Many communities have mobilized in opposition to prevailing mining models in Argentina this year. The use of road blocks to obstruct exportation of goods has been one popular tactic. However, these demonstrations have often been suppressed by police force. On several occasions the residents and activists have been beaten, abused and detained by the police with the approval (tacit or not) of provincial and national authorities. The development of these mining projects has already interfered with people’s fundamental right to water and their constitutional right to a healthy environment. There are growing concerns that individual political freedoms are also in danger.
Mining in Argentina has undoubtedly become a major political issue over the past two decades. Argentina does not have a long history of mining. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries mining was in its infancy, used for national consumption, and developed by a nascent domestic industry. Constitutional and legislative reforms introduced since the 1990s have created favorable regulatory conditions and a tax haven for large transnational mining interests in the country. As a result, unprecedented large-scale mining has been underway across the entire country since the formulation of the National Mining Plan in 2004. The Andes mountains are being bored into by the more than 600 companies already in operation around the country. More companies are projected to begin operations soon.
Resistance began to build against this extractive-export model during the exploratory phase of Argentina’s first mining ventures , often taking the form of assemblies and community groups performing mass demonstrations at the local level. The community of Esquel’s struggle is a classic example. The majority of the population rejected the Meridian Gold mining project through a non-binding referendum, and managed to effect provincial law 5001, which prohibits metalliferous mining and the use of cyanide in the province of Chubut. This law is currently under threat however, since the Chubut Legislature constantly revises it and local governments persist in encouraging so-called “responsible mining“.
Many groups who suffer the consequences of the extractive industry have staged demonstrations this year: including Chilecito (La Rioja), Belén, Fuerte Quemado, Andalgalá, Chaquiago, Tinogasta (Catamarca), Amaicha del Valle (Tucumán) in all provinces and some central mountain ranges (Santiago del Estero, Jujuy, Salta, Chubut, Mendoza, San Juan, Río Negro, San Luis, Córdoba, Neuquén, Santa Cruz). In other words, people mobilized and expressed their opposition to mega-mining in more than half the country.
Demonstrations have been repeatedly suppressed by the police. Residents and activists have been beaten, abused and detained by police on several occasions. This repression of protesters has been supported by the government in two key ways. First, a legal framework has been constructed for the prosecution of activists, by facilitating the criminalization of protest, such as the Terrorism Act adopted on 22 December 2011. Second, the government ignores the demands of the assemblies and environmental organizations through the systematic exclusion of the petitioners as political actors. Luis Beder Herrera, governor of the province of La Rioja, and Jose Luis Gioja, Governor of the Province of San Juan, compared environmentalists to the Nazi regime, calling protestors “meta prisoners”. Likewise, during July this year the governor of the province of Catamarca, Lucia Corpacci, called on the Provincial Court of Justice to take action to disrupt the blocking of Route 60. Dr. Amelia Lewis Sesto, president of the Provincial Court of Justice, stated “prison is the only solution for environmentalists”1.
Sadly, these words have formed the basis for repressive actions against the assemblies that have chosen to defend their territories through legitimate actions. During this year the number of people fighting with state and pro-mining forces has increased:
- On 26 January this year, four assemblymen were arrested in Santa Maria. A day after a new crackdown ensued resulting in the arrest of 18 people
- On February 8 a camp in Belén was destroyed and twenty people were arrested (including a 13 year old boy)
- On 10 February at 3.45 pm, police evacuated the court at Tucumán Amaicha Valley. At 9 a.m on the same day, hundreds of troops violently intervened in Tinogasta, leaving at least a dozen wounded
- On 12 February, and for a week after, critics of mega-mining were denied entrance to Andalgalá. Activists from the Peace and Justice Service (Serpaj) traveled to the site but were denied entry. The Serpaj denounced the “mob” of contractors linked to mining and provincial ruling party militants.
- On February 13, the homes of eight assembly members from Andalgalá were raided.
- On 12 May, assembly members were detained and beaten in Tinogasta.
- On July 20, in Cerro Negro Catamarca, soldiers accompanied by a “pro mining” gang violently and illegally evicted a camp where a peaceful, assembly was being conducted on the outskirts of the province.
The development of open pit mining projects violates the fundamental right to water from the high peaks, which supplies all of the surrounding Andean communities in semi-desert areas. The constitutional right to a healthy environment, as stated in National art. 41 of the constitution is also threatened by this development model. Moreover, there are now concerns that civil liberties are also at risk, including regular exercise of the right to petition the government, the right to equality before the law, the right to protest, freedom of the press, the right to dissent, and the protection of the physical wellbeing of the protesters.
For this reason, it is imperative to call on civilians, institutions of justice, state governments, and the international community to raise their voices in defense of the fundamental rights of individuals exercising their right to petition, to protest , to assemble, to demonstrate publicly, to protect the health and lives of the inhabitants of their communities, and to fulfill their obligation to defend the environment and nature. A call that seeks to end – once and for all – the mining dictatorships we are witnessing in Latin America, and to build, a public space in plurality and democracy with everyone.
By Natalia Salvatico and Diego Martinez, Amigos de la Tierra Argentina