The Agua Rica mineral deposit in Argentina’s northwestern province of Catamarca is estimated to be three times bigger than one of the largest and most lucrative mines in South America, Bajo de Alumbrera, which lies only 35 km away from Agua Rica . However, since the Agua Rica deposit was first explored by Northern Orion and BHB Billiton in 1994, it has been a point of tension and conflict between the mining companies and the local residents, so the mine has yet to be productive.
The Agua Rica mine is currently owned by Yamana Gold, a Canadian mining company that primarily operates in South America. They acquired Agua Rica when they purchased Meridian Gold and Northern Orion in 2007 . Yamana Gold submitted an environmental impact report in 2007 to the Secretariat of Mining and was granted approval from the Government of Catamarca to begin construction in 2009 . However, before Yamana could begin construction at the mine, the local communities had mobilized to prevent any mining activity from taking place. In December 2009, people from the local assemblies of Andalgalá, Santa Maria, and Belén blocked the road leading to the Agua Rica project. This was one of many actions taken by the community members, assemblies, environmental activists, and others to demonstrate their opposition to the Agua Rica Mine, and often their public protests were met with heavy-handed police crackdowns . In February 2010, all mining-related activity was suspended at Agua Rica due to the violence that occurred as a result of the anti-mining protests and subsequent police repression .
The mobilization against the Agua Rica mine has been fueled mainly by community member’s environmental and public health concerns, such as the mining activity’s threat of air pollution, water contamination, water supply, and soil contamination. These environmental and public health concerns are of particular importance because of the mine’s location: it is located 17 km from the center of Andalagá city, at the intersection of three rivers which provide water to the community, and less than 35 km away from Argentina’s largest mine, Bajo de Alumbrera . The position of this mine poses a serious threat by potential contamination and overuse of the local communities’ water supply. Agua Rica’s proximity to Bajo de Alumbrera means that if Agua Rica enters production, there will be two megamines using local water supplies during rock processing. Community members have remained strong in their beliefs and continued voicing their opposition and demonstrating against the construction of this mine.
Due to their inability to advance its Agua Rica project, in 2011 Yamana Gold signed a deal with GoldCorp and Xstrata that facilitated its integration into Minera Alumbrera, GoldCorp and Xstrata’s Argentine subsidiary and the primary operating company at Bajo de Alumbrera. This deal also gave Yamana 100% ownership over Agua Rica and gave them a small interest in Bajo de Alumbrera . Despite their bolstered power in the region, Yamana Gold has still been unsuccessful in advancing the project.
The communities surrounding Agua Rica have continued to put pressure on local government, national government, and the mining companies to stop this project by way of public protests, community referendums, and legal challenges. In August 2012, the assembly of Algarrobo wrote a resolution ordering the immediate suspension of the Agua Rica mining project because it violates the National Glacier Act, which prohibits mining or oil drilling in glacier zones of the country . On January 4, 2013, Yamana Gold announced that Agua Rica would be entering production in 2018; however, it is unlikely that the community pressure against this project will let up .