NOT EVERYTHING THAT SHINES IS GOLD
The alternative of endangering the tourist and eco-tourist activity -both of which are sustainable without leaving any kind of toxic residues - in order of favouring a non sustainable mining activity, which is in fact a resource consuming business- resulting in a terrible devastation of the land and which profits will certainly leave the country of origin to enlarge the GNP of other nations, is simply incomprehensible and lacking of any serious justification. That is, if not from the point of view of the strong International economical interests or from the weaknesses of the governing politicians.
Since the Conference Summit of the Earth that took place in Rio de Janeiro in the year of 1992, we have been constantly receiving warnings, which demand of us our best efforts to take a better care of Earth, our home planet. They also demand from us a more rational use of water, a natural resource that keeps steadily becoming scarcer. They urge us to restrain the polluting of the planet, and they keep alerting us about the constant desertification. These messages are generally being ignored by the ruling authorities, which keep insisting upon a blind promotion of open-pit gold mining activities and stubbornly seek to allow it over any opposition whatsoever.
The latter is one of the activities developed by big enterprises which inflict a major ambient impact over certain granted areas, enlarged by the resulting damage occasioned by the small scale mining activities, actually practised by large numbers of smaller or individual mining enterprises over dispersed superficial deposits. Over the last years, the tapping of mineral beds as well as the volume of gold extracted has grown steadily. The gold production augmented from 31 million ounces in 1980 to 44 million ounces in 1987, and these rates have been constantly increasing since then.
The Meridian Gold Inc. is the owner of 90 per cent of the stock holdings of the Argentinean Company "El Desquite S.A.". Its ore deposits, exploited in a way called "disseminated" covers an initial area comprising 2500 metres long by 500 metres wide located in the Southern extreme of the Cordón Esquel Mountain knot, at only a few kilometres distance from the town so named.
The destructive consequences brought on by this exploitation on the ecological patrimony of this area and its resulting effects on the surrounding environment will undoubtedly prove to be utterly devastating: They will not be able to be mitigated, nor rehabilitated, restored or recomposed, as is naively stated in the existing contracts. A calculation shows that once this process gets started, it would remove, in an open-pit manner, a number of between 30000 to 40000 metric tonnes of rock daily. A tenth of this material (3000 metric tonnes) will be ground down to obtain ore fractions of 70 microns. The gold will be obtained by treating this material with a sodium cyanide solution in water. Furthermore, in order to properly operate this mine, there will be an important and risky handling and transport of dangerous substances.
Regarding the cyanide matter, the Meridian Gold - Minera El Desquite S.A. has informed the media that the required monthly volumes of this ingredient will be 2160 metric tonnes, and they also consider that during the expected ten year period that the exploitation is expected to last until they run out of ore, the total weight amount of cyanide needed will reach 21600 metric tonnes.
The Cordón Esquel Mine will undoubtedly ravage the cold forests that exist in the region Provincia Biogeográfica Subantártica. This deforestation will surely banish some of the unique environmental fragments with high biodiversity adapted to cold climates as well as other relatively low metabolisms. The massive damages that will be the outcome from the operation of this mine will cause a notable reduction in the present area, volume and density of the original ecology of these cold forests.
During this process, it will initially consume 18 litres per second of subterranean water, subsequently aiming to an open slash source, and ultimately and "only in the case of a shortage", from drillings performed over the course of the Esquel Viejo Stream, which actually is one of the tributary sources of the Esquel Lake, located 28 kilometres from the Town. The subsequent decreasing of both the yearly and the seasonal degrees of water inflow into the Esquel Lake, could prove to be a crucial problem, due to the drying of this source of the breeding stock of salmons for the Baggilt Stream, as well as of several other water sources.
The most often actually used cyanide method is the "Cyanide Heap Leach Mining", which comprises six main items: the mineral source, the "pad" associated to a "heap" with a "liner", the solution of sodium cyanide, the application and recollection system, the pools for stocking the solution (SSP) and the mineral recovery plant.
To extract the ores from their sources, explosives have to be used in order to obtain manageable blocks and fragmented material. These resulting blocks are then submitted to a process of milling to substantially reducing their size (usually into less than 70 microns). This is the moment during which the most massive impacts on the ecosystems come about.
