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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 ...

In the violet light of a February Sunday afternoon, Padre Nelson Barrientos led his flock along the road that winds up Chile’s Huasco River Valley. The congregation of Our Lady of Lourdes of Conay was conveying a new statue of the Blessed Virgin to its home in the parish church, nestled in the shadow of the Andes. A half-dozen young people in traditional indigenous costumes—feathers, beads—drummed and danced, and their parents and neighbours followed in the procession. The mayor, Carmen Bou, was there, walking arm-in-arm at the front with Alicia Páez Campillay, the wife of the man whom everyone calls the valley’s richest businessman. Many of the other marchers wore jeans and work shirts that hinted at a life spent in vineyards and orchards. Making their way to the village, the mayor, the dancers, their parents and the priest scrabbled up the loose gravel of the hillside, past a road sign almost swallowed by shrubbery, pointing up the mountain. On it, faintly visible despite someone’s best efforts with a can of spray paint, were the words “Pascua Lama.”

The Virgin was installed in the tiny blue chapel. There was dancing, poems, and an offering of the valley’s fat green grapes. As dusk fell, the white-haired priest tugged off a sweaty cassock; he, too, wore a plaid shirt and jeans. He had celebrated Mass in five different places in the valley so far that day, and he was tired. But it does not take much to get Padre Barrientos talking. “There’s no hunger in the valley, thanks be to God,” he says. “But there’s a lot of injustice. Our problem here is justice.”

The priest gestured up the hill with his chin as he spoke—a habit many people in the valley share, a physical shorthand when they are talking about Barrick Gold’s Pascua-Lama mine. Padre Barrientos believes the mining industry is the root cause of the inequality he sees as his work. The church, he says, can only be on the side of the weak, of the people, in this fight. “We don’t have hunger, but we don’t have education, either.”

He looked toward the end of the courtyard. Mayor Bou was sitting on a bench there, deep in conversation with Paez Campillay, the landowner’s wife. As the young people started to take off their feathers, the mayor leapt up and headed for her chauffeur-driven SUV. Everyone relaxed visibly as she was driven away.

It has been 20 years since the start of Barrick’s quest to build a mine here, up at glacier level on the border with Argentina. The company has yet to dig an ounce of gold, but Pascua-Lama has nevertheless had a huge impact on the valley, an oasis in the Atacama Desert: It has brought new resources, and new threats. New alliances have formed, and also new fault lines—the kind of change that most always happens when a big company moves into a small place. But it has taken so long to build this mine that there is a new twist in this old story: The company may have changed the valley, but the valley has changed the company even more.

Barrick made a formal decision to put the mine on hold last October—work is suspended until it resolves a tangle of permitting problems with the Chilean government. That decision marked the end of an era at one of Canada’s few global companies. Starting with a single Ontario mine, founder Peter Munk always envisioned that he would build Barrick into the world’s biggest gold miner. He achieved that goal, buying up other mining companies, big and small, and the overseas operations that came with them.

Some of those projects, in extremely poor countries such as Tanzania, have been rife with social-licence problems. Gold prices have also done the company no favours in recent years; and it grossly overpaid for Equinox Minerals. But in the end, it was Pascua-Lama, whose cost soared to above $8 billion from $1.5 billion in 2004, that brought Barrick’s crisis to a head, checking the company’s expansion and inducing a sweeping set of changes: concessions to shareholders on corporate governance, a dividend cut and a writedown of $6 billion on Pascua-Lama (all currency in U.S. dollars). The overhaul coincided with the resignation of Munk as chairman. The company’s stock languishes far below the lofty valuations it enjoyed prior to 2012.

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