The emergence of Famatina as the center of Argentina’s anti-mining movement began with a seemingly innocuous development in March of 2006. That’s when a tuition-free class for geological assistants, organized by the mining secretary of La Rioja province, was launched in this mountain town of 3,500 located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) northwest of Buenos Aires. The class’s subject matter was not picked lightly. It reflected a decision, made two years earlier by La Rioja’s governor at the time, to allow Canadian mining giant Barrick Gold to study the feasibility of reviving and dramatically expanding a long-abandoned gold mine near Famatina.
Dozens of local residents signed up for the course, in which they learned for the first time the details of the accord Barrick had reached with Angel Maza, a former geologist and Argentine Mining Secretary who served as La Rioja governor from 1995 to 2007. The project Barrick envisioned would replace the abandoned, underground mine with an open-pit operation covering 52 hectares (128 acres), an area five times bigger than the original one. The mine operations would require extensive daily dynamiting and separation of gold from ore by means of a water-intensive leaching process involving the use of cyanide and other chemicals.
It was the enormous water requirements of such a mine that sparked particular concern among some of the local residents attending the assistant-geologists’ class, held in the local high school. The scarcity of water in the region is plain to see, with the area’s stream and river courses bone-dry most of the year. What water does flow down from the mountains to Famatina’s valley is highly prized by local families, the majority of whom tend crops and livestock on plots smaller than five hectares (12 acres). Alarmed by what they heard in the course, some of the students spread word of Barrick’s plans to others in community, who, in turn, began organizing to demand more information. Researching the potential risks wasn’t easy. Internet service in Famatina, though available now through residential connections, was at the time limited to an hour per day in a cybercafé facing the city’s main plaza. Carina Díaz Moreno, a Famatina native who works as a physical education instructor in the town, describes the period this way: “When I began to inform myself in the cybercafé about what open-pit mining is like, I cried with helplessness and asked myself how we could stop it. Then some school teachers in the community came to an agreement and we began to convene neighbors, friends and relatives to talk about the issue. On May 8 of 2006, with less than 10 people, we organized environmental assemblies in a room made available to us by the church.”
Over the next 10 years, the anti-mining movement based in Famatina experienced extraordinary growth and won the support not only of the town’s mayors during the period, but also—unusually for Argentina in such a dispute—of the local Catholic church. The movement’s slogan, “Don’t touch Famatina,” has become well known throughout the country, and the city is now regarded as a Mecca of sorts for Argentine environmental organizations. In the face of the ensuing protest actions—the blocking of key access roads to the mountains and the placement of protest encampments that attracted demonstrators from throughout the country—Barrick ultimately dropped its exploration project. Three other companies hoping to exploit the gold deposit after Barrick left were themselves forced out amid powerful opposition: the Chinese firm Shandon Gold in 2010; Osisko of Canada in 2012; and Argentina’s Midais last November.
The decade-long, high-profile campaign has helped energize grassroots efforts elsewhere in Argentina to blunt the advance of large-scale mining, which expanded dramatically in the 1990s, thanks to favorable international metals prices and government tax incentives, and has grown aggressively since. Argentine mining exports rose from US$682 million in 2000 to an all-time high of over $5 billion in 2012, a year in which they accounted for 7% of the country’s total exports, says the Argentine Mining Industry Chamber (CAEM). Unofficial figures put mining exports in 2015 at US$3.7-3.8 billion. Against this backdrop, anti-mining campaigns in various parts of the country have notched wins, with seven of Argentina’s 23 provinces—Chubut, Mendoza, Tucumán, La Pampa, San Luis, Córdoba and Tierra del Fuego—currently banning or severely restricting open-pit mining. But of all the grassroots campaigns, Famatina’s has proved the most prominent and influential.
