A photo of facilities and workshops of the Veladero Mine, in the department of Iglesia, province of San Juan, Argentina.
Facilities and workshops of the Veladero Mine, in the department of Iglesia, province of San Juan, Argentina. Credit: Antonio Gritta / Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, the then outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was awarded the Gold Insigne award by the Council of the Americas; the latter an American business organisation “promoting free trade, democracy and open markets throughout the Americas.” 

Bachelet is not a stranger to controversy when it comes to human rights violations. Despite her personal history and that of her family as victims of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, her legacy as president also included excessive use of the anti-terrorist law to criminalise the Indigenous Mapuche’s resistance against exploitation of their land and natural resources. 

The Gold Insigne Award was sponsored by Chevron, Freeport-Mcmoran and Canadian mining company Barrick Gold; the latter having been in the spotlight since 2001 in Chile over the Pascua Lama mining project. 

The Pascua Lama original plan called for an open-pit mine on the Chile-Argentina border, which was altered in 2016 in favour of underground mining. One major concern of Indigenous communities and environmental activists who led a relentless campaign against the mining project, was Barrick Gold’s initial plan to move the ice from the Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza glaciers in order to gain access to gold, silver and copper deposits. 

In July of this year, Chile’s First Environmental Court confirmed the “total and definitive closure” of Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama mining project – a gold and silver venture which has been on hold since 2013. The court upheld three charges from the 2018 decision to definitely close the Chilean side of the Pascua Lama mine – namely the project’s damage to flora and fauna, the failure to monitor the melting rates of glaciers and the dumping of acidic waste into Estrecho River. 

Yet, given that Chile’s transition to democracy was and still is tainted with the legacy of the  dictatorship and neoliberalism, the country and its Indigenous communities are susceptible to the exploitation of mining companies, whose support for the Concertacion governments was given in return for facilitating investments. Canada’s Free Trade Agreement with Chile, for example, is mainly concerned with the mining sector. 

Chile’s example is by no means isolated. While the company bolsters its image with factsheets detailing global expansion and profits, the darker side of Barrick Gold’s story is better told through a look at the egregious human rights violations which it is responsible for, as a result of its exploitation of natural resources and disregard for local communities. 

Speaking to rabble.ca, Outreach Coordinator and Canada Program Co-Lead of MiningWatch Canada, Jamie Kneen, noted how indigenous people were marginalised from the entire process of Pascua Lama.      

“Indigenous peoples’ rights to the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), or even the more limited right to consultation under ILO 169, were never respected, from the initial exploration through development efforts,” Kneen said. “Those who were also part of the Irrigation Association also had their rights restricted by the deal that Barrick made with the association, to provide funding for projects in exchange for the association refraining from participating in the environmental assessment.”

Kneen added that despite the definitive closure, the communities need to remain vigilant.      

“Once a valuable deposit has been identified, there is always the risk that someone will try to go after it. It could be Barrick, or anyone else,” he said. 

Since 2019, Chile had been on the verge of a new era, as nationwide protests triggered the call for a new constitution, which former President Sebastian Pinera acquiesced to after it became clear that there was no containing the demonstrations. However, right-wing influence over Chilean media, particularly the spreading of misinformation, resulted in the new draft constitution being rejected by Chilean voters. 

Had the new constitution replaced the former from the Pinochet era, mining companies might have faced some difficulties in Chile, as Article 145 of the rejected draft would have established state control over mines, including environmental protection. Yet even prior to current Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s electoral triumph, the mining industry seemed unfazed about a possible change in politics.      

“There’s no intention to change the rules of the game, just to strengthen institutionality so that things function better,” Willy Kracht, one of Boric’s advisers, stated

Strengthening institutionality will not safeguard the communities affected by the violations of mining companies. Barrick Gold has faced accusations of environmental exploitation and human rights violations in countries where the company operates.

Viviana Herrera, MiningWatch’s Latin America Program Coordinator, described the environmental disaster as a result of the Veladero mine in Argentina.

“The Veladero mine operated by ​​Minera Argentina Gold SRL (MAGSRL), a 50/50 joint venture between Canadian Barrick Gold and Chinese Shandong Gold, is a large industrial gold and silver mine that uses cyanide heap leach processing to separate the metals of value from the ore body,” Herrera said. “The mine is located in a periglacial area in the Andes cordillera. To date, Barricks has been responsible for at least five heavy metal spills at its Veladero mine, contaminating waterways, killing animals and sickening residents of Jachal town in 2015, September 2016, March 2017, October 2021, and February 2022.”

