Prime Minister Stephen Harper was greeted by a small group of protesters as he visited mining giant Barrick Gold's headquarters in Chile yesterday.
Security was tight for Harper's visit, with RCMP officers guarding the front doors of Barrick's offices and local police in full body gear keeping a close watch over the protesters. About a dozen protesters sang and displayed signs, one of which read: "Canada: What's HARPERing here." Some passing cars honked their horns at the display.
Harper's visit to Barrick is the most controversial stop to date of his six-day tour of Latin America and the Caribbean. He acknowledged the controversy earlier this week after a meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, but said he is confident Barrick is following all of Chile's laws.
A spokesperson for Barrick Gold said the protest was organized by a small group of radicals opposed to development in Chile.
Rodrigo Jimenez, Barrick's director of corporate affairs in Chile, said it is normal for a project such as Pascua-Lama – a massive gold and silver mine that straddles the border with Argentina – to "generate a lot of attention." But he said the dozen protesters who turned up outside of the company's offices to greet Harper were a "small minority."
Much of the opposition to the Canadian company's investment is "a result of professional activism that, unfortunately, opposes any type of development," he said.
"That's just part of today's society," Jimenez told reporters. "There's a small, very vocal minority, a lot of it promoted by anti-globalization NGOs."
The company put on a display yesterday complete with a scale model of the proposed open-pit mine, which has not yet gained all the necessary approvals to go into production. The region where the mineral deposits are located is home to about 70,000 people, and Barrick said it has received 70,000 resumés from locals looking for work once production gets underway.
"We are positive that Pascua-Lama will result in a number of benefits to the community," Jimenez said.
Chilean lawmakers have called for a review of the Pascua-Lama project based on findings that three glaciers near the site have already shrunk by up to 70 per cent ostensibly as a result of Barrick's actions in determining the scale of the project. Jimenez said the erosion of the glaciers is the result of global warming and other environmental factors, not Barrick.
The human rights arm of the Organization of American States has been asked to rule on a complaint from the local indigenous population that the environmental damage from the mine will force them off their traditional lands high in the Andes mountains. A local farmer who sold a huge swath of land to Barrick for the equivalent of $20 is suing the company, saying that he was swindled.
Later yesterday, Harper travelled on to Barbados, where he is set to meet today with leaders of a number of Caribbean countries, to deliver a speech and to board the HMCS Fredericton, which the Canadian navy says is on regular security patrol in the Caribbean basin.
"We've sent very positive signals that Canada wants to re-engage with the Caribbean after, to some degree, an inexplicable absence in a region where Canada has had deep historic ties," Harper said, noting the number of countries that were former French or British colonies.
Harper said that he is unsure why Canada has been absent in the region, but "we're going to reverse that ..."