By Fionuala Cregan
Thursday, 30 April 2009
Gathering in the Province of San Juan, the heart of the Argentinean mining industry, representatives of the Union of Citizens Assemblies reaffirmed their commitment to fighting an economic model which is plundering natural resources and destroying livelihoods.
Gaby Romero, a school teacher and member of a neighborhood assembly in the province of La Rioja couldn’t quite believe it when she heard that a book, “The Young Miner”, had been produced by the local Ministry for Education. The book aims to teach school children about the benefits of mining. “These companies come here to destroy our mountain, our water supply, our food security and our right to protest. They put us under surveillance, hire civilians to intimidate us and now they want to try and indoctrinate our children,” she says. “We won’t let them, we have been fighting them for three years now and we will continue to fight them until they are all gone.”
These, and other stories, abounded at the 9th Meeting of Citizen’s Assemblies held in San Juan, North West Argentina, from April 24-26. The meeting brought together representatives of 300 organizations from around the country all of which have grown out of local conflicts with multinational companies–in particular those companies involved in mining and agribusiness.
Defined loosely as Citizens Assemblies, these organizations emerged in Argentina during the 1990s in response to the rapid advance of an economic model focused on the extraction or cultivation of primary materials for exportation.
“The neoliberal model pursued in particular by President Menem and which continues to a large extent today is one which values business interests and profit over the environment and the well-being of the population,” says Ramon Gomez of the Citizen’s Assembly of San Juan. “This model was imposed on us–there was no consultation whatsoever despite the fact that the arrival of multinational companies and the plundering of our natural resources, has a massive impact on our lives. It would have been suicide for us not to react–we had to come out and defend our lives and the environment. And so we began to organize and to present alternatives.”
Citizens Assemblies have since become important alternative spaces for involving citizens in local and national politics. “As these spaces do not exist within institutional politics which in Argentina continue to be anti-democratic, we had to create them ourselves, they have become the only way we can have our voices heard,” says Gomez.
Among the main actions taken by Citizens Assemblies to demand change and express their repudiation of the current economic model are: road blocks, including blocking transportation of machinery or materials to the plants of multinational companies, mass demonstrations, events to humiliate public figures known as “escraches”, and symbolic hunger strikes. They also carry out information and education campaigns and research on an ongoing basis.
According to Gomez, the assemblies evolved naturally, based on a conviction that people power is the only way to bring about change. “Our communities had to either unite and react – or disappear,” says Gomez.
Many, such as that of the Province of La Rioja, started out with just eight members, but through information campaigns and local actions grew to 3000. Gradually, too, the assemblies began to have an impact.
1n 1998, an Assembly in the northwest province of Catamarca succeeded in bringing criminal charges of environmental contamination against the Vice-President of the country’s largest mining operation Bajo La Alumbrera. Julian Rooney has been accused of violating a Law on Toxic Waste Emissions as a result of the actions of his company. Through its open-pit copper and gold mining project, La Alumbrera was found to have dumped millions of liters of toxic liquid wastes into a local canal used by animals and farmers. The canal, known as DP2, is the headwater of the large Sali-Dulce river basin, an important water source for both provinces. A series of tests revealed that levels of lead, cadmium, copper, selenium, mercury, cyanide and arsenic in the canal were well above legal health limits. A claim was filed in 1998 by the Citizens Assembly, and in May 2008 charges were made by the Federal Courts of Tucuman against Roony, the first case of its kind against a mining company in Latin America.
Another land mark success was that of the Assembly of Esquel, which lobbied for the convening of a popular consultation in 2005 with local communities on whether they agreed to the ongoing mining project by the company Meridian Gold. A resounding 81 percent "No" vote lead to a law at the provincial level banning open-pit mining throughout the Province of Chubut, as well as the subsequent suspension of the Meridian Gold Project.
In addition, last year the Citizens Assembly of Gualeguaychù, in the province of Parana, succeeded in lobbying the Argentinean Government to bring a case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The case is against a Finnish Paper Mill Plant based in Uruguay, but whose operations, according to the Citizen’s Assembly, are polluting the River shared by both countries thereby damaging the local eco-system.
However, the success of the Citizens Assemblies has also lead to conflicts. Local government officials, representatives and employees of multinational companies and certain sectors of the media, according to members, are actively working to delegitimize the Assemblies, and there have been a number of attacks and attempts to criminalize the actions of the assemblies. The most recent took place on April 14 in the province of La Rioja where three assembly members were physically attacked by staff of the Provincial Secretariat for Mining as they attempted to block the entrance to one of the mining operations.
As these stories of successes and challenges emerged over the years, local assemblies members realized their struggles were in one way or another linked to those of other groups. In this way, a decision was made to create a national coordinating body. The UAC was formed in 2006 and works to unify and articulate the work of the Assemblies at national level.
