Uruguay Prepares for Iron Rush – by Inés Acosta (Inter Press Service – August 26, 2013)


The legal framework for large-scale mining is being prepared in Uruguay, a country where mining has never played an important role in the economy but which could become the world’s eighth largest producer of iron ore.

MONTEVIDEO, Aug 26 2013 (IPS) – A bill that would regulate large-scale mining operations is making its way through Uruguay’s two houses of parliament, despite a lack of political consensus and vocal opposition from environmental organisations and other sectors of civil society.

The proposed legislation, submitted by the executive branch and backed by the ruling Frente Amplio (FA) or Broad Front coalition, declares that large-scale mining would serve the “public interest”. But critics charge that the bill was drafted to serve the interests of the Aratirí project planned by the Indian mining group Zamin Ferrous, aimed at the production of 18 million tons of iron ore annually, with a promised investment of three billion dollars.

Opposition to these plans by environmentalists, farmers and other residents of the areas that would be affected by the mining operations is becoming increasingly louder. In the last demonstration against large-scale mining in Uruguay, held on May 10, more than 10,000 participants marched down 18 de Julio Avenue, the main thoroughfare in downtown Montevideo.

Meanwhile, in a survey conducted by the Radar consulting firm, which asked the question, “Are you in favour of open-pit mining activities in Uruguay, such as the Aratirí project?”, 46 percent of respondents said that they were opposed, 28 percent were in favour, 12 percent had no opinion on the matter, and 14 percent said they knew nothing about the subject.

The Aratirí project would occupy 4,300 hectares and encompass five open-pit mines on 500 hectares, associated logistics facilities, a processing and beneficiation plant, and a 212-km concentrate slurry pipeline to transport the ore to a deepwater export terminal that the company plans to build on the Atlantic coast, in an area where tourism plays a major role in the local economy.

But the entire undertaking, including the “buffer zones”, will take up 14,505 hectares in three departments in central and eastern Uruguay: Durazno, Florida and Treinta y Tres. The project also includes the installation of five new high-voltage power lines to supply power to the mining facilities and the port.

Opposition has also taken the form of proposals and local campaigns to declare the departments of Treinta y Tres and Lavalleja, in eastern Uruguay, and Rivera and Tacuarembó, in the northeast, as “mega mining-free” territories. In Tacuarembó, where there are requests for prospecting permits involving 300,000 hectares of land, activists say they have collected the number of signatures necessary to demand the calling of a referendum, under Uruguayan law.

“Tacuarembó has no tradition of mining. It is a region of very fertile land, with tremendous capacity for producing living things, and it lies over the Guaraní Aquifer. Its natural conditions are much better suited to producing biodiversity,” farmer Daniela Pírez of the Tacuarembó for Life and Water committee, which headed up the collection of signatures, told Tierramérica*.

The new bill, which would modify the current Mining Code, contains “provisions and exceptional benefits that are aimed at enabling the (Aratirí) project,” according to the Movement for a Sustainable Uruguay (Movus).

“This law has a first name and a last name: Aratirí. That’s where the whole thing started, regardless of whether there may be other mining projects,” Senator Sergio Abreu of the opposition National Party told Tierramérica.

Frente Amplio senator and former minister of industry Daniel Martínez denied the accusation. The proposed law “was conceived in the framework of large-scale mining in general, because there are many projects coming into Uruguay, and the idea was to have a special law that would demand greater environmental protection measures and ensure more resources for the state,” he told Tierramérica.

For the moment, however, the other mining projects in the country are one tenth the size of Aratirí, according to the Uruguayan Chamber of the Mining Industry.

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