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Padre Nelson Barrientos worries that a big mining project will only exacerbate disparity in the Huasco River valley. (Roger LeMoyne/Michener-Deacon Fellowship/Report on Business magazine)
Padre Nelson Barrientos worries that a big mining project will only exacerbate disparity in the Huasco River valley. (Roger LeMoyne/Michener-Deacon Fellowship/Report on Business magazine)

Behind Barrick's Pascua-Lama meltdown in the Atacama desert Add to ...

Things came to a head in October, 2012, when Herrera ordered all work at the site stopped over concerns about excessive dust endangering the health of workers. When he signed the order, he envisioned a temporary suspension, while the company improved standards. Instead, it became the first in a series of disruptions that would bring work at Pascua-Lama grinding to a halt.

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Pascua-Lama is a gold mine, but in truth it is another precious resource—water—that has shaped its story. Water is an emotional issue in the Atacama, the driest desert on Earth. The mine sits atop a mountain covered in pale brown dirt, with barely a shrub on its steep sides. But two fast streams run down from the peak, feeding into the wide, shallow ribbon of the Huasco River, which winds agate-green along the valley floor. In a monochromic landscape, the area around the town of Alto del Carmen, in the heart of the valley, can seem like a mirage. The ribbon of trees and feathery grasses that line the riverbanks, the blocks of grapevines and fruit trees, are all hard to credit in the otherwise forsaken landscape. Water is treasured here, imbued with spiritual significance by the indigenous people, and shared through elaborate and age-old community schemes.

But gold mining is a water-intensive industry, reliant on chemicals including cyanide that can end up lacing a mine’s waste water. To obtain its permit, Barrick had to demonstrate how it would keep that water safe: by processing on the Argentine side, where water scarcity was less of an issue; by building a canal system to divert glacial runoff, groundwater and precipitation around the pit and slag heap, keeping the water free of any of the natural acidity in the rock; by extracting ore in a closed-loop process that would destroy cyanide. Any water (whether precipitation or groundwater) that did come into contact with the mine would be treated before being used in mining operations. But Barrick’s glossy brochures explaining all this don’t seem to have reassured many people in the valley. From the outset, they worried that the river might be poisoned, or run dry.

It was Barrick’s bad luck to be trying to put a gold mine in a place where most people didn’t have a lot of money—and didn’t much care. People who live in Alto del Carmen, in simple one-storey houses, with a lone café facing the church across a shady town square, think of it as a rare and special place. In other environments where Barrick has built or operated mines—in the mountains of Peru, for example, or rural Tanzania—it has found a population hungry for jobs and anything else the company promises. In Alto del Carmen, people were glad to have the new opportunities that might come with the mine—but not at the cost of their current way of life, or their water. “People here have a strong relationship with their land—the people don’t want to work in mining, they work their land,” explains Jorge Villar, the town’s administrator. A former finance manager, he moved to the valley a few years ago, drawn by its hypnotic landscape and the peaceful life it offered. In Pascua-Lama, he saw potential jobs and revenue for the town. But most of his new neighbours, he soon realized, did not. “They’re not interested in the mining company offering them big salaries. Because if you change their way of life and their environment, what are they going to offer their children and their grandchildren?”

Barrick couldn’t help the fact that the people of the valley liked life as it was, but it didn’t make its own task any easier. In 2000-’01, years before the project had its permits, the company improved and extended a road to Pascua-Lama that allowed it to bypass the settlements in the valley. The road ran over streams, recalls René Barra, a manager for CONADI, Chile’s agency for indigenous people. In a place where people are worried about water, this first contact with a company that seemed aloof made many mistrustful.

Meanwhile, it turned out that The Barrick Republic didn’t exist only on the mountaintop. Barrick did most of its hiring—at its peak, the project employed 15,000, albeit only 2,900 on the Chilean side—from outside the valley. Barrick spokesperson Lloyd says many skills that the mine needs were not available locally, and the company has responded by supporting training programs.

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