barrick will use 1,000 liters of water per second. We then wonder where the transnational will get the liters it lacks and where will Chilecito and Famatina get the water that will meet their needs.
From the innumerable and scattered water reservoirs on the high peaks of the Nevados del Famatina, that is, from the Famatina water factory, three rivers arise, the Yellow, the Marco and the Achavil. All the waters in the area of Los Corrales come together, constituting the Yellow River, which precisely has an intense ocher color. It is the water that they use for irrigation in the Famatina Valley and Plaza Vieja. It is the water to which the mining company will have to resort in addition to the numerous drilling drilling aquifers.
We traveled its entire course and saw the confluence of one and the other riverbed until it became the Yellow. At 4,500 meters above sea level, we registered the water contaminated by the old mining company with a pH of 2, an acidity that contrasts with the other pristine and drinkable watercourse of pH 6.42. In this sense, it seems appropriate to resort to the original text of the consulting firm (MA Consultoría de Mónica Patricia Allita), which produced the Environmental Impact Report of the Famatina Project for Barrick Gold: “The pH data taken in the Yellow River, at from the Cueva de Pérez camp, show a result of pH = 2.00 in its springs, a fact that demonstrates the initial acidity of this river, supposedly due to two factors, one of natural origin, since it crosses zones of sulfide alteration (pyrite, Marcasite, etc.) and the second factor could be due to the presence of old workings (sinkholes with accumulation of water in their interior, slag heaps with sulfur content that leach rainwater draining with acid drainage) that are located in high areas from the sierra, that is, upstream and draining as a tributary of the Yellow River. This last factor could have an influence on the increase in its natural acidity, a hypothesis that should be corroborated with a more detailed study of the area. While the data recorded on the slope that distributes the water to the camp, and which is not related to the previous area, has an acceptable pH with a value of 6.42 ”.
I have highlighted the above passage to indicate to the unsuspecting reader that the report I am referring to is the one that Barrick herself submitted to the provincial government. The company does not hide what all of Famatina already knew and also blames the previous mining company for the contamination of the waters. At the same time, it is common to hear from the employees of this company that the mining that they practice differs from the others because of their responsibility: "That doesn't happen to us," they say with a catchphrase. The truth is that La Mejicana is an exhibition of wild mining, typical exploitation of foreigners that retreats with the loot, leaving the rubble, where there was never any remediation and the current damage is visible.
I admit that one of the happiest moments of my life was spent on top of this mountain. We carried oxygen tubes but they were not necessary. At 5,600 meters everything seems close, the sky and the snow on the peaks; At times the height impacts and some of us breathe with difficulty, fatigued, but being able to describe each of the witness images and bring the guanaco-shaped glacier closer -remembering our good friend Roxana who baptized it- (the top, at 6,100 meters from height, offers the shape of that camelid that we constantly bump into and that roams in herds). But this other hill that we stepped on and that was marked by the mining company with a cairn, will be pulverized and made sterile. La Mejicana contains dozens of disseminated minerals that will be removed by Barrick applying the open pit system and leaching with various reagents. There are many hills that will be blown up by the promiscuity of the new extractive system. Let us remember that the closed mines, whose veins were extracted through underground galleries, are reopened today, but to blow up the rocks where low-grade minerals are found; scattered minerals that had been abandoned as unprofitable. Barrick will attack the Cordón Famatina to extract mainly gold and copper, but also silver, molybdenum and –as it seems- the entire mineral spectrum that makes up the periodic table; To do this, it will consume a thousand liters of water per second and will burn gigantic volumes of fuel to move large equipment that requires 60-meter-wide roads. Barrick's mining operation in Famatina will be similar to that carried out in the San Guillermo Biosphere Reserve, in the province of San Juan, in the Veladero - Pascua Lama complex, where it belatedly recognized the presence of glaciers that will have to intervene to extract the minerals. The same irresponsible miner will act in Famatina. The same mining company that responded with the looter's "scientific" rigor: "we will move the glaciers with mechanical shovels."
Going through the peaks of Famatina is unforgettable, beautiful, majestic, still enduring the permanent zonda wind, cold in the heights and warm in the populated valleys. But registering the damage already produced, scares and anguish. Thousands of tons of iron abandoned, scattered cable-rail chairlifts, rails, wagons, cables, concrete structures and old quarters of the miners of the century-old mine, with the roofs blown away, sheets everywhere, gnawed beams, waste dumps, and rickety sinkholes, dripping acids that we meticulously filmed as proof of the lethal drains left by this mining: the environmental liability.
