In resource-rich Patagonia, the town of Esquel passed a three-year moratorium on mining activity in the region. It halted Meridian Gold's (and subsequently Yamana Gold, headquartered in Toronto) proposed open-pit gold mine 7 kilometers upstream from Esquel (population approximately 30,000).
The city of Esquel is the most important tourist center in the Chubut mountain range and it is considered a world-renowned fishing destination. Other tourist attractions include the ski area of La Hoya and the Los Alerces National Park. The park, located just 28 kilometers west of Esquel, is home to the Patagonia cypress or alerce / lahuan (Fitzroya cupressoides), an Endangered evergreen tree that can live for over 3,000 years.
Celebrating their Victory
The moratorium was passed in the face of overwhelming opposition to the mine. In March 23, 2003, residents of the Esquel region declared a resounding “no” to gold mining. Around 80 percent of the citizens of Esquel voted against Meridian Gold's proposal to dig an open-pit gold mine less than 7 kilometers from their town.
To mark the anniversary of their historic 2003 referendum, residents of Esquel, Argentina held a four-day event on March 23, 2004. Several thousand people participated in a rally to voice their opposition to the proposed mine.
An Averted Crisis
The proposed open-pit mine would have use cyanide to extract the gold. The company proposed to bury solid waste from the mine in pits. Lake Esquel would quite likely have been used as a tailings dam for liquid wastes flowing downstream from the mine site. In addition, the Esquel mountain range is covered with faults and fissures that could have caused toxic waste from the mine to seep into the groundwater.
Merdian tried to soft pedal the environmental impacts of the proposal with a flawed Environmental Impact Assessment. A March 2003 independent evaluation of that assessment revealed the inadequacies of the EIA. Written by Dr. Robert Moran, the report “Esquel, Argentina: Predictions and Promises of a Flawed Environmental Impact Assessment” demonstrated that Meridian's proposal “[…] is the classic example, which is all too common in Latin America, where an EIA describes short-term benefits and solutions, but fails to even begin to consider long-term consequences.”
Meridian also attempted to silence activists, suing the residents of Esquel in 2005 for publicizing a tape from a meeting in Buenos Aires in which executives and public relations consultants discussed methods such as hiring community leaders to be “opinion leaders, capable of persuading hardliners.”
Los Alerces national park, 28 kilometers outside Esquel.
Though the temporary moratorium has halted the project, Meridian's land titles ensure their continued presence in the region, with multiple exploration sites found, including Willimanco I, another gold deposit site even closer to Esquel.
Meridian's Argentine subsidiary unsuccessfully attempted to challenge Law 5001, passed by the Province of Chubut in 2003. This law banned open pit mining and the use of cyanide for mining projects. Argentina's Supreme Court ruled on April 17, 2007 to uphold the law.
Before Yamana absorbed Meridian, Meridian was forced to indefinitely suspend operations at Esquel. Yamana now holds land titles to the area. On its website, Yamana lists Esquel under “Mineral Resources (Measured, Indicated, and Inferred),” but as of 2007, Yamana had no plans to develop the Esquel property and Peter Marrone, the chairman and chief executive of Yamana stated, “The local community has taken the position that they prefer not to have a mine, and so our position is that we're respecting that, and so we are withdrawing our efforts as they relate to Esquel.”
The Esquel community's organization serves as a model for others faced with environmental and social destruction. By 2008, five other Argentine provinces followed Esquel and Chubut's example, working to prohibit certain mining practices in Tucuman, La Rioja, Mendoza, La Pampa, and Rio Negro. In addition, three other communities held similar votes establishing their opposition to mining in Epuyen, Trevelin, and Lago Puelo.