Buenos Aires, Argentina – The 10,000 residents of Jachal, a town nestled in the Andes Mountains, have suffered through the largest-ever mining disaster in their country: a 2015 spill of cyanide solution. They have fought for their town, for the many glaciers around it, and for limitations on the spread of mining. Following a legal victory this week, they threw a party, but the celebrations may be short-lived.
The highest court in Argentina recently upheld a 19-year-old law that bans mining near glaciers, but the people of Jachal fear that powerful mining companies will be undeterred. The residents’ next step is to continue lobbying for stringent enforcement of the law from the ministries that regulate energy and mining – and that are now working on new policies that will affect these industries.
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The legal debate that became a party
On June 4, Argentina’s top court upheld a 2010 law banning large mines from operating near glaciers. Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian mining giant, questioned the validity of the law, which is aimed at protecting water sources that flow from the 16,968 glaciers in Argentina that are at least one hectare in size. Nearly half of such glaciers are in the region surrounding Jachal, where multiple major mining operations are based.
One of them is Barrick’s Veladero mine, which reaches almost 5,000 metres in altitude among the white peaks of the central Andes. Veladero is among scores of mining projects along this mountain range, which runs from south to north and separates Argentina from Chile.
The residents of Jachal, the largest town downstream from Veladero, believe the mine falls afoul of the law.
“It’s rare that a court decision starts a party,” said Enrique Viale, a lawyer who represents the residents. “People are very happy [about that].”
In part, Jachal’s recent party commemorated the legal decision that could help protect not only this area, but large swaths of a mountain range that is rich with minerals. The celebration also marked a rare success for a grassroots movement and could, over time, spur more activism. Since the 2015 spill, Jachal residents have set up camp in the town’s main square to petition for the closure of Veladero.
“The glacier protection law came from the people. It was protected and promoted from grassroots groups, with demonstrations,” Viale told Al Jazeera. “We waited for a very long time for this decision.”
For the residents of Jachal, living downstream from a high-mountain open-pit gold mine created a number of issues for which they never bargained. In 2015, Veladero was the site of Argentina’s largest-ever environmental mining disaster when one million litres of cyanide solution spilled into the Blanco River. The event rattled public opinion, but was not related to the nearly two-decade-old law that was drafted long before the spill to protect the country’s glaciers.
Few other mining companies in the country share Barrick’s dismal safety record (there have been three spills from Veladero alone). But the law that the country’s highest court upheld this week could put a major question mark around the future of high-mountain mining projects.
“We agree with the requirement to reinforce the work between the Federal and Provincial [governments], to draw technical definitions and instruments that upgrade mining development,” read a statement from the lobby group the Argentine Chamber of Mining Enterprises (CAEM), which represents major mining companies including Barrick Gold and which declined to comment further.
Jachal is not far away from Chile, Argentina’s neighbouring country to the west. However, since the decision came from an Argentine court, it has no impact at all on Chilean soil, where at least three major spills have been recorded since 1965. That was that year that the El Cobre mine collapsed, producing a spill that left a death toll of around 350. The other two Chilean major mining spills occurred in 2000 and 2003.
The ruling: A line in the sand?
The mining industry is used to doing as it pleases, where it pleases, with no environmental considerations. This has to change because this world isn't like it was a century ago.
Barrick Gold declined to comment officially on the situation in Argentina, but a source at the company, who declined to be identified, told Al Jazeera that the ruling won’t affect operations in Veladero. The company’s position is that the mine is far from any glaciers and was built before the law was passed.
Observers are now hoping that the newly reinforced law will equate to a line in the sand for powerful mining companies. “The mining industry is used to doing as it pleases, where it pleases, with no environmental considerations. This has to change because this world isn’t like it was a century ago,” said Cesar Jose Galarza, a lawyer and sustainability expert who works with international companies to minimize their environmental impact.
The debate over mining rights will continue after last week’s court decision. While mining companies insist they have the right to conduct operations based on the licenses they acquired in the past, people in towns like Jachal are expecting the court´s decision to materialise in the form of actions taken by authorities. “We can’t consume now the environment of the Argentines who will come in the (future),” said Galarza. “Businesspeople have to adjust the way they produce … their profit expectations.”
“At the core of what the Supreme Court says is that there doesn’t have to be concrete harm [to the miners],” Galarza told Al Jazeera. “Their activities can be accomplished in another way. They will have to mine without destroying natural resources.”
The battle goes on
In a press release issued the same day as the recent court judgment, Argentina’s Ministry of Production and Labour noted, “The ruling of the Supreme Court provides certainty on the glacier protection law.”
For now, the Veladero mine remains open and is operating as usual. But critics say Barrick may eventually have to pay heed to the law and that authorities will have to step up their enforcement – and likely develop new regulations that apply across the board.
“The company itself admitted the presence of a neighboring glacier in its original environmental impact report before the (glacier protection) law was passed,” says Gonzalo Strano, a spokesperson for the environmental nonprofit organisation Greenpeace. “There are no excuses for the federal government to not close the Veladero mine for being close to a glacier.”
“This [decision] doesn’t stop development, it’s a boost to a new paradigm,” added Galarza. “There are also many companies involved in this change and that’s good.”
Regardless of what happens with Veladero – and for now nothing is certain – the residents of Jachal believe their celebrations are justified, and that action will follow soon.
As Jachal lawyer Viale pointed out: “Why would they question the law in court if they aren’t working in banned areas?”