Elisabeth Mohle, Universidad Nacional de San Martín
We study two local governments in their relationship with their provincial and national counterparts regarding the installation of open pit mining projects in their respective jurisdictions. The first one is Andalgalá, a small town of 12,000 inhabitants, and the second one Famatina, a tiny community of only 2,500 people.
Both municipalities are located in the northwest of Argentina, have similar political regimes and levels of development (measured by the HDI). However, there is a fundamental difference in relation to open pit mining: La Alumbrera open pit mine is active in one of the provinces, while in the other this type of activity has been resisted. Both provinces differ in their legislation regarding mining, their fiscal regimes, the degree of citizen mobilization, and the pressures the mining sector can exert.
We will see how, in this context, the political alignment or opposition between local governments and the national and provincial counterparts in their strategy of supporting new mining projects is essential to strengthen citizen mobilization to effectively promote or prevent the establishment of mining companies. Additionally, we will observe if there is any difference regarding the resources to which the communities in the more urban or more rural context have access.
Andalgalá is a city of 12,600 inhabitants in the Province of Catamarca, located in the northern part of the province, 248 km from the provincial capital. Most of the population worked in agriculture and small-scale mining, when Bajo La Alumbrera, the first Argentine open pit mine, got installed in the 1990s. Initially, Alumbrera was projected to include a complex network of extraction and industrialization that would take place in the City of Andalgalá, creating jobs and economic development that would continue even after finishing the activities of the mine. These promises of employment and progress penetrated deeply in a poor province where an important share of their population leave for Buenos Aires and other larger cities in search of employment. The three levels of governments (national, provincial, and local) aligned their discourses about the benefits of bringing open pit mining to the province. This, together with the real hopes placed on progress by all implicated actors, a certain degree of ignorance of the real impacts of the activity, and the absence of similar experiences in the country, played a role in influencing the community of Andalgalá, who welcomed Alumbrera with open arms.
However, the project that was finally carried out was only the open pit mine, without the ambitious associated industrial complex. Not too much time passed from the beginning of the operations, until the disenchantment with Alumbrera arose. First, the jobs created were much fewer than promised. Second, few royalties were distributed to the local government and there were serious shortages of public works and services. Third, frustration with sluggish economic growth grew together with an incipient notion of incompatibility of this mega exploitation project with traditional ways of life. Finally, there were several environmental accidents.
Although regulating mining activities is not directly a competence of the local government, all these issues impacted directly on the local community. In 2002 neighbors of Andalgalá organized the assembly Vecinos por la Vida (neighbors for life) with the aim of discussing the impact of the mine in their lives. As neighbors organized, pressures on the mayor mounted both to keep social peace and to provide answers to their demands.
In this scenario, by the end of 2009, a local councilor asked for provincial public information regarding mining prospection in the area. He received a report which included the Pilciao 16 that covered a large portion of the City of Andalgalá. Whether the mayor knew this information beforehand is not clear, but at least publicly, the alignment between levels of governments started to break.
Since then, the assembly strongly mobilized against the project. Its members carried out several protests that were repressed with varying degrees of severity and presented judicial demands that, finally, in 2016 halted the activities in the zone. Opposition to a neighboring mining project in Agua Rica also escalated, despite it had been planned with relative social peace until then.
While the alignment between the national and provincial government continued steadily since the nineties on, the local government started to show some concessions to the growing citizen opposition and left the position of total support the provincial and national counterparts still showed. Both the mayor and the local council proposed referendums to give neighbors the formal opportunity to express themselves about the project. None of these initiatives were formally implemented. But in the elections of 2011, the winning mayor was the candidate that had publicly declared himself against the Agua Rica project and that endorsed the mandate to protect natural resources.
From that moment on, the local government differed sharply from the pro-mining discourse and actions that the provincial and national governments endorsed. The city’s legislative council unanimously sanctioned an ordinance prohibiting open-pit metal mining activity. This was a powerful political signal, even though the local government has no jurisdictional authority over natural resources and therefore the capacity of such ordinance to effectively prevent mega-mining in the territory is null. The provincial government did not directly endorse the position of the assembly, but social pressures and the support from the local government finally forced the judiciary to stop all activities at the Agua Rica site.
