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Mining the Truth

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Issue: 55 Section: Original Peoples Geography: Latin America Argentina Topics: Mining

November 25, 2008

Mining the Truth

A Canadian judge rules on indigenous land in Patagonia

by Dario Aranda, Luis Manuel Claps

Assembly in Argentina against Canadian company Aquiline Resources. Signs read: "No to the gold and silver mine," "No to the gold mine. Neighbours of Maquinchao." Photo: Luis Manuel Claps

MIDDLE MESA, ARGENTINA–"We always said no. We always said no. Why is it so difficult for them to understand us?" asks 75-year-old Victornio Cuel, born and raised in the town of Gan Gan, in the heart of Patagonia. He is speaking of the opposition to the Navidad project: an open-pit operation only 40 kilometres from Gan Gan, owned by the Canadian mining firm Aquiline Resources.

Victorino Cual is a Tehuelche elder. The Cual family has lived in the area since 1902; official documents prove their title to 15 leagues (over 66,000 acres) of land. Today the Cual family survives on only three of their original 15 leagues, insufficient for sustainably raising animals, the main source of income for residents of the town of Gan Gan.

The Navidad project has been advancing over indigenous lands, violating the national laws and international treaties that require previously informed consent of any project affecting native persons and their livelihoods. Mining of the lead deposit, with reserves worth $10 billion, is opposed by the indigenous people due to the negative consequences of lead – on the environment as well as human health – and for its tremendous use of water.

The co-ordinator of the Water Observatory of the National University of Patagonia, Lino Pizzolón, has studied water quality for decades, and has travelled throughout the steppe of Río Negro and Chubut many times. "There is not the quantity of water in the Plateau that the mega mining operations need,” he explains.

“For now,” he warns, “they will pump it from where it is, they will dry out the wells, the mallines [flooded meadows] and wetlands where livestock range, in a huge area of land. Mining activities will compete destructively with the livestock-pastoral activities, increase the depopulation of the lands and the desertification and cause large-scale relocation of people into the slum villages around the cities in the coast.”

The manager of the Navidad project, Guillermo Salvatierra, recognizes that Aquiline still has not carried out in-depth investigations into the availability of underground water in the region (despite five years of work in the area), but assures, "We comply with all of the studies that the province requires of us. They have never objected to anything."


Off Provincial Route 4, which connects Gan Gan to the town of Gastre, a 1,200-year-old chenque, or cemetery, was until recently located at the heart of the future open-pit mine. Local communities and social organizations accuse Canadian mining company Inversiones Mineras Argentinas Explorations (IMA) of entering indigenous territory and desecrating the sacred space.

"The existence of ancient graves is irrefutable proof of traditional occupation and pre-existing indigenous presence. The company knew that a cemetery in the mining operation zone would halt the activity. This is why they pressured hurriedly, maneuvering with trickery and pressure to get this potential obstacle out of the way," explains lawyer Eduardo Hualpa, member of the National Pastoral Indigenous Group (ENDEPA) and specialist in indigenous law.

These actions were carried out with active participation of provincial officials and scientists of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET), violating the Argentine Constitution and international laws which require indigenous consent.

"The interests of all parties were harmonized – the indigenous peoples, the Secretary of Culture, the archaeologists and the company," said archaeologist Julieta Gómez Otero, the scientist responsible for the removal and relocation of the ancient burial grounds, speaking at a conference of archaeologists held in Catamarca in July 2007.

Now, a year later, Otero has other feelings. After receiving many accusations, she recognizes that it was "a bitter situation," and says that she wasn't aware of communities who were opposed to the relocation. She explains that she did not recommend the relocation of the graves, but the chenque was in danger and this is why she removed it.

In a ruling made by Canadian judge Mary Marvyn Koenigsberg, the title Navidad project was transferred from IMA to another Canadian mining company, Aquiline Resources, in July 2006.

The mining deposits in question do not belong to either company, according to Article 99 of the provincial constitution, but are the "original and eminent domain" of the people of Chubut. In August 2005, the Superior Court of Justice of Río Negro ordered the provincial government to protect the rights of the indigenous communities who were threatened by the activities of foreign mining companies in their lands. The Argentine judges affirmed that the mining project was advancing "without observing the constitutional, legal and international norms, which exist to protect indigenous communities, their resources and the environment; that they should be informed, consulted, have participation in the management of their resources and respected with regards to ethnic, social and cultural heritage."

Nevertheless, the Argentine mining deposits were transferred by a Canadian judge from one Canadian company to another (the result of Aquiline's suing IMA for violating a confidentiality clause). To this day, neither provincial Mining and Geology authorities nor any Argentine government official has commented on the case.

Koenigsberg's ruling, issued in Canada, was complied with immediately.

Aquiline Resources has taken control of some 500,000 hectares in Patagonia. In contrast, the Mapuche and Tehuelche peoples of both provinces have been struggling for decades for the titles to the lands they have inhabited for 10,000 years.


Chubut Governor Mario Das Neves, who has positioned himself for a run at the presidency in 2011, spoke on June 25, 2008 at the Canadian embassy in Buenos Aires. Canada is home to the majority of the mining companies active in Patagonia.

"I believe that the Navidad project is a fantastic experience,” affirmed Das Neves, betraying the sentiments of his constituants. “You all can rest easy, knowing that in my province we are not at all prejudiced against mining activity, that we are careful and we want you to know that when someone invests, we are not going to change the rules of the game.”

The 120 Canadian businessmen present applauded and smiled with satisfaction, according to an account written by Aquiline itself, which published a chronicle of the cocktail event on its website.

Darío Aranda is a journalist and frequent contributor to Página 12, a newspaper based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Luis Manuel Claps is a journalist and editor of the Mines & Communities Website now living in Cuenca, Ecuador.

A Spanish version of this article was published in Pagina 12.

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