Conservation news

Canadian company positions for mining ban lift in Argentine province

  • Yamana Gold, a Canadian mining company, has partnered with a real estate and investment firm in Argentina to handle “all environmental, social, and governance” issues associated with a potential gold mining project in the province of Chubut.
  • Mining has been banned in Chubut since 2003, primarily as a result of local protests that have continued through early 2020.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted the movement of Argentina’s citizens, but activists say the moves by Yamana and government leaders toward a reopening of the project are taking advantage of the crisis.

Like much of the world, Argentina remains locked down, its citizens more or less homebound due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Amid the torpor, Yamana Gold, a Canada-based mining company, has forged a new partnership around a gold mining project in the Patagonian province of Chubut. The move has led activists to accuse Yamana of taking advantage of the coronavirus crisis to inch toward a rollback of a 17-year ban on mining in the province.

Protest against the Suyai gold project in Esquel, Argentina on May 4, 2020. Image by Cristina Aguero.

Yamana Gold said on April 28 that it had agreed to let a privately held real estate and investment company acquire up to 40% of Yamana’s stake in the Suyai gold project near the town of Esquel. Under the agreement, this company, owned by Argentine businessmen Eduardo Elsztain and Saúl Zang, will be in charge of obtaining permits and “all environmental, social, and governance” issues, according to a statement from the company.

But mining hasn’t been legal in Chubut province since 2003. That year, a local civil society group, now known as “No a la Mina Esquel” — literally, “no to the Esquel mine” — began regular protests held on the fourth day of each month to stop an earlier version of the project. The project was controlled at the time by U.S.-based Meridian Gold, which would later merge with Yamana. In a referendum, 82% of voters cast ballots against allowing the project to move forward. Later, the government passed a law that banned mining in the province.

“It was a huge victory for the community,” Luis Claps, who covers mining in Latin America, said in an interview.

Even after the passage of the law, the monthly protests continued through February 2020. A nearby fire forced the cancellation of the March protest, and by April, federal and provincial restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus kept marchers from gathering at all.

A protester holds a sign that reads, “With face masks but with eyes open, we continue saying: No to mega-mining.” Image by Nicolas Palacios.

Government officials have tried to bring the Suyai project back online, according to a statement from No A La Mina. Leaders who came to power following the 2019 election have reportedly portrayed mining as underway in Chubut. Claps said that many see gold, the price of which has remained relatively stable throughout the crisis, as a potential source of revenue around the country and in Chubut, where the government has recently struggled to pay salaries.

Yamana figures that the Suyai mining project could produce as much as 250,000 ounces (nearly 7,780 kilograms) of gold each year for the first eight years of the project.

For now, Chubut’s mining ban remains in effect. But with the protestors sidelined for the foreseeable future, activists say that the easing of pressure has given companies like Yamana an inroad to restart the project. Another warning sign, activists said, is that the federal government added mining to the list of essential activities in early April.

“In a paralyzed country, with social movements off the streets, where gold mining is considered an essential activity, mining companies continue to try to further devastate the planet,” Marta Sahores, a member of the No a la Mina assembly, said in a written statement shared with Mongabay.

In defiance of the government, protesters marched through the streets of Esquel on May 4. Claps said that marchers were threatened by police and that several may face charges for not abiding by the restrictions.

“While we are in quarantine, the greed of mining companies is not,” Sahores said. “Their ambitions are limitless, but neither is our determination. Listen well: No means no!”

A lake near the town of Esquel, Argentina. Image by Fenton85~commonswiki via Wikimedia Commons.

The community’s repeated rejection of the mining project has, until now, been so successful that other communities have held their own marches to protest proposed or ongoing mining projects. Claps called this the “Esquel effect.”

In December 2019, Governor Rodolfo Suarez of the Argentine province of Mendoza backed a law that would have allowed the use of chemicals like cyanide and sulfuric acid in mining, potentially threatening water supplies for Latin America’s largest wine-growing region. However, relentless protests involving thousands of people ensued. By the first week of 2020, Suarez had reversed course, and the provincial senate voted down the law.

Yamana Gold did not respond to a request for comment. However, the company said in its statement that the Suyai project would be “small scale” and “underground” and that no noxious chemicals like cyanide would be used at the site.

Still, No A La Mina said it would continue to oppose the Suyai project. It pointed out that Yamana, in addition to controlling several other mining projects in Argentina, holds a stake in the Bajo la Alumbrera mine, where extraction of gold, copper and other minerals reportedly polluted the water and caused a marked increase in respiratory diseases in children.

Claps said that reversing the ban in Chubut now, when the pandemic has effectively muzzled the voices of dissent against the mine, “doesn’t seem fair.”

“Why the rush? Why now?” he said. “It doesn’t seem logical.”

Banner image of Lake Cholila in Chubut province, Argentina, by PabloGimenezFlickrMail senden via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0). 

John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon

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