“What has occurred in Famatina has had negative repercussions for mining development throughout the country,” says Mariano Lamothe, an economist specializing in the mining sector. “What happened [in Famatina] is the result of errors by the companies and the La Rioja government. When there’s resistance as strong as in Famatina, mining companies should withdraw rather than force the situation. Maybe mining can be attempted in 20 or 30 years, or maybe never. Famatina’s people have the right to choose another way to live and produce.”
Today, Famatina on the surface resembles the mountain community it always has been, so quiet and unhurried it can appear that the siesta time observed in rural Argentina fills the entire day. Ask residents about mining, though, and it’s clear there’s an underlying tension between a majority who oppose tapping the gold deposit and a minority who feel the project would create economic opportunity in a town where well-paying jobs are scarce. Omar Quinteros, a Catholic priest who arrived in Famatina in 2007 to lead the local parish and rapidly took a public stand against mining, says such tensions are inevitable when a project as large as Barrick’s is proposed in a small community. Says Quinteros: “Social pollution comes before the environmental variety.”
Speaking from an environmental standpoint, Quinteros says that on arriving in Famatina, he learned about the proposed open-pit mining process, with its leaching, extensive water needs and use of cyanide and explosives. “I didn’t hesitate to embrace the cause,” he says. “I was taught in Buenos Aires by Franciscan padres. Saint Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of ecology and the universal brotherhood of creatures. That’s why the Pope took his name. That training got me from a young age to learn the importance of preserving God’s creation.” Still, Quinteros acknowledges, “My position has caused me a great deal of pastoral wear. There were people who occupied my church, and staged demonstrations and pickets against me.”
Among the critics of Quinteros is Jorge Granillo, a Famatina City Council member. “The priest, instead of preaching love and peace, has thrown more wood on the fire,” says Granillo, a member of the Victory Front Party of former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, whose handpicked candidate to succeed her lost in a runoff last November to current President Mauricio Macri. “Mining should have an opportunity here because our province is subsidized by the economic production of other places in the country, and this shouldn’t continue. I believe those who oppose [the project] are badly informed. The community has discriminated against me for voicing that opinion.”
The mountains of Famatina have been known for gold since pre-Colombian times. Industrial-scale mining of the area began in the late 1800s. Evidence of the ensuing boom includes an abandoned, 34-kilometer (21-mile) suspended cableway that was used to move ore from the deposit, known as La Mejicana, or The Mexican, and located 4,200 meters (13,800 feet) above sea level, to the city of Chilecito. Mining of the deposit halted in 1926 as gold concentrations became too low to extract economically at the time, says Hernán Rolando Medina, a historian with the Argentine Center for International Studies.
“We say the cableway is a monument to the sacking this region suffered,” says Carolina Suffich, a secondary-school teacher and one of the original anti-mining activists. “Soon after we got underway, they called me from the provincial mining secretariat and invited me to travel to [the city of La Rioja, the provincial capital] to explain open-pit mining to me. I told them it would be better if they came to Famatina to explain it to the [environmental] assembly. So one day seven officials arrived, just as we screened a documentary on the effects of mineral exploitation at La Alumbrera [a copper mine in the neighboring province of Catamarca]. The film showed the impact of the lack of water in towns near the deposit.” Adds Suffich: “The officials were thrown off balance. Nobody believed their speech on progress and jobs. They came for wool and left shorn.”
The assembly’s fight spread when it was taken up by an environmental assembly formed in Chilecito, the second largest city in La Rioja province and some 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Famatina. And opponents soon found an unexpected ally: La Rioja Vice Governor Luis Beder Herrera, who was engaged in an internal party dispute with Gov. Maza at the time and had the allegiance of many in the provincial legislature. On Aug. 29, 2006, Beder Herrera was photographed with a sign that read: “No to the mining,” and said: “The true treasure of the Famatina hills is water. We are against them polluting it. We are in favor of life.”
