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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 ...

But for the past five years, Chile has been in the grip of a fierce drought, and the lack of rain heightened tensions about the glaciers. The drought has been bad everywhere, but it was critical for the farmers such as Maglene Campillay, who says she has seen her production drop by four-fifths. She and her neighbours came to believe the mine was destroying the glaciers, and with them, their livelihoods. “This time, in the middle of the drought, it seemed that the glaciers didn’t have [their] power any more,” she says. They released no water from their frozen hearts. “The rivers are like the veins in our body. If one dries out, other places dry out too.” Work on the mountaintop was churning up dark dust that settled on the glacier and drew sunlight that quickened melting, the theory goes; then the unseasonal melt was not replenished, because of the drought. And the rivers shrank further.

Meanwhile, despite Barrick’s commitment not to destroy the ice fields, at least one worker at the mine was talking about damage to the glaciers. “I took a three-month course to join Barrick, and in that class they told us, ‘There will be glaciers up there, and you can’t touch them,’” says Claudio Paez, a heavy-equipment operator laid off from Pascua-Lama in 2011. “But the first order we got when we were sent there, was ‘Break the glaciers.’” In February, he testified to a Chilean environmental authority about the partial destruction of a glacier, as part of the work to build the canals to divert water. He used dynamite for the job, he says during an interview.

The story has not been independently verified. But as it spread in the valley, trust in Barrick eroded. A rumour has it that Barrick keeps an airplane on the mountaintop so the company can destroy any clouds that might be formed by the government’s cloud-seeding anti-drought project. Barrick doesn’t want it to rain, the story goes, lest contaminants be washed into the river system—so the company won’t let anyone else have rain either. It is a crazy notion—and so low was faith in the company that a great many people in the valley believe it.

According to Andrés Rivera, the glaciologist, all glaciers in Chile are shrinking, due to the drought from the El Niño cycle and climate change. The glaciers of Pascua-Lama—which he calls “the most-studied ice in the southern hemisphere”—are melting no faster than any others. “In our monitoring program, we haven’t detected a significant difference in behaviour between these glaciers [and others],” Rivera says. “All studied ice bodies are mainly responding to natural variability and not to the possible impacts of mining activities.” About the supposed dynamiting of ice, he says, “I don’t have evidence of these destructive activities.” Barrick’s Andy Lloyd says Paez’s allegations about dynamiting the ice are “completely false.”

But in the valley, many people dismiss Rivera’s work because Barrick is paying for it. They are convinced that glaciers are key to their survival, and the mine is destroying them. And so when activity on the mountaintop was suddenly forced into public scrutiny, Barrick found itself making explanations to a hostile audience.

The environmental licence for the mine obligated Barrick to construct the water management system before it broke any ground. But a year before, Barrick had begun pre-stripping—removing the top layer of fine rock and dirt that lay over the area where the pit would be—even though the water system was only partially finished. In that state, it wasn’t ready to handle a big melt. On Jan. 22, 2013, a key part of the canal system collapsed.

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In another place, Barrick might have been able to tidy up the water system, make an apology, and power through. Even in the Chile the company bought into back in 1994, that might have been enough. Back then, Chile was shakily emerging from decades of military dictatorship. Its economy had outstripped most of its neighbours’, thanks to the aggressive pro-market views of General Augusto Pinochet. By the time he was forced from power, Chile had the best reputation in Latin America for ease of doing business and low corruption, and was on its way to middle-income status. But its newly revived public institutions, including the courts, were weak.

The return to democracy brought a centre-left coalition called the Concertación into power, and it began to push a new focus on health, education and human rights. In 1993, just before Barrick arrived, Chile formally recognized the existence of its indigenous people, and granted some basic native rights. Over time, a cautious new movement began to grow, as communities stepped forward to seek recognition of their indigenous status. They were led by the largest group, the Mapuche, who pushed for rights to what they say is their ancestral land, now occupied by agribusiness. Indigenous issues became a hot political topic.

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