The Gold Link
Four workers - middle-age, wearing orange vests with white helmets over sun-darkened faces - return to the Pascua Lama mine camp at sunset. They've been setting up a platform high in the Andes so their employer Barrick Gold can access the $18 billion mineral bounty buried at 17,000 feet. These modern-day gold miners from small communities in Chile's arid, dusty Region III don't bring home gold; rather, they each pull fossils out of their pockets - shells and snails now hardened to stone. Before detonating explosives at the crest of the continent, these men dusted off shells that settled to the sea-bottom a million years ago.
Beginning in 2009, that part of the ocean floor that rose into a 17,000-foot mountain will become a scalped canyon, its substance moved by truck to adjacent valleys. Each day machines and chemicals, including cyanide, will sift through 44,000 tons of earth searching for, at most, five grams of gold per ton. That’s two blueberries worth, barely enough for one gold ring.
COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
The Huasco Valley makes a green ribbon exposed to the sun like grapes drying to raisins. The green follows the water. The water flows from the red, purple, and gray Andes Mountains that rise in hazy layers east of Vallenar, the valley's main hub. At the southern end of the driest desert in the world, Chile’s Atacama, the year-round presence of water seems unnatural if not miraculous. From Vallenar's downtown to the last one-store, one-school community of Chollay, children spend most summer days jumping into river pools. Even a half-mile outside Vallenar's paved, sometimes-bustling streets, patches of green earth reveal carefully irrigated fields growing avocados, grapes, and mangos or alfalfa for livestock. The agricultural lifestyle continues in the valley as it branches deeper into the Andes, becoming more rural and remote with each town. The swimming hole frequency remains steady. We stop at one by the relatively large town of Chanchoquin Grande.
About a dozen people, from toddlers carried by young parents to a middle-age grandmother, watch us scramble down a loose roadside embankment to get to the rock-covered riverside. The sun down here seems to arrive at mid-sky about half an hour after dawn. Its intensity doesn’t fade for ten hours. At around 6:30pm it begins a rapid descent and by 7pm it has disappeared behind the three-thousand-foot slopes of crumbling rock that wall in the valley, no foothills required. COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
As we approach the swimming hole, we race the 7pm shadow creeping toward us like the Kodak grim reaper. The locals are drying off but they happily jump back into the water when we brandish our cameras. Earlier in the afternoon they had walked about a half hour to this, their favorite poza.
The water pools to about five feet deep behind a hand-made jumble of rocks, wood, and chicken wire. The younger children show off for the camera with hand-stands, their skinny legs scissor-kicking the air, torsos submerged. Teenagers hang teenager style in the shade of a little black-tarp covered hut. Soon the shadow passes over the pool and goose bumps rise on brown skin with the increased breeze. Everyone wraps themselves in dry clothes or towels. I ask about the mine project and the younger kids answer with the enthusiasm of educating from recently acquired knowledge: it’s bad, it will contaminate our water, we won’t be able to swim here if Pascua Lama happens.
BARRICK = GOLD
Aside from minute medical and industrial purposes, no one needs gold; it's an accessory. 85% of the virgin gold produced today goes to gold jewelry, and a large chunk of that to supply the dowry of Indian women. But if there's a market, there's a way, and Barrick Gold has found the way.
Barrick Gold is the world's leading producer of virgin gold. The massive Canadian-based corporation mines throughout the world. They recently bought Placer Dome in Nevada, a strategic move that has pushed them to the front of the mining world where access to the world’s increasingly remote gold mines requires larger and larger companies. However, Barrick has also gained a powerful international name by enlisting influential world leaders. In the late 1990s George Bush Sr. joined former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as Barrick advisors. The addition coincided with a heated competition for extraction rights to what investors believed to be the most lucrative gold ore body in the world, Indonesia’s Busang claim. Busang was in fact a fraud, but Barrick showed an alarmingly aggressive political prowess.
Within the industry, Barrick has been recognized as exemplary corporate citizens; the tagline on their logo is “Responsible Mining.” Good public relations means fewer roadblocks in the approval process for new mines. New, bigger mines and efficient exploitation keep investor momentum going in the increasingly conglomerated gold exploration industry.
