In Chile’s dry north, big mining threatens a vital resource – by Rosalind Adams and Sarah Tory (Santiago Times – August 24, 2013) [Part 1 of 3] [Chile]

Part I of a three-part series on Chile’s water crisis: Amid a growing water shortage, the Huasco Valley struggles to find a balance between mining and agriculture.

Deep in Chile’s Atacama Region, Sandra Anacona makes jam from the apricots and peaches that grow on her two-acre farm, land that has been in her husband’s family for six generations. Her face wrinkled into a permanent smile, she shuffles around the kitchen preparing meals and piping-hot cups of Nescafé for the endless parade of neighbors and family who show up at her dining table.

In the Valle del Huasco, these family-run farms, clustered around small pueblos like Alto del Carmen and San Félix, are permanent fixtures: ask for directions, and people give names instead of addresses — testament to a lifestyle that has changed little in 200 years.

Formed by the river snaking between Andean peaks, the Valle del Huasco appears like a ribbon of green in one of the driest places on Earth. Defying the surrounding desert, acres of pisco grapes grow, along with mangos, oranges, papayas and avocados.

But the influx of mega-mining projects throughout Chile’s North over the last two decades is threatening this lifestyle, putting an enormous strain on the region’s shrinking water resources. While small-scale mining has occurred here since pre-colonial times, the penchant for bigger and bigger mines run by companies with vast resources at their disposal — shifting the balance between mining and agriculture — has existed here for centuries.

Growing influence of mining

The road between Alto del Carmen and San Félix is well-paved and modern, dotted with solar powered lights that flicker on as the sun drops behind the valley. Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold funded the project, part of its efforts to win local support for the huge gold mine it is building nearby.

The multi-billion dollar Pascua-Lama project, straddling the mountainous border of Argentina and Chile, will be the biggest open pit mine in the world. High above the Valle del Huasco lie 18 million ounces of gold and more than 600,000 ounces of silver, buried beneath a glacier-studded plateau surrounded by 15,000-foot peaks.

The investment is so lucrative that Barrick, already the world’s largest gold miner, has poured US$4.8 billion into the project (out of a projected US$8.5 billion), on track to cost three times its original budget.

As mining companies turn to increasingly remote places in search of new reserves and bigger profits, they must spend equally vast sums of money to extract the minerals — and appease local populations who are often not thrilled about an open pit mine sitting in their backyard.

In addition to long haul roads, waste treatment infrastructure and processing sites that Barrick is building, the company has brought wifi to remote villages, built a cultural center for the local indigenous group and provides university scholarships for students in the Valle del Huasco.

Such offers are now standard protocol in the mining industry, part of big companies’ strategy to be seen as responsible corporate citizens. To do this, multinational firms pour money into local communities, building new schools, health clinics and roads in remote areas often neglected by the government. Endesa, a Spanish company that owns substantial non-consumptive water rights in Chile, makes similar investments in local communities where it is planning hydropower projects.

But in the Valle del Huasco, the influx of Barrick money has often had the opposite effect — engendering resentment and distrust among locals who feel the company is just buying off support for a project many see as a direct threat to their fragile water supply.

For the rest of this article, click here: