“Water is worth more than gold!” was the chief battle of protesters in a
June 2 march against the Pascua Lama mining project and the company
responsible, Canadian-based transnational Barrick Gold. The march has
become an annual event for Region III's Vallenar (the closest main town to
Pascua Lama) since news of the project reached the community over three
The Pascua Lama gold mine, located in the Andes straddling the
Chilean-Argentine border, has prompted strong local, national and
international criticism. Opponents fear the project will destroy the
ancient glaciers under which the gold deposits are located. The glaciers
represent important fresh water reserves. Critics are also concerned the
mine could contaminate the nearby Estrecho River with cyanide and mercury.
The Estrecho is currently the only remaining uncontaminated river in
northern Chile. Some 70,000 farmers rely on it for their livelihoods (VT
The Chilean government approved the project last year on the grounds that
the glaciers wouldn’t be damaged. The mine is now in the initial stages of
implementation, and partial destruction of three glaciers on the site has
already been reported by environmental watchdog the Latin American
Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA) (ST Apr. 12). Key
archaeological sites relating to the Diaguita indigenous group have also
already been destroyed by mining activity.
Three years on, the Vallenar community seemed well used to putting up a
fight. “No a Pascua Lama” signs peered out of windows, anti-Barrick
stencils branded the streets and visiting bands of noisy, oddly-dressed
urban hippies didn't draw the same stares as in other small Chilean towns.
Some protest banners and puppets looked extremely well worn - a model of
the mayor lost its arm during the march - and chants sounded extremely
well-rehearsed. “We don't want to be a North American colony,” was one of
the more popular cries.
The 2,000-strong march arrived at the town square in the early afternoon,
where Diaguitas in colorful costumes welcomed protesters with an energetic
traditional dance. Speakers from the wide range of groups involved then
had their chance to “sound off” against Barrick and Pascua Lama.
Environmentalist groups from as far away as Santiago and Valparaíso spoke
of the symbolic importance of stopping the mine. “If this one goes ahead,
it will open the door for many more foreign-owned projects that don't take
Chile's environment and welfare into account,” said Valpo spokesperson
Francisco Marín, who also commented on the necessity of changing the
Chilean Constitution to prevent such projects being attempted in future.
A Vallenar poet spoke of the project as just one more event in a
“500-year-long project of exploitation of Latin America.”
Local farmers showed a slightly different attitude, “I don't care about
any of that. I'm just worried about my job,” said one.
Religious groups also had a strong presence. Local station Radio Profeta
(Prophet Radio) broadcasted the event live to the entire province, and
priest Juan Barraza made a passionate speech. “People have said this is a
David and Goliath battle. But I say, who won in the end?” he said.
Speaker Mario Mautz talked of the hope still remaining in a lawsuit
against Barrick, regarding unlawful land acquisition for the Pascua Lama
project. The corporation bought 8,600 hectares of land from illiterate
farmer Rodolfo Villar for 10,000 pesos (US$19). Villar believed he was to
be paid 10 million pesos (US$19,000) for the property. If the sale is
deemed illegal, the loss of this key stretch of territory will make
implementation of the project very difficult for Barrick.
The march ended peacefully, with a classic Chilean communal picnic lunch
of “porotos con rienda” (beans with pumpkin and spaghetti) in the town