Barrick arrived in Chile with the purchase of the El Indio Mine in a valley south of the Huasco. It produced for a few years before Barrick shut it down using what they consider exemplary standards. The site now looks reclaimed – trees, grassy meadows, a creek returned to the surface. But locals claim it’s too early to tell, believing that Barrick just swept a clean surface of soil over the waste heaps and tailings piles. The local water authority group has not done a water test, claiming a lack of funds. In the meantime, Barrick had their sights on what could be one of the most productive ore bodies in the world, a series of belts that extend north from the upper headwaters of the Chollay and Turbio Rivers. The first project, Pascua Lama, includes a chunk of Chile (80% of proposed mine) and a sliver of Argentina (20%) with the heart of the pit located at the extreme elevation of over 15,000 feet.
Pascua Lama might have been another anonymous mine that only the government, the corporation, the local communities, and some mining watchdog groups knew about. Except for one word: "glacier." Part of Pascua Lama's gold loot lies under three "glaciers" - Toro 1, Toro 2, and Esperanza. According to Barrick's glaciology studies, they aren't really glaciers, rather icefields. And cold ice fields at that, meaning they don't play a large role in the water supply (.5%). But glaciologists insist that percentages carry little weight when considering the overall ecosystem in such an extreme and vulnerable high-elevation environment.
The original plan necessitated scraping into parts of those glaciers and moving them to another location where they would, according to Barrick, grow back to a natural state within the neighboring Guanaco Glacier.
Breaking apart a glacier is easy for a company that moves mountains. Replanting it on the nearest ice field and expecting it to grow back raises many questions. Townspeople present at the initial community meetings asked, "What happens if you find gold under the glaciers and you keep finding gold? Do you keep digging further into the ice?"
Suddenly, there was a battle. Pascua Lama and Barrick’s “Responsible Mining” tagline faced a rising mountain of criticism and scrutiny. The Chilean government ultimately drew the line, demanding that no glaciers be touched. But in the meantime, according to many local residents, including some who had worked at the mine, heavy equipment had already been manipulating the ice in an attempt to expedite melting.
Barrick needed some community friends. Time for the old standby: divide and conquer.
SERGIO, PRESIDENT HUASCOALTINO FARMER'S COOP, AVOCADO FARMER
“He’s one of the last houses out of town. Look for the Avocados for Sale sign.”
We keep driving the part-paved, part-gravel, all-dust road past vineyards and small, low houses baking in the afternoon sun. There’s the sign: Hay Paltas written on a paper plate and nailed to a wooden pole. A royal blue Ford Ranger truck sits behind a barbed-wire gate. No a Pascua Lama bumper stickers decorate both sides of the rear gate. Sergio is a central player in the fight to stop mining in the area, specifically the Pachuy project, a site Barrick is exploring in the mountains north of Pascua Lama. Pachuy sits on land owned by the Huascoaltino farming cooperative, of which Sergio is president.
It’s suddenly cooler as we walk through the opening and down the path shaded by avocado and mango trees. The path leaves us at the wide, covered deck of Sergio Campusano’s house. Sergio sits on the old couch at the far end. He’s well under six feet tall with a round face that seems too big for his stout frame. His amber skin and shiny, smooth black hair has a more rich hew than many Chileans further south. He’s Peruvian. In the background, his young son and daughter lie horizontally in the two-foot wide irrigation canal flowing with water. The girl has little green chunks clinging to her long, thick dark hair: avocado shampoo straight from the tree.
Sergio’s family isn’t primitive. He has the truck and inside a simple office (connected to two smaller bedrooms) he has two desktop computers. They aren’t iMacs but they get the job done. Sergio apparently has no idea who we are and looks at us skeptically. Plus, he’s a skeptical guy, an obvious defense mechanism when one lives in such a waffling environment; after years of division and backdoor politics it’s easy to wonder who’s pulling the strings.
After explaining our intentions, Sergio unfolds a large Barrick map of the high cordillera. Red, green, and blue Crayon streaks outline chunks of mountains like a toddler’s crime scene rendition. These indicate the four mining projects in exploration. Pascua Lama in green represents a big one to the south but three more blobs extend further north: Pachuy, Valeriano, and El Morro. We had no idea about these exploration zones. Not many people do. The chain emails are sent when a glacier relocation is mentioned not when dirt roads are cut and samples quietly taken for exploration purposes. Pascua Lama is just the first chapter and this is not a novella. The potential for gold exploitation in this spread of mountain-tops is epic. Pascua Lama alone could account for 25% of Barrick’s global profit: $1.51 billion in 2006.
