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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 ...

Then, in August, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal Soto had filed, and ordered the suspension of the environmental permit. It was less than the total cancellation of the mine of which Campillay and her fellow activists had been dreaming, but it was still a momentous decision. Soto chuckles as he recalls the September day the verdict came. “I was stunned to win. All of Chile was stunned.”

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In the shiny office towers of Santiago where Chile’s mining companies are headquartered, there is widespread speculation that Barrick will sell Pascua-Lama, or at least bring on a partner, probably a Chinese one. In January, CEO Jamie Sokalsky told a mining conference the company was shifting formally to a “maintenance operation,” awaiting higher metals prices and resolution of its permit woes. Workers on both the Argentine and Chilean sides have been fired or laid off. Sokalsky confirmed in his speech that the company was actively searching for a development partner.

For Peter Munk, Pascua-Lama has become an albatross, a tainted capstone to his career. “That is such a major fiasco,” he said of Pascua-Lama in a startlingly frank interview with The Globe and Mail’s Rachelle Younglai late in 2013. “I couldn’t believe that this was happening in our company,” he said regarding the project’s cost overruns. “It was the most unbelievable event,” he said. “…When you have the most sophisticated people and you’ve got unlimited financial resources and top management? How could that happen? It was incomprehensible to me.”

While metals prices are out of Barrick’s control, the situation on the ground in Chile is not. (While most of the construction for Pascua-Lama is in Argentina, that country, with inflation at 25% and the economy in free fall, is desperate to see Pascua-Lama happen—for the jobs, the royalties and the perception of progress.) If Barrick is to keep the project alive, it must win back the community, as Eduardo Flores, its local chief, has said he is at pains to do.

Only one group of the Diaguita unilaterally rules out the idea of a settlement, and most are willing to discuss it, in part because they know that the 1993 indigenous peoples’ law does not give them a veto, and Barrick may well be able to push the project through eventually.

“Sooner or later, Barrick or some other company will work this mine: Gold doesn’t go to waste,” says Maglene Campillay, as she watches the mountain recede back into purple in the dusk. “If there was the possibility that the environment wouldn’t be harmed, that our river wasn’t harmed, the water wasn’t poisoned, that we had water, that our animals could grow, that our fruit could grow big, and that our children could still swim in the river the way they used to, and also that there was growth in the valley, that the community could see direct benefits, that it was not just a marketing ploy—that anyone going to the valley could see it has prospered because of the mine. ...Then why would we fight?”

But that’s not how things stand. “Now, we have to take our time, set aside real, important things we could be doing, to go to court, to hire lawyers, to make money so we can pay them, and we are leaving behind things that are important to us.”

She stops, after an uncharacteristic burst of speech. If that’s what it takes, she says with a shrug, then that is what they will do.

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