Herrera explains that the first spill, considered as the worst environmental mining disaster in the history of the country, happened in  September 2015. 

“A failure in the valve of a heap leach pad pipeline released millions of liters of water contaminated with cyanide and heavy metals into local watersheds, contaminating at least five rivers. The company was fined US$10 million for the accident. A possible fourth spill at Veladero in June 2022 was revealed by a local journalist. This report was later referenced in an article by the Financial Post,” she said.

“The social movement Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca, [Hands Off Jachal], which formed after the first environmental disaster in 2015, accuses the provincial government and company of not alerting them about either of the five toxic spills and attempting to undermine their seriousness or impact,” Herrera added. “They also denounced lack of accountability. None of the spills were reported by the company or the local government to the local population, and alerts have not been issued either.”

Herrera explained, “According to water tests carried out by the public National University of Cuyo, the impacts of the fourth spill show high levels of heavy metals like mercury, aluminum, manganese, arsenic and lead in their water supplies. These levels are all above WHO and Argentine standards for human consumption. Arsenic levels superseded WHO levels by 33 times, lead by 16 times, and aluminum by 485 times. The Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca notes that these levels are higher than those recorded in 2015.”

Mining exploitation is also impacting the residents’ health. 

“Asamblea Jáchal No Se Toca states that the impacts of those spills are being felt in the communities, with local residents reporting high numbers of cancers and leukemia diseases for such a small population of only 20,000. Their right to live in a healthy environment has been violated,” Herrera noted. 

Elsewhere in the world, Barrick Gold’s mining projects have been associated with human rights violations, including abuse and killings. Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch’s Research Coordinator and Asia-Pacific Program Coordinator explained the trail of abuses against local populations, in which security forces and the countries’ economies play a role. 

“Barrick Gold’s impunity for a range of serious human rights and environmental abuses at mines such as Porgera in Papua New Guinea and North Mara in Tanzania, to name but two, stems in part from the economic conditions in these countries,” Coumans explained. “Papua New Guinea is a true example of a “resource curse” economy that has become over-dependent on resource extraction and is in debt to international lenders. Thus it turns a blind eye when a company like Barrick is implicated in criminal acts against the local Ipili people by its security forces or when the mining contaminates an 800km long river system with its uncontained tailings.” 

Coumans noted that when the government tried to sever ties with Barrick in 2020, by refusing a permit renewal after 30 years of mining, Barrick sued the government of Papua New Guinea, both in the country and in an international tribunal (ISDS), causing the government of Papua New Guinea to back down. ”

Coumans explained that in Papua New Guinea and Tanzania, mining operations and the ensuing loss of land, as well as water contamination from mining operations have led to food insecurity and stress among the local populations.      

“Additionally, both mines are essentially militarized by heavy private and public security that regularly uses excess force against desperate villagers who try to eke out a living on the mines’ waste rock dumps and tailings flows and sometimes in the pits,” said Coumans.

Meanwhile, the communities’ efforts to prevent mining exploitation and safeguard their livelihoods face layers of marginalisation as well as the impunity awarded to the multinational companies. 

Canada, Coumans, adds, has the means through which it can hold mining companies accountable for their violations abroad.      

“Canada can implement the mandatory human and environmental due diligence legislation as proposed by Private Member’s Bill C-262,” said Coumans.

Two separate bills were tabled in March 2022. The Private Member’s Bill C-262 details a corporate organization’s responsibility to protect human rights, while also providing access to Canadian courts for individuals harmed by Canadian companies in their endeavours abroad. 

Private Member’s Bill C-263 seeks to transform the office of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) into an effective watchdog in relation to Canadian businesses abroad, in order to lessen, prevent and address human rights violations and their impact.However, the Canadian government is “home to almost half of the world’s publicly listed mining and mineral exploration companies,” according to Natural Resources Canada. To start the process of accountability, however, Canada needs to dig deeper into its own history beyond the current mining exploitation and contextualise the nature of its impunity in its own support for colonial exploitation.

Ramona Wadi

Ramona Wadi is a freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her work covers a range of subjects in relation to Palestine, Latin America with a particular focus on Chile, anti-colonial struggle,...