The big picture concerns Sergio. He explains that most people in these towns know nothing about the Pascua Lama project much less believe in any of the benefits promised by Barrick. Sergio holds meetings with the small towns in the Huascoaltino Estancia because he wants to unite the members of the cooperative with the Diaguita group, a recently recognized indigenous culture. The distinction seems silly; both groups are part of the valley community, both rely on agriculture or livestock, and both drink the water. So why the divide? According to Sergio, it’s largely because the Diaguita have negotiated with Barrick, been bussed down to Santiago on a Barrick-chartered bus, and ultimately have signed off on the Pascua Lama project. The Huascoaltino have not. But the Huascoaltino own the land being explored for Pachuy. So Barrick can’t ignore them; they must negotiate.COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Sergio is stonewalling. He knows this frustrates a big company more than anything because the company needs to work quickly and they’re used to getting what they want. He also understands that Barrick relies on investor confidence; a farming cooperative obstacle with a multi-billion-dollar mine on the other side reduces that confidence. Barrick can’t understand Sergio. They might even hate him.
RON KETTLES, DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, PASCUA LAMA
“Sergio doesn’t have an ounce of Diaguita in him. Neither does his wife,” Ron says.
Ron Kettles is a stout, serious man at the end of a long career developing mines. He’s not the slick executive type with Gucci shoes and three secretaries. Although the computer desktop displays his Miami-based motor yacht, Ron seems to prefer the front lines.
We meet him in the otherwise empty La Serena office at 9am Sunday morning. He’s been here two hours. After a few niceties, Ron fires off a lecture on ethics, misrepresentation of facts, and what it means to be fair-and-balanced. I imagine this must be what a Ted Haggert sexuality sermon feels like, but I listen.
For over an hour Ron walks us through Pascua Lama's plan according to a topographic map on his desk. The plan calls for five layers of protection in the waste pits and leaching pond. Surface water from the glaciers surrounding the pit will be redirected via canals to join the free-flowing Estrecho River below the mine site. A water treatment facility will treat the naturally acidic water and recycled mine water for reuse in the operations. This treatment process will, according to Ron, "stay in operation in perpetuity, if necessary," after the mine closes. That “perpetuity” would begin over 25 years from now, long after current Barrick officials have retired, moved on, or entered their own heavenly perpetuity. It’s easy to wonder who will be around to care in 25 years, much less to hold true to this promise of procrastination.
"If anything, there's probably a slight improvement to the water quality and quantity," Ron said.
As for waste material, Ron says the mine will move 44,000 tons/day. Waste rock will be placed in stockpiles with membrane linings to control leaching of dangerous material. Ron is especially proud of the tailings pond dam on the Argentina side of the mine where the cyanide treatment plant will live. Unlike similar dams, this one will be built of separate rock, not the tailings themselves. This, ideally, will act as yet another barrier to leaking. A nearby reclaimed water pond will be 1 km from the dam and all has been seismically tested to withstand catastrophic geologic events (a 6.8 earthquake struck in 2003).
Ron emphasizes this importance, "There will be no possibility of contaminated material getting past the dam. There will be zero environmental impact effect."
The cyanide will arrive in trucks via the San Felix valley road that leaves out of Alto del Carmen. Truck spills are a major concern with mines, especially since the mountainous road is extremely curvy (see http://www.rainforestinfo.org.au/gold/spills.htm for a recent timeline of spills in world mines). It also passes directly above the north shore of the Santa Juana Reservoir. Ron says two convoys of 20 trucks will travel the road each day during operation. That's 40 trucks a day, every day, for twenty years. Barrick's emergency response plan involves GPS satellite surveillance, though a cyanide spill into a river or, worse, the reservoir, spreads far too rapidly to be controlled, especially considering the slow pace of the mountainous roads.
Ron's proud of his mine - it is far more advanced than any mine he or Barrick has done in the past, including the year-old Veladero mine 7 km south of Pascua Lama in Argentina.
So why such dramatic improvements with Pascua Lama; why has Barrick gone to such length on this one?
"The emotional opposition has motivated us," Ron said.
So the “wayward journalists,” protesting environmental groups, misbehaving bloggers, and farmer’s cooperative leaders that tie Ron and Barrick in public relations knots are the motivation for the advancements and safeguards at Pascua Lama that Ron now brags about. Funny cycle.
Sergio holds a prominent place on Ron’s list of adversaries. After explaining how the Diaguita “magically” became a recognized culture only recently when a new Chilean minister named them such (“she’s a Diaguita herself”), Ron boasts of the cultural awareness initiatives Barrick is supporting via traditional cooking and art classes. Sergio, he explains, has no connection to the Diaguita people, rather he represents a farmer’s cooperative and his fight reflects personal financial interests. So Barrick Gold’s director believes this avocado farmer with a couple acres is wielding his mighty club of influence and manipulation in order to make a buck. How could he let money so cloud his judgment? Clearly, a buck for Barrick is more important than a buck for the locals. But that doesn’t even take into account the innate right and widespread expectation for someone to fight for his or her land. Ron recommends we speak to Anna Huanchequay, the Diaguita president with whom Barrick has dealt. Ron also suggests we find the Junta de Vigilancia, the not-so elected board of the Huasco Valley Water Users Association. Ron doesn’t mention Rodolfo Villar, perhaps because he’s another local with the nerve to fight for his land.
