On Wednesday, January 17, the Chilean Environmental Superintendence (SMA) ordered the permanent closure of Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama open pit gold mine project and imposed a fine of approximately $12 million on the company. The agency’s decision follows five years of investigation and a series of community complaints about environmental infractions at the project site. The authority imposed penalties and laid more than 30 charges for a series of offences, six of which were classified as very serious, including two that concern irreparable damage to the environment.
Barrick emphasizes that the environmental permit (RCA, from its Spanish initials) for the project remains intact. However, the SMA makes clear in its ruling that the permit remains in effect solely to facilitate oversight of the project’s closure:
(...) with the cancelation of the RCA, the state loses the normative basis for imposing environmental mitigation measures during project closure, which are fundamental to control environmental risks and damage.
Barrick asserts that the charges address past problems and claims it is now focused on a responsible future that envisions the option of an underground mine. The company claims that this proposal would addressing community concerns by reducing the project’s environmental impact.
Barrick’s actions speak louder than its words. During years of conflict over the Pascua Lama project, Barrick trampled local interests that respect and protect glaciers, water, and nature in general. It is precisely Barrick’s actions – and the importance and fragility of the ecosystems that they affect – that the SMA took into account in ordering the closure of the mine site.
At the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), we have accompanied the local community in its resistance to the ill-conceived Pascua Lama project since its inception 17 years ago. We have witnessed Barrick’s strategies to divide, co-opt, harass and discredit local actors; its financing of political campaigns; and the withdrawal of the state from the area, making communities dependent on the mining company for education, health care, and local development initiatives. We have exposed all of this as it occurred and countered it to the best of our abilities.
Projects like Pascua Lama are only made viable through corruption, the violation of human rights, and by putting at risk essential ecosystems.
Felipe Grez Moreno
Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), Santiago, Chile