Mining Trouble

In recent years, high commodities prices, lax national laws and corrupt governments have intensified interest in mining Latin America’s vast ore lodes. But miners are increasingly pitted against indigenous movements demanding, sometimes violently, social investments and environmental protections.

Across Guatemala, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Mexico, indigenous protesters have turned water contamination, deforestation and land rights issues into turbulence. Last August, for example, leaders from 20 Mayan communities in western Guatemala accused Canadian miner Skye Resources of operating mines that, among other things, have contaminated water supplies and resulted in "massive fish and aquatic bird kills" in some areas.

Last May, some 2,000 protesters near Espinar, Peru briefly took control of the world’s third-largest copper mine, causing Australian mine operator BHP Billiton to shut down the facility for four weeks. The company reopened and is currently negotiating with local protesters who, among other things, demanded the company boost its community payouts from $1.5 million to $20 million a year.

Farmers in Chile’s Huasco valley have held up Canadian mine operator Barrick Gold, which planned to open its Pascua Lama gold project along the border of Chile and Argentina in 2005. That project, which involves moving a 25-acre piece out of three pristine, high-altitude glaciers, is set to begin in 2009 but is fiercely opposed by local groups. Another flashpoint occurred in 2004, when Peruvian protesters laid siege to a gold mine owned by Newmont Mining, eventually scuttling the company’s expansion plans.

Mining companies say local officials don’t always steer their community payments to the poor and miners often become surrogate governments, producing jobs and funneling money to clinics and schools. But the backlash continues.

Jamie Kneen, spokesperson for Mining Watch Canada, says it’s unclear if the number of populist clashes has grown or if globalized media has brought them more into focus. But he and other activists, including Roger Moody of Mines and Communities, a British-based group, say globalized information, democratization and receding fear of government have emboldened populist movements.

Furthermore, Moore says mining companies historically have forced unwelcome projects on developing areas (especially in Asia and Africa) because opponents were geographically dispersed or lacked capacity to organize. That, he says, is not the case in Latin America.

Chuni Botto, an activist in Esquel, Argentina helped lead a voter mobilization in 2004 that has blocked Meridian Gold’s plan to build an open-pit mine near her community. "Popular movements against mines are growing," she says. Botto adds that "the biggest enemy" of mines is the Internet, which allowed her town to inform the rest of Argentina about water contamination and "the lies of economic development."

The Internet has also helped raise awareness "about the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which in the 1990s obligated developing countries to loosen their mining codes, giving shameful benefits to multinationals," Botto says. She adds that her movement will remain mobilized, knowing that "the countries most permeable to mines are countries with the most corruption."