"The Water Users Cooperative, representing 2,000 farmers of the Huasco Valley, is fully supportive of the project. Chile is a democratic country and the media play an important role in the public discussion of the community concerns and interests. There has already been an extensive and open discussion of issues including the participation of farmers."
Excerpted from Barrick’s Website, www.barrick.com
Yes, the Junta represents the 2,000 farmers with water rights in the Huasco Valley. No, they do not fully support the project, according to Luis Mansilla Pereira, the Junta’s Director. We spoke with Luis in the Junta’s Vallenar office.
The Junta formed after the Pascua Lama project had long been in development. Once the mine was approved, the Junta agreed to work with Barrick on a water treatment study and to oversee the approval of the protection devices planned for the mine. Barrick also agreed to pay the Junta $60 million dollars over 20 years: $3 million a year deposited into the Junta bank account. The Junta signed off on the Barrick plans.
The Junta offers a unique take on democracy. The 2,000 Junta members share 12,000 acciones. Acciones represent the water rights for each farmer. One accion equals one hour of water usage. One accion costs roughly $2,000, though prices vary in different places. Acciones are limited to available water on each member’s land, but acciones can be bought and sold between members. Therefore, in a community dominated by a handful of prominent agricultural industrialists producing grapes and olives (further west toward the coast), the acciones tend to collect in the hands of the landed wealthy.
One accion also equals one vote and the Junta elects its own nine-person committee. The resulting board of directors for the Junta represents the most influential, powerful, accion-rich members. They speak for the remaining small farmers, many of whom have 1/2 to 1 accion for their family-sized, self-supporting avocado, grape, or mango farms.
Votes can literally be bought in this form of small-town democracy. Many locals wonder what $60 million can buy.
ANNA HUANCHEQUAY, PRESIDENT HUASCOALTO DIAGUITA CULTURE
Anna Huanchequay runs a newspaper and candy kiosk in Alto del Carmen. The blue metal box big enough for a six-pack of telephone booths opens its front window in the mornings and late afternoon each day. From inside, Anna looks down a quiet, paved street of Alto toward the horizontally layered ridge that separates her valley, the San Felix, from the Transito Valley. The two main rivers of this controversy meet just around the corner. Anna's position as liason between the Diaguita people and Barrick has not been such a smooth confluence.
We find Anna in her kiosk. Like Sergio, she’s apprehensive at first and seems worn down from trying to decipher people's motives. This Pascua Lama topic has obviously taken its toll on her. She stands in the corner of her low-ceilinged aluminum sided hut. Bright candy bars and posters of soccer players hang from every inch of wall or shelf. The wildly grinning cartoon faces on wrappers seem to mock the slightly stooped woman with sun-wrinkled skin as she moves forward to lean rest her curled hands on the kiosk counter.
Once convinced we aren't working with Barrick, she begins talking. Anna claims the Diaguita never supported the mine until after the government granted the permits; they felt, like the Junta, that once the mine was approved they better get involved as a watchdog. Anna and the Diaguita fought to keep the glaciers safe and Barrick ensrued them they would not and had not touched the glaciers. But Anna conveyed that a town representative had recently climbed up to the mine and reported that Barrick had manipulated the glaciers. Now Anna says they await a response to a formal letter sent to President Bachelet. Ultimately, they want further discussion on mine activity and their claim to land title.
This is what Anna told us. She also said Barrick offered her money and she refused. We have it on tape. But it’s talk. Someone else will have different talk in response. Moments later, Anna’s on her cell phone speaking to Carlos, a Barrick employee.
Anna looks tired. She brings to mind the shaky flag tied to the center of the tug-of-war rope.
CARLOS, A BARRICK TEAM MEMBER
In Alto del Carmen, the biggest town in the Transito and del Carmen Valleys, we meet Carlos. He greets us outside Barrick’s small office off Alto del Carmen’s calm plaza. In a Barrick golf shirt and khaki pants, Carlos looks tidy and wears a glowing sense of pride for his professional appearance and stature. He grew up and still lives 20km up the valley in San Felix. The full-time Barrick gig – cell phone, Bluetooth, red company pick-up, paid vacation – is as good as it gets. He’s nice. He smiles warmly and is genuinely interested in helping us; that’s part of his job as community relations – to answer questions and concerns.
Carlos speaks in length about the community programs Barrick has and will continue to offer in the area. He describes the cooking and pottery classes that teach local people traditional Diaguita customs. We ask him why no one we’d met had attended the classes and he says many of the people are shy or do not know about the classes. He discusses Barrick’s encouragement of local employment at the mine and the six scholarships for deserving college students.
When asked about the handouts of gifts, what locals call "Coima" for corruption, Carlos chuckles and describes an instance in which the company bought a specialized walker for a young boy with a muscular problem. Carlos smiles knowingly and asks us if that’s "coima."
He’s told that story before; it comes out like a familiar, well-rehearsed joke with a proven punchline. If a school requests a computer, Barrick will buy a computer and give it to the school once it verifies the request. These types of in-kind transactions, he continues, adhere to Barrick's strict policy of not giving cash. He must not mean the bigger deals like the $3 million deposited into the Junta de Vigilancia’s account each year.
PASCUA LAMA, THE TOUR
The two gates bordering the Pascua Lama are big, metal, and impenetrable. But they only block the road. Anyone can walk three feet to the side and around. There’s no guard, just the same dry, windy landscape of steep slopes narrowing to a fast stream the color of powdered milk in Windex. Miles uphill from the last communities, the shiny, sturdy gates with the bright Barrick: Responsible Mining logo look like billboards for a second. But then the eye broadens to the utterly empty context and curiosity takes over: What the hell is up there, 50 more kilometers on this windy road?COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
The little twin-engine plane swoops between chunky rock pillars poking into the sky at 17,000 feet and the runway finally comes into view. The packed dirt runway, we’d been told, is on a former Diaguita field where games were played by villagers who once lived in the upper valleys. Over 30 of their cemeteries also exist on the Pascua Lama land.
I ask Franco, Barrick’s young anthropologist/archaeologist, about this.
“No,” he says, almost too quickly, as if he anticipated the question. “The Diaguita ‘field’ is a term used for a pasture where they kept their horses and livestock. It’s not where they played games.” COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Like Carlos with the corruption story, Franco has explained that one before.
Franco is accompanying us on this tour. He’s been with Barrick for two years. This is his second trip to the mine site, the first being in winter with five feet of snow covering the ground. When asked, Franco says his purpose on this 24-hour tour is “to get to know the site.” He’ll be with us the whole time.
After a quick check-up in the infirmary – flying from 3,000 to 15,000 feet in 25 minutes requires some monitoring – we eat a snack in the camp’s cafeteria. The building looks like the others in this makeshift base. Low, metal-sided buildings with gravel parking lots and metal stairs leading up to earthen terraces that hold the metal-sided dorms. The rooms are small but clean with a folded Barrick towel and washrag on each twin mattress and a bathroom shared between two rooms. Most rooms are empty with workers out on shifts. Only about 160 people work at Pascua Lama right now, mainly in the platform building and logistics arena.
In the afternoon we load into two trucks, two directors and I in one, Michael, Franco, and a driver in the other. We climb the wide dirt road that hugs the massive flanks of Andean mountain. We’re climbing to a saddle – the Chile-Argentina border. Pascua Lama is a revolutionary mine in many ways, one being its international nature. 80% of the open-pit mine will be in Chile, 20% in Argentina. This meant negotiating an unprecedented multi-national use agreement between the two countries. While Argentina operates its own controls, Chile delegated border patrol regulations to Barrick, essentially allowing free passage across the boundary. The majority of the ore will be accessed in Chile then sent via a tunneled conveyor belt to the Argentina treatment facility.
We stop at the 16,000 foot saddle. The mountain to our right hides the Pascua Lama ore body. It will be moved 44,000 daily tons at a time. To our left the hulking Guanaco Glacier crowns a mountain-top and drains into the future open-pit site and base-camp valley. In front of us, on the Argentina side, the treatment facility’s valley unfolds, flat and cleared for construction. Further east and south, mountain-sized clouds of gray dust circulate above the Veladero mine, a year-old Barrick project 7km southeast in Argentina.
I ask about the dust, a main concern since 15 tons/day can go air-born, silting the precious rivers and landing on glaciers, thus speeding their already-accelerated melting.COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Eduardo Silva, Barrick’s Communications Director, says, “It’s only dusty when the wind blows. That’s all.” Oