Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Part 1: pascua-lama, the debated mining project

Barrick Gold is a mining company from Canada who has mines all over the world: North America, South America, Africa, and in Australia and the Pacific. One possible mining project in the north of Chile, seven years after being proposed but still waiting to break ground, is the controversial project Pascua-Lama.

Pascua-Lama is a mountain that sits on the border of Chile and Argentina- Pascua being the name on the Chilean side, Lama being the Argentinian name. In the middle of the driest region in Chile, Pascua-Lama's glaciers are a critical source of natural water for the whole Huasco Valley. These glaciers create the Huasco river which runs across the width of the country to the Pacific Ocean. The mountain contains large deposits of gold, silver, and copper, which will be mined over the estimated period of time of 20 years. A highly debated project, those in favor say that Barrick will bring jobs to the Huasco Valley which suffers from staggering unemployment. Those against the project argue that the damage to nearby glaciers and environmental contamination do not justify the promised jobs and question whether the people of the Huasco Valley even have the skills to be accepted as workers with the company.

Mining has long been the driving force behind Chile's economy. Companies from around the world have been involved in the mining scene on varying levels. Chile's mineral deposits have been the source of profit and destruction for hundreds of years, and the politics of mines, the rights of companies and those of miners have continually been debated. Pascua-Lama has technically been approved by the Chilean government, and some-- like the Barrick website-- may argue that is has also been accepted by the inhabitants of the Huasco Valley. Upon my recent return from a second trip into the Huasco Valley, I will begin to dissect what my team and I are learning about the project and about the mining industry.

When I first read about the Pascua-Lama project, I had already been in Chile for 4 months. An article appeared on the BBC World News website debating some of the key issues at hand such as contamination and unemployment. As I began to read articles online severely criticizing Barrick Gold and viciously condemning the Pascua-Lama project as an environmental disaster, I decided to plan a trip to the valley to speak directly with the people there and see if the 94% of the farmers and water users who Barrick says voted in favor of the project truly embrace it. What we discovered is a complicated fight that involves multiple countries and their governments, a cast of powerful individuals who are so invested in the project you have to wonder why, an agricultural valley with a history that dates back before the Incas, and a mountain of gold that has this huge corporation willing to do anything to move forward with their plans. Some say that Chile, still referenced as a developing country, needs this mine and needs the jobs. Some may argue that this is the way the world works, and if not Barrick, then another corporation will move in and do the same. Others favor the valley, the environment, and those who have been living for centuries working the land. With the project approved but stuck on a legal debate, many in the valley still have hope that they can stop it. For both sides, each day is crucial.