Barrick Gold Defends Chile Mining Project, Accuses Professional Activists

Barrick Gold Defends Chile Mining Project, Accuses Professional Activists

Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold used Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit Wednesday to do a little damage control on its controversial mining operation in the Andes.

With a ragtag group of protesters camped outside the company’s high-rise headquarters in the center of Santiago, a Barrick spokesman blamed “professional activists” for giving Barrick — and Canada — a black eye over the massive Pascua Lama project that straddles the Chilean-Argentine border.

“There’s a small minority of people who are very vocal against the project,” said Rodrigo Jimenez, Barrick’s local director of corporate affairs.

“A lot of them, as a result of professional activism … unfortunately oppose any type of development — whether it’s mining, gas or any type of project around the world.”

But a committee of lawmakers from Chile’s chamber of deputies is studying accusations that the gold and silver mine project is harming the local environment and displacing indigenous populations. Over the past several weeks, they have heard from representatives of the region around the mine who say they have witnessed irrevocable damage to glaciers that are essential to their agriculture and water supply.

Some federal politicians have expressed a willingness to start up a full-scale investigation into allegations of improper environmental assessments during the mine’s approval process.

One 2002 environmental report by the General Water Directorship estimated the three glaciers had shrunk by 50-70 percent as a result of work done during Barrick’s exploratory phase, such as road building.

Lucio Cuenca, national co-ordinator of the Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts, said Harper’s visit at the headquarters signaled tacit approval of the project. With a possible lawsuit against Barrick in the works and complaints of human-rights violations, he said the prime minister’s visit was “inappropriate.”

Jimenez denied that Barrick interfered with the glaciers, saying the environmental protection conditions set by both the Argentine and Chilean governments — and agreed to by the company — specify that the glaciers must not be affected.

He said photographic evidence reveals that the glaciers were shrinking well before Barrick’s project and they continue to decrease primarily because of climate change and the El Nino effect.

Jimenez said the development, if it goes forward, will bring substantial benefits to both Chile and Argentina. He said the three-year construction phase will result in 5,500 direct jobs, whereas 1,600 permanent jobs will be created during the development phase, which is scheduled to run 23 years. He said there is widespread local support for the mine because of the opportunities it has created.

Harper said Tuesday that Canada abides by Canadian standards of corporate social responsibility, and that it was up to Chile and Argentina to decide whether it is meeting environmental protection standards.


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