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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 ...

More aggressive outreach is likely needed. Barra des-cribes sitting in Alto del Carmen’s one café, where most of the town passes in the course of a day, and seeing Barrick’s community relations staff come in for lunch, sit at a table by themselves, eat and leave again, all without speaking to anyone but each other.

Barrick did make a few key friends, however: In 2006, the company agreed to pay $60 million over 20 years to improve water infrastructure. This program is managed by Barrick, local authorities and the Junta de Vigilancia, the organization that has long managed water here. The junta is set up so that everyone—including the farmers with the smallest plots—has a share, and the number of shares depends on how much water a user consumes. But only the big producers were in on the deal with Barrick; farmers working small plots of land heard about it after it was signed. Chile’s national water administrator declared the deal unacceptable. But it stood, since the water administrator did not have the power to refer the issue to the courts.

The Barrick money went to projects such as building roads and a dam. But those projects are of much greater value to the industrial farmers than they are to the people with a half-acre plot, explains Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflict. The handful of signatories benefited in other ways, too: Construction contracts for the dam and the new roads, for example, went to companies owned by Omar Campillay, the valley’s most powerful farmer. In fact, Campillay is widely seen here as Barrick’s ally: Valley people say he has been snapping up farms in recent years, and with them more water rights and votes at the junta. He refused to discuss any of this with Report on Business magazine.

The water deal made a lot of people angry, and so did the perception that the municipality (there is a council, but the mayor has the bulk of power) was allied with the company. Barrick has to date spent $6.2 million of a $10-million development fund that it manages itself. Another $1.5 million has been spent in the last three years by the company, on initiatives such as a scholarship fund administered through the mayor’s office.

Mayor Bou, who also refused to talk to reporters, is seen by many locals as being a champion of the company. The mayor who preceded her was a former Barrick employee. “All the elections have been controversial,” Cuenca says. “Because the electoral universe is very small, and so it’s easily influenced.”

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And then there was the issue of the glaciers. The ice on the mountaintop is seen by the people in the valley below as a sort of timeless reservoir, holding water in its heart that it releases in the hottest, driest years. That matters to people like Maglene Campillay (no relation to Omar Campillay, the fruit magnate). She grows avocados and pears on a small riverfront farm; she irrigates it by lifting a flap on the intricate valley canal system and letting the water pour over her land. “We know in the valley there are good years and bad years of rain,” explains Campillay, round-faced and soft-spoken at 60. “But even in the worst years, when there is drought, the glaciers keep the rivers flowing.”

That, it turns out, is not entirely true. The leading expert on the Atacama’s glaciers, Andrés Rivera, says they contribute minimally to the water system—as little as 0.1%. But for people in the valley, the issue is more emotional than scientific, and Barrick has done little to soothe the disquiet.

In a 2001 plan, the company acknowledged the presence of two glaciers and three “glacierets”—pieces of ice that do not “flow” the way a true glacier does—on the mine site, and said it was going to “move” the glacierets, each about the size of two football fields, by breaking them up and transporting the chunks by truck to deposit them on another glacier. This kind of work is not unheard of in Chile’s mining industry; two projects currently in construction on the outskirts of Santiago involve destruction of ice fields.

By about 2004, the scheme to break up and move the ice was no longer publicly acceptable. In the next iteration of the mine plan, Barrick said it would leave the glacierets alone, while the impact of the mine on the largest ice field in its area would be monitored by Andrés Rivera and his team at Chile’s Centro de Estudios Científicos.

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