In a referendum held March 23, 2003, residents of a town in Argentina's pristine Patagonian region declared a resounding "no" to gold mining. In an 80 percent majority-- out of a 75% turnout-- the citizens of Esquel (population 30,000) voted against a proposal by Meridian Gold to dig an open-pit gold mine less than 7 kilometres from their town.
"The Esquel community has expressed its political will: that the Canadian company Meridian Gold should immediately leave this project and leave Esquel," said Pablo Quintana, of the Asamblea de Vecinos Autoconvocados, an informal association of local citizens opposed to the project.
The referendum took place peacefully, with 75 percent of residents turning out to vote-- higher than usual for other elections. In recent months, thousands of the town's residents have taken to the streets in protest of the proposal, concerned about impacts on the region's vibrant ecotourism indsutry, trout fisheries, and agriculture, and increased pressure on already scarce water supplies.
The proposed mine is located just 28 miles from the Los Alerces National Park, an important tourist destination and home to an endangered species of tree known as the alerce, a southern relative of the giant sequoia that can live to be 2,000 or 3,000 years old.
Impacts on freshwater quality and supply have local residents seriously concerned. Meridian proposes to dump contaminated mine tailings and waste rock in a holding area that could leak into local aquifers and streams. The Willimanco lagoon, that provides drinking water to the Esquel population may be at risk if any seepage or acid drainage occurs even years after the closure of the mine.
Says Payal Sampat of the Mineral Policy Centre, "The people of Esquel have made a courageous decision that the mining industry and the Argentinean government must respect."
Adds Greenpeace Argentina's Veronica Odriozola: "The people of Esquel are saying today that they want and need jobs for everyone in the community-- but these must be based on sustainable activities. They do not wish to pay the price of gold mining, and this is a historic decision for a poor country."
The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) published by Meridian Gold is flawed and inadequate, according to a report recently completed by Dr. Robert Moran, a hydrogeologist and geochemist who surveyed the proposed mine site at Esquel in February. According to Dr. Moran, "the EIA certainly would not be acceptable to regulators in western European countries, the U.S.A. or Canada." The report adds, "The wastes that will result from this mine would remain on the top of this mountain forever."
Commissioned by Mineral Policy Centre and Greenpeace Argentina, the report also states: "Esquel is the classic example... where an EIA describes short-term benefits and solutions, but fails to even begin to consider long- term consequences."
Dr. Moran's report, Esquel, Argentina: Predictions and Promises of a Flawed EIA, describes in detail the mine's potential impacts, including problems with the area's water supplies.