The grinded product is then arranged in "heaps" over platforms or "pads" usually supplied with linings or contention geo-membranes. If the plant is geographically secluded and devoid from any kind of control from the State, it becomes a frequent fact that linings of lesser quality are put into use. Then the "heaps" are submitted to a process of lixiviation. To lixiviate the grinded material, a solution of sodium cyanide can be used which contains from 0,14 to 2,35 kilograms of cyanide for each metric tonne of water. The average concentration of cyanide is of 0,05%. The resulting product is a lixiviate named "pregnant solution". Returning to the particular case of the Cordón Esquel, some 2,7 metric tonnes of sodium cyanide will be needed every day.
The cyanide damages the biota as well as the human life at low, medium and high doses; it is phylum-toxic and interferes with the photosynthesis of the green plants. This impact would be severe in the Patagonia Region, because low temperatures usually imply lower metabolisms, therefore resulting in slower rates of recovery.
At the level of animal organisms, it can be absorbed by the skin, or ingested and enter the digestive apparatus, or it can even be inhaled and get into the lungs and blood. A concentration of hydrogen cyanide of 200 ppm (parts per million) are lethal for most animals. In an aquatic environment, a concentration as low as 0,1 milligrams in a litre will affect the most sensitive aquatic biota. Fishes and birds are extremely responsive to the presence of this poison.
The LD50 (Lethal dose) for the human being is from 1 to 3 milligrams for each kilogram when ingested. Nevertheless, in humans and also in other species, lower doses will produce chronic effects to their health.
Every gold mine which operates based in the use of cyanide delivers a local short term impact, but it will also bring on other more worrying damages on medium and long terms. In these cases, the mining residues act as "chemical time bombs". The cyanide is very persistent, and is able to cause real catastrophes even many years after the closure of the mine.
At the sight of the complicity and stupidity of the authorities and the inaction of justice, the people of the Comarca Andina and especially from Esquel, felt compelled to oppose on justified grounds to the installing of this dangerous mining enterprise.
So it happened that on the first days of January of 2003, a massively attended public manifestation took place in Esquel, with the presence of inhabitants from the Comarca Andina, as well as from the Chubut Province and from the rest of the Patagonia too, "To give a big 'NO' to the open-sky mining operations with the use of toxic substances".
On the other hand, the original Mapuche people, along with the Tehuelche indigenous people from Chubut and Río Negro, emitted a very harsh document against all illegal mining activities. They made clear their utter opposition to any intruding commercial companies or State organizations into their territories with the intention of exploiting their natural resources "without their previous authorisation as consigned in the Agreement 169 of the IWO" (National Law N° 24071).
As part of this process, two law suits have already been presented in the Juzgado de Primera Instancia en lo Civil, Comercial y Laboral, which in general terms seek the stopping of the works in the already mentioned Sector El Desquite-Cordón Esquel, in order to state their illegality for disregarding the mining and environmental legislations, to achieve a recomposing of the already damaged areas and to get fines applied to those responsible for this fault. One is a Protective Action of Habeas Corpus (Acción de Amparo) forwarded by the neighbours of Esquel and the other one is a Proceeding for Feared Future Damage (Acción de Daño Temido) presented by the People's Attorney (Defensora del Pueblo) of Chubut.
It is indeed relevant to warn that the operation of gold mines irreversibly damages all the ecosystems in the place where it is practised. The natural cycles of the soil, the biota and the water get disturbed, thus affecting greatly the image of sustainability that belong to the native environments of Patagonia. It is also a short life and consuming activity that divides in a very asymmetrical way the profits obtained. The social changes that are brought by this activity will inevitably and rapidly collapse at the definite closing of the mines.
It is erroneous to consider as "Mining of Argentina" these kinds of enterprises.
The information used to complete this report was obtained from:
- Technical report by Dr. Teresa Ana Maknis.
- "Estudio Sobre el Impacto Ambiental y Sanitario de las Minas de Oro. El Caso Cordón
Esquén". FUNAM - Fundación Para la Defensa del Ambiente
Author: Dr. Raúl A. Montenegro, Biologist.