How do you detect an obscene government?
They’re the ones that ratify mining laws
They’ve got Barrick Gold tattooed on their skin
They give everything to foreign companies
The entire cordillera, except the hotels
-Las Pastillas del Abuelo 1
Barrick Gold’s deeds in Argentina have been decried by ecologists, legislators, and lawyers. More recently, Barrick’s name has been made synonymous with government malfeasance, thanks to a hit song by the well known Buenos Aires Band Las Pastillas del Abuelo.
Over the last ten years, Barrick has used every resource at its disposal to plow ahead with trillion dollar plans to dig open pit mines in the high Andes: buying up local media, hiring high level lobbyists, ignoring national legislation, and refuting scientific data on contamination.
The Pascua Lama project, which is slated to open in 2013, has been met with resistance that’s become known around the world. The gold, silver and copper mine is an incredibly lucrative project for Barrick, which estimates its cash costs per ounce of gold at a mere $25 to $50 over the first five years of production.2 With gold hovering over $1500 an ounce, the company stands to reap $6 billion from mining at Pascua Lama over the first five years.3
To permit the mine, Barrick had to negotiate a special treaty protocol with the governments of Argentina and Chile, since it is a cross border operation: the mine pits will be in Chile, connected by a tunnel through the mountains to the processing plant in Argentina.
Just 10km south of the proposed site of Pascua Lama, Barrick operates the Veladero gold and silver mine. Construction there began in 2003, and last year the company mined almost 80 million tonnes of earth and produced over a million ounces of gold. The mine is an open pit, heap leaching project, and it is expected to stay open for another seven years.
The entire Veladero mine is in Argentina, nestled into the Andes at an altitude of between 4,000 and 4,800 meters. In winter months, temperatures at the mine site can drop to -30 Celsius, winds blow at 200km per hour, and the snowpack can reach meters high.4
Local opposition politicians have decried illegalities in the granting of water permits to Barrick gold. They note that Jorge Eduardo Millón took consulting contracts to design the hydrological model used by Barrick at Veladero and proposed at Pascua Lama, and later, in his capacity at the Department of Hydrology for the state of San Juan, Millón granted Barrick the right to use over 500 litres per second of water.5
Barrick has also been fighting federal legislation introduced in Argentina to prevent the disturbance of glaciers. The company claims the law is unconstitutional, and enjoys the full backing of that state of San Juan. “The strong opposition to the Law adopted in the National Congress demonstrates that there are mining projects that are already affecting the areas that the new norms aim to protect, and that’s why there are strong pressures on the senate from political-economic entities to stop the law,” said Juan Carlos Villalonga, Greenpeace’s campaign director in Argentina, in a statement last fall.6
As of July 2011, a full nine months after the law was adopted in congress, it still is not being applied in the province of San Juan.7
In May, Argentina’s ex-secretary of Environment, Romina Picolotti, declared that Pascua Lama and Veladero “don’t comply with environmental and mining norms, generating serious and dangerous impacts for environmental and human health.”8 Picolotti now works for the Centre for Human and Environmental Rights Foundation (CEDHA), which released a report in May documenting abnormal concentrations of lead, mercury, aluminum, arsenic, and petroleum products in rivers and springs near the Veladero mine.9 The company and the government of Argentina both claimed that the report was false.10
In addition to environmental controversies, there’s labour issues at the mine, and fatalities at Veladero are not unknown. In February 2011, a driver subcontracted by Barrick was killed in a crash at the mine site.11
The controversy surrounding these actions has forced Barrick to go on the offensive.
After their spokesperson Julio Turcumán became the editor of Diario de Cuyo, a local newspaper near the Veradero mine, another news site reported that the company had bought shares in the Diario.12
In another move designed to guarantee their continued profitmaking, the company named right wing Spanish ex-president José Maria Aznar to its board of directors.
Aznar was a supporter of Francisco Franco’s fascist regime in Spain as a youth, and as president, oversaw a wave of privatizations and sent Spanish troops into George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Just last week Aznar met with Argentine President Cristina Kirchner to ensure that Barrick would not be subject to new legislation.13
2. Barrick Gold. (March 31, 2011). Annual Information Form for the year ended
December 31, 2010. SEDAR. Pp. 80.
3. Calculated based on Barrick’s maximum projections of producing 800,000 ounces
of gold per year.