They left. They left the scum. At the bottom of one of the galleries, the video camera recorded stalactites formed by sulfides, shining brilliantly when hit by light, but evident evidence of the sulfuric acid generated by mining activity when water seeped into the tunnels through the rocks fissured. The galleries are currently frozen rivers, we must walk slowly, a little crouched, worried not to skate on the ice bodies. Outside it is the same, remains of frozen wetlands of what were undoubtedly essential oases for the fauna of the heights. The mining equipment traveled there, altering a vital ecosystem and causing the impact that Barrick's own report includes, the pH of the water, its acidity.
Chilecito is one of the largest production centers in the province of La Rioja. Vineyards, wineries, olive groves, farms and fruit and vegetable production plants. About 35 kilometers away, the town of Famatina also bet on the quality of its walnut trees. The burden of this struggle falls on the people of these valleys. The agricultural production of these towns is threatened, their crops will be affected. Water will be scarce even more and what little there is will be contaminated. At present, the water for human consumption that comes from those springs requires prior treatment, although there is suitable groundwater of good quality. For agriculture, on the other hand, surface water resources are used, in the Bermejo basin and in the Famatina Valley, although in this case their quality decreases due to the high boric and saline content.
Water is the most precious asset in La Rioja. Scarce. A drop is worth more than a gold bar. The Famatina would produce 8.4 grams of gold per ton of rock at some sites; the average farm also leaves twenty tons of rubble for each gold ring. The inhabitants of these Rioja valleys do not stop observing the snow-covered figure of Famatina on a daily basis. That guanaco shape that grows thinner due to global warming, insist our friends from the assembly installed in Famatina; effect to which mining contributes so much. Thinking that 85% of the gold goes to jewelery shop windows does not fit in the minds of the people of La Rioja, because to dress those windows life is destroyed on the roof of the Famatina, upstream.
Can we accept such a contradiction? Can we allow so much damage?
The assemblies mobilized in these towns have already given the answer. Our talks in the colleges and schools produced rich exchanges and there was no neighborhood meeting that did not require our presence. Citizen participation multiplies daily in La Rioja.
The commemoration of Independence
The civic-military parade on July 9 in Famatina was a paradigm of the struggle that is beginning. The words of the mayor and the student of the agricultural school turned that date into a resounding rejection of mining in the Cordón Famatina. The schools raised posters "For Life and Against this Mining", people paraded with chinstraps, which does not need further explanation. As for me, I had one of the greatest satisfactions of my life. Getting excited at the top of the mountain was one, but even greater to respond to the invitation of the municipality which consisted of closing the act of July 9 with our message against this scourge. I did not expect that. Actually, we were not expecting it and I find it difficult to write about it. But that's how it was, in front of the town of Famatina and for thirty minutes, I explained each of the reasons why we confront the transnationals of looting and contamination. There, in front of the students, teachers, security forces and the gendarmerie, we were able to talk about the critical and strategic minerals that are coming to be taken away, the environmental liabilities that they will leave behind, and the fight we have ahead defending the water with all our might and pointing the way for future generations. In front of the snowy peaks I remembered that one of the first books I read as a student was "My Mountains", by Joaquín V. González. Precisely the mountains in front of me. So when referring to the imposing massif, to which the author was able to allude, I was able to convey the interior of the Nevado, the hidden rock glaciers, the threads of water that come out of its entrails and that the fact of today commemorating the independence in this place is precisely because we have the springs that allow us to live and sow. The wealth that inhabits Famatina are not natural resources, they are common goods. Our obligation is to preserve them, understanding that the ecosystem is the greatest good and destroying it is contributing to Nothingness. The best commemoration of Independence is to expel the mining invader and not stop denouncing those who opened the doors for dispossession and looting.
With my good friend, the engineer Hugo González, we spent a week of noisy meetings. May these lines also serve to thank the peoples of Chilecito and Famatina and all of La Rioja, for the generosity, the welcome and the affectionate farewell lunch, turned into a true assembly for the numerous legion of participants and for the commitment we have assumed .
* Javier Rodríguez Pardo, Chubut Antinuclear Movement (MACH), National Environmental Action Network (RENACE). Patagonian Coordinating Assembly For Life Against Pollution and Looting.
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