Environmental planning

 

"The people of Mendoza are learning lessons from other parts of the world where environmental issues haven't been addressed with the seriousness and prudence they deserve," said Diego Arenas, a Democratic Party deputy, adding that the ban would last until an environmental plan was in place.

 

The province's dry climate and its key agricultural sector, which also involves fruit farming and olive oil production, have made it particularly important to protect water supplies from pollution risks.

 

Mining is not widely developed in Mendoza, and industry leaders say the ban could mean the province gets left behind in the country's minerals boom as neighbouring provinces work to attract foreign investors.

 

"The saddest thing for me in all this is that we really don't know Mendoza's mining potential," said Roberto Zenobi, head of the provincial mining board, branding the law "unconstitutional".

 

"This act of ignorance by our politicians stops companies from exploring. We're banning an activity without knowing if we have mineral resources worth exploiting," he added, saying the mayor might still veto the law.

 

Mining boom

 

"We're not so utopian that we think we can live without mining"

Ricardo Schkop, of the Southern Multisector group

Argentina is not known as a mining country. But investment in the sector has boomed in recent years, driven by higher global prices and lower costs since the peso was devalued sharply against the dollar during an economic crisis in 2001 - 2002.

 

Copper and gold are among the South American country's biggest mineral exports and official figures predict investment in the sector will top $6 billion between now and 2010.

 

The boom has provoked several protests by local and environmental groups opposed to mining projects, although Mendoza is the only province to pass such a far-reaching law.

 

Mining opponents in Mendoza are most concerned about metals mining, fearing the blasting and chemicals used could pollute water supplies.

 

Ricardo Schkop, of the Southern Multisector group that includes farmers, said he had no problem with quarrying and non-polluting mining.

 

He said: "We're not so utopian that we think we can live without mining.

 

"[But] to allow the dynamiting of two or three mountains to extract a kilo of gold is an extreme."