At its 9th Meeting last weekend, the UAC focused on four themes –mining, agro-business, urban conflicts and legal issues– all of which were related to the two themes of water and education. The issue of mining, however, undoubtedly came to dominate the event.
Hailed as the mining industry’s “rising star,” with 75 per cent of its mining potential still unexplored, companies from countries including the U.S., Canada and South Africa have all expressed an interest in working in Argentina. Eighteen large-scale projects are planned for 2015, including one which would straddle the Andean peaks between Argentina and Chile. Known as the Pascual Lama project, it is lead by the world's largest gold miner, Barrick Gold Corp, of which former president George Bush the senior is amongst its board of directors.
San Juan, where the UAC meeting took place, is within the heart of the proposed Pascual Lama project, and the local Assembly has been particularly active in lobbying against it and other projects in the region.
The Assembly faced a major blow in December 2008 when a Presidential Decree was used to veto a law, approved unanimously in the Parliament, which aimed to protect the country’s glaciers, a vital source of water in Argentina’s southern provinces which also serve as important buffers against global warming. The glaciers fall within the radius of the Pascual Lama project, while and the Presidents veto of the law, which stated that it was excessive "to ban mining or oil drilling activity on glaciers," has since become known as the "Barrick Gold Veto".
The Governor of San Juan, Jose Luis Gioja, has strong family and political links to the mining industry and is thought to have been particularly influential in achieving the President’s veto to the Glaciers law. Tensions between his office and the Citizens Assembly of San Juan are high. In the days leading up to the UAC meeting, posters promoting the event were covered over with stickers reading “Yes to Jobs, Yes to Development, Yes to Mining!”, sectors of the main Provincial media refused to provide any coverage of the meeting and on the morning of the opening event–a march of 500 UAC representatives through the city of San Juan calling for the protection of the Glaciers–a counter march of miners was convened by Governor Gioja.
“The Governor wants to cause clashes between the two groups and then use this as an excuse to come in and repress–but we will not allow this to happen,” said one UAC member.
As participants, some dressed up as miners wearing skeleton masks, congregated in the main square with banners reading “Water is Worth More than Gold” and “Yes to Life, No to Mining.” Miners and 4x4 trucks with mining company logos then began to surround the square. However, Nobel Peace Prize Laurete Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who lead the demonstration, managed to ensure that no conflict ensued. Speaking into a megaphone he stated that the UAC had not “come to confront any sector of society” but “was meeting to fight against the exploitation of labourers and the plundering of natural resources carried out by multinational companies.”
Members of the Assembly of San Juan then went on to express their concerns about the Pascua Lama project which they say would use almost 370 litees of water a minute–adding to the mining projects already in existence in the province which currently consume 10 million liters of water a day.
“This is more than the average daily consumption of citizens in the province of San Juan which amounts to 8 million liters,” they stated.
They also rejected the argument that mining benefits the country by creating jobs, highlighting that mining created only 1,200 jobs, whereas the garlic industry alone created 5,000.
Following the march, participants convened in a camp site in the outskirts of the city of San Juan were the rest of the two day meeting took place. True to the horizontal structure of the Assemblies, members divided into working groups to share experiences, review actions taken, and define priorities for the following six months. These were then presented and discussed in a plenary session where a final consensus was reached.
In the final session there was unanimous agreement that solidarity and unity amongst assemblies would be key in the next few months and that a massive demonstration of people power would be organized with members descending on the capital of Buenos Aires, in particular to express their repudiation at what they call the criminalization of social protest – the main tool used by Citizen’s Assemblies which they feel is increasingly coming under threat. They agreed to continue to challenge the actions of multi-national companies legally by bringing charges against them through the courts and also to put forward proposals on a regional level for the foundation of an Inter-American Environmental Court where companies could be processed for human rights violations.
Recognizing the next six months would be difficult as the regional and national Government would continue to try and repress, criminalize, intimidate and attack the work of the Assemblies, the meeting ended with recognition of the indivisible link between the work of the Assemblies and the construction of a true democracy.
“All members of UAC are involved in a process of creating alternative social and political systems which represent new forms of local and global interaction. In the Assemblies, citizens work individually and collectively to find solutions to problems and have a say in the kind of world they would like to live in,” they said, “This is not a dream, it is something very urgent and very real.”
For more information on Citizens Assemblies against mining go to: http://www.noalamina.org/
To join the Facebook Page of the La Rioja Citizens Assembly go to: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=51334149068
For more information on the Gualeguaychu Assembly’s campaign against the Finnish Paper Mill Plant go to: http://www.noalaspapeleras.com.ar/