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Mining Glaciers

Water or Gold?

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

Early last year former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush flew to Asia to meet survivors of the tsunami and pledged to help them rebuild their lives after that terrible disaster. Later in the year they visited the southern states of America hit by hurricane Katrina and set up the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund, calling for donations from the sympathetic public to help the survivors of that disaster.

‘Poppy’ Bush enjoys presenting himself as a humane and caring man of the people. All the more surprising then to discover that he should be counted as a leading instigator in creating ands supporting potentially one of the most serious environmental man-made disasters in recent times.

Among the armory of titles acquired by ex-President Bush during his eventful life is that of Honorary Senior Advisor to the Canada-based Barrick Gold Corporation (with 22 mines in four continents, the world’s largest gold miner), a position he has held since 1995 when he was brought on board by founder Peter Munk to develop the company’s international holdings. The job title may sound innocuous, but Bush senior plays an important role as chief business developer for the company, his connections with the upper echelons of society have reaped rich dividends for Barrick in mining deals.

Describing itself, the company claims: "Barrick’s vision is to be the world’s best gold mining company by finding, acquiring, developing, and producing quality reserves in a safe, profitable and socially responsible manner. It has quality assets, an unrivalled pipeline of projects and more than 20,000 dedicated employees working on five continents to deliver value. In 2006, the Company will start to realize the opportunities that are available as a result of its new strength, breadth and scale."

One of the projects in its unrivalled pipeline due to go ahead this year in the Atacama mountains between Chile and Argentina is the Pascua Lama Project, where Barrick plan to dig out an enormous reserve of gold and silver deposits detected under three of the glaciers there. Barrick said the Pascua Lama project entails an investment of billions of dollars and has reserves of some 18.3 million ounces of gold, which will be accessed through an open-pit mine over a period of 20 years.

The process, which Barrick describes as ‘relocating ice-resources’ will entail breaking and destroying the majestic glaciers of Chile–an action unheard of in the history of the world – and the creation of two huge holes, each as big as a whole mountain, one for extraction and the other as the mine’s rubbish tip.

The assault on the glaciers will destroy the source of the special pure water which flows into the two rivers of the Valle de San Felix, and upon which the indigenous farmers rely to nourish their fields in a region of low rainfall. Apart from the water shortages and illnesses caused by the pollution that will result from the working of the massive open-pit mine, it is feared that the rivers will become so contaminated by the use of cyanide and sulphuric acid in the extraction process that they will never again be fit for human or animal consumption.

The farmers of the area have spoken out vociferously against plans for this exploitation of their land, but protests have been stifled. A TV appeal calling for support in their cause was banned by the Chilean Ministry of the Interior.

A letter calling for the cancellation of the Pascua Lama project with over 18,000 signatures presented to the President of Chile in 2005 was met by police violence. Protesters were charged when they tried to place chunks of ice representing the glaciers that the project will destroy in front of the La Moneda government palace:

We are the inhabitants of the Huasco Valley, Third Region of Chile, from different political, religious, cultural and ethnical origins, who have been affected by the mining activities in the high Andes Mountains," the letter read.

We consider that the risks involved in these mining activities threaten the economical, social, cultural and environmental sustainability of the valley, to the quality of life of its inhabitants and to their traditional activities.

The threats to the ecosystem, to the life and the plans of the present and future communities of the valley, lead us to reject with determination any mining activity that has been proven to be non compatible with agriculture, the health of the people, the water quality and the conservation of the ecosystems in the middle and the long term.

We live in an agricultural valley that has proved to be viable, economically profitable and with a promising future for the population. We will defend this sustainability against the aggressive activities that threaten the valley and its people.

Mr. President, we state once again, after you made a commitment with us, that the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate have more value than the gold coveted by the multinationals Barrick Gold, Noranda and the others that will come behind them, in he hope of increasing their wealth in this Chilean mining paradise.

We will never rest until the safety of the valley and its people is ensured and we will fight for it. The people chose you to protect the interests of all the inhabitants of Chile, not for the benefit of the multinational mining companies. Mr. President, our interest is to protect the valley, please respect it, promote it, and safeguard it.

Mining at the headwaters of the river basins will pollute our water and will destroy our invaluable glaciers, while the mining agreement with Argentina tries to tie our hands. We will no longer be able to export our products, and trade agreements will be of no use for us.

Chile is trying to elevate its name in the international community but the destruction of our valley will do the opposite. We and all our future generations need you, Mr. President, as well as all the elected officials, to assume your mandates with ethics and responsibility.

We will remain alert and ready for action, exercising our rights to democracy and participation. We will not allow our lives and our valley to suffer the consequences of bad political practices and the abuse of mining companies willing to increase their profits at any price, even at the expense of our ecosystems and our people.

At a world mining conference in Santiago last week, Igor Gonzales, president of Barrick Gold South America, said remaining details of the $1.5 billion project were on track for final approval by the Chilean government, and that the problems the project is confronting are no different from those of its other projects around the world. "The biggest challenges we are facing by far, in both South America and Africa, are ‘social’ in nature," he said.

The impassioned letter which the people of the Huasco Valley wrote was addressed to the former Chilean president, His Excellency Ricardo Lagos Escobar, a self-described ‘Socialist’ politician. He has since been replaced by first woman to hold the position of president in the history of the country, (Her Excellency?) Michelle Bachelet. She also describes herself as a Socialist.

Surely, therefore, as such, she might be appealed to in her position of power and authority to champion the cause of her people and country and prevent the inevitable environmental, ecological and social disaster that will result from giving the go-ahead to a gold-hungry foreign corporation to despoil the beauty of the Pascua Lama and ruin the natural livelihood of a people that has depended on the water from the glaciers for centuries.

Water is essential to life. Gold is a soft and pretty metal that has made men mad. And when mad man plays God with the planet for the sake of Mammon, disaster will surely follow.

We await the decision of the Chilean President. Will she give permission for this legalized rape of her country by the gold-diggers?

In the meantime let us turn closer to home and appeal to a self-proclaimed man of the people–(though far from Socialist!) – His Excellency George ‘Poppy’ Bush – papa of the present President of the USA, one himself in the past. May we not appeal to him, the Appointed Honorary Senior Advisor of the Barrick Corporation to see beyond his own greed and that of his familiars, and to call a halt to this latest massive act of destruction and disaster the company stands poised to inflict upon our poor patient planet?

Or, on review of past behaviour by members of the Bush family, and the consequences thereof, must we ultimately recognize that such an appeal to his humanity would be useless, and admit to ourselves the bitter truth of that well-worn adage – as we stare with horror at the brazen selfish culpability of the Bushes; their unrelenting greed and hypocricy and corruption

"Like Father, Like Son!"

NO A PASCUA-LAMA!
Water is more precious than gold!

MICHAEL DICKINSON is an English teacher working in Istanbul Turkey. He can be contacted at www.stuckism.com/Dickinson/Index.html or mdickinson@kablonet.com.tr