Bajo de Alumbrera
In 1992, Yacimientos Mineros de Agua Dionisio, a state owned mining company, awarded the Alumbrera concession to Canadian owned company International Musto Exploration. Six years later, the Canadian mining company GoldCorp began mining operations Bajo de Alumbrera. Today, the mine is among the ten largest copper enterprises in the world and among the fifteen largest gold enterprises in the world. Every year, the mine generates $680 million in revenue. The mine is located in the northeastern province of Catamarca in Argentina’s major mining region. Despite the immense wealth that has been generated by the mine, the Alumbrera mine is a source of great conflict and tension in the region.
The mine has been a source of conflict for the inhabitants of the nearby communities since its inception. Community members have been mainly concerned over the potential negative environmental impacts as well as the potentially harmful effects on local social and economic development. The environmental threats to surrounding areas include soil contamination, water contamination, air pollution, and water depletion. The community members’ concerns over water are predicated on the fact that the mine uses around 50 million liters of water daily, in order to process the 360 tons of rocks moved every day. This causes a significant decrease in the availability of uncontaminated and unprocessed water, which spawned great discontent for the people living near the mine.
The conflict between the mining companies and the local inhabitants began shortly after operations commenced at the mine in 1998. In April 1999, Juan González, a biologist at the National University of Tucumán as well as the secretary of the Environment for the province of Tucumán, accused the authorities of Minera Alumbrera of contaminating the DP2 Canal with toxic fluids. Though the attorney of Tucumán, Antonio Gustavo Gómez, rejected his accusation, it brought heightened attention to issues surrounding the mine. Concerns over the environmental threats resurfaced in 2002 when Oscar Beltrán, the defense lawer of the nearby village of Santiago, inspected the Salí Dulce river, close to the Alumbrera mine, and confirmed that it was contaminated because of the industrial waste from the Alumbrera plant. In light of Beltrán’s findings, Gomez launched an investigation into the Minera Alumbrera company.
In 2006, local community members began to take a more central role in the conflict when they demanded that the president of Minera La Alumbrera, Julián Rooney, be prosecuted by Gomez in the Federal Court of Appeals on charges of water contamination and other crimes against the environment. They further demonstrated their opposition to the mine on May 19, 2008 when environmental activists from Tinogasta and other areas in Catamarca staged a successful roadblock of the regional route to Chile’s ports, used by many in the mining industry to get from Bajo de Alumbrera to transport the processed minerals for export. Activists stated that the roadblock and protest was in defense of their livelihood and the self-determination of their villages, as well as against the government for their lack of accountability to the people in these areas. Their tactics proved somewhat successful: on June 8, 2008, the Federal Chambers of Tucamán brought criminal charges of contamination against Julián Rooney, president of Minera La Alumbrera, because of the complaint filed by Juan González in 1998. This case was the first time environmental charges have been pressed against a mining company in all of Latin America.
However, production continued at Bajo de Alumbrera. In response, activists and community members continued to put pressure on the government and GoldCorp through public demonstrations and roadblocks which often ended in severe police repression. One roadblock in February 2012 engendered a brutal police response with led to the hospitalization of at least thirteen protestors due to injuries from rubber bullets and batons. GoldCorp has recently reported that there has been a decline in productivity at the Alumbrera mine since 2011, so they will soon begin to phase out the Alumbrera project and focus their efforts towards the Agua Rica deposit.