Famatina is an Argentine town with 2,466 inhabitants in the northern section of the Province of La Rioja. This is a region with a significant production in agriculture and booming tourism even though water is incredibly scarce.  The populations settled in this region developed techniques that allow them to use water efficiently, thus creating a special relationship and an acute awareness of its importance as a scarce resource. This is a key factor in understanding the rapid reaction of people to a mining project that required to use huge amounts of water.
The city neighbors of one of the oldest mines in the country: La Mejicana, an underground gold mine exploited until the early twentieth century when it became economically inefficient. The ruins of this mine remain atop the snow-capped mountains of Famatina as a reminder to the community that gold is gone, but a contaminated site is still there.
For decades, there was no talk about mining in Famatina until a boom in the prices of minerals, new technologies, and legislative changes began to attract large transnational companies. During the early 2000s, the national government strongly supported mining activities, and the Governor of the province initiated talks so that Barrick Gold could begin to exploit the Famatina mountain. In 2004, the Vice President of the Barrick for Latin America, the Governor, the Vice Governor, and the mayors of the neighboring towns of Chilecito and Famatina signed the contract to begin operations. Up to that moment, there was a clear alignment of all relevant actors to promote the new mining project.
The provincial government and the company promised to deliver accurate information on environmental protection policies, to work together with the neighboring communities, and to create several direct and indirect jobs to promote economic development for the entire region. However, cooperation was practically nonexistent: while the provincial government began operations with the mining company, the neighboring population was not consulted or informed about the exploitation, its implications, and progress.
Concerned and aware of the nearby experience of Bajo la Alumbrera, neighbors of Famatina began to learn about open pit mining and to organize opposition against the project. In May 2006, two years after the presentation of the project, they created the Famatina Assembly with the purpose of preventing the beginning of mining operations, as they believed the activity would not bring any progress to the community.
The Mayor of Famatina, who had been present at the time the contract was signed and initially supported the exploitation of the mine, at first distrusted the assembly and its objectives. But soon he learned about the negative impacts of this type of mining and took notice of the important social opposition. He then switched sides and stopped supporting the project and instead backed all the activities the assembly carried out. He coordinated the first blockade against Barrick to prevent its vehicles from reaching the mine. As a result, the local government ended up actively opposed to the other levels of government.
After a series of failed meetings with provincial officials, the assembly members and the local government launched an active resistance to prevent the exploitation of Famatina. Together, they first expelled Barrick Gold, then Shandong Gold, Osisko, and Midais, until Famatina was finally declared a National Park.
Cities near large mining projects directly suffer all the social and environmental impacts of this type of economic activity, receiving only a small part of the benefits, being them jobs, royalties, or industrial activity. Local governments, as direct representatives of those communities, are often tensioned between popular demands and the political loyalty to the Governor (and the President).
When installing a new open pit mine, coordination between the three levels of government is essential. In our two cases, there was a clear alignment between the federal and the provincial governments of Catamarca and La Rioja to favor mining activities in the Agua Rica and Famatina projects. Local governments, on the contrary, were more conditioned by the strong opposition of directly affected neighboring communities. In Famatina, the local government supported the Famatina Assembly from the very beginning, while in Andalgalá it changed positions, first from favoring the activity, then to a neutral one, and ends up declaring itself against open pit mining. Thus, while in Famatina the four mining companies were ousted before starting drilling, in Andalgalá, a slower social organization process, the strong presence of Alumbrera, and a more reluctant municipal support only managed to prevent operations at Agua Rica through judicial decisions taken when the mining equipment was ready in the fields.
In sum, the positioning of the local government is of strategic importance. It can either cooperate with the provincial and national governments and the companies and try to demobilize social opposition to guarantee some relative social peace to favor mining; or it can instead support and empower citizen mobilization, making it highly probable that new mining projects will not be implemented.
An important question to address in future research is regarding the causes that explain the differential positioning of local governments when confronted with such conflictive situations. We suggest that it might relate to how local and urban populations have distinct access to resources. For example, in an urban context the availability of information, of networks of diverse actors, the state capacity and the accessible institutions will probably be far more than in a rural context. This would give the contesting communities in a city a wider range of paths to go to fulfil their objectives. In our case we see that while the small town of Famatina seems to only have the option of direct action where the support of the mayor is of crucial importance, in Andalgalá they used different ways to protest the mining project, pursuing the judicial route, for example, where they didn’t depend on the clear positioning of the mayor.
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