In March 2007, Famatina assembly members set up a permanent roadblock on the route leading to La Mejicana, the abandoned mine Barrick hoped to reopen and expand. Meanwhile, La Rioja’s provincial legislature, led by Beder Herrera, passed a law prohibiting open-pit mining involving the use of “cyanide, mercury or any other contaminating substance.” And a La Rioja newspaper, the Independent, published the first details of the deal between Barrick and the province, disclosing that Barrick was allowed to conduct exploration at La Mejicana in exchange for paying the province only US$500,000.
Controversy over the terms of the deal contributed to a decision by the provincial legislature in April of 2007 to remove Gov. Maza from office. He was replaced by Beder Herrera. The next month, Barrick announced it was abandoning its exploration project, but wary protestors maintained their roadblock round the clock. In August of 2008, Beder Herrera, who had been elected governor a year earlier, reversed course. He persuaded the provincial legislature to repeal the ban on open-pit mining. In 2010, Beder Herrera reached an agreement with Shandong Gold, a mining company owned by the government of China’s Shandong province, on exploitation of the gold deposit. But Shandong later withdrew after seeing the extent of the local opposition.
Next up was Canada’s Osisko Mining. In 2011, the company announced an agreement to conduct a four-year feasibility study for the development of an open-pit mine. Its president and CEO, Sean Roosen, said: “In Famatina, Osisko has identified an ideal project with which to enter one of the best mining jurisdictions in South America.” Osisko’s entrance on the scene marked the most volatile phase of the conflict. On Dec. 27, 2011, Gov. Beder Hererra announced he would personally present the company’s exploration plan and a feasibility study to Famatina. A demonstration in Famatina’s town square the same day ended with demonstrators beating aides to the governor as the local church bells rang. Beder Herrera could not enter Famatina, as demonstrators had blocked the roads. The day is remembered by many Argentines as the “Famatinazo,” which roughly translates as the Famatina blow-up. “We regretted the governor scoffed at us by trying to launch the mining plan in our community,” says Díaz Moreno, the physical education instructor. “We decided to spend what was left of the year-end holidays in peace, then set up a new roadblock on the La Mejicana access road on Jan. 2, at six in the morning.”
Within days, environmental activists with tents appeared from various parts of the country to man a roadblock, impeding transport of Osisko employees and materials. By the end of January, a demonstration in the provincial capital had attracted 10,000 protestors, the biggest such event in years in that city. After a year and a half of near-continual blockage of the project access road, Beder Herrera in July of 2013 announced the cancellation of the Osisko contract.
Says Ismael Bordagaray, Famatina’s mayor then: “In Famatina we learned in time what open-pit mining is, and we could spare ourselves from it because we the three legs [of the stool] were united: the community, the church and the municipality.
Bordagaray recalls that in 2012, in the thick of the protest, the governor halted provincial revenue-sharing with Famatina, leaving the town short of funds to pay for fueling the vehicle it uses for garbage collection. To protest this retaliation, the mayor went to the provincial capital and chained himself to the government building, attracting nationwide news coverage and generating public pressure on Beder Herrera, who ultimately restored the funding. Last December, a new mayor took office—Alberto Godoy, a 38-year-old City Hall employee who got his start in politics as a member of the anti-mine protests.
Despite all, yet another mining company tried its luck in Famatina last year. Last April, the Argentine firm Midais signed a contract with the province, promising it would avoid using local water by trucking ore to a processing facility in the northwestern province of Salta. On Nov. 4, as protestors again blocked the mining site, La Rioja’s governor-elect at the time, current Gov. Sergio Casas, announced Midais was abandoning the project for “lack of social license.”
The story might not be over. President Macri’s interior minister, Rogelio Frigerio, was in La Rioja on Feb. 13, urging the province to tap its mineral deposits. “This is a government that will favor mining in Argentina because we understand we must have confidence in ourselves,” he said. “Where is it written that we aren’t capable of caring for the most important thing we have, our environment, while also exploiting what God gave us, and giving work to the Riojans?”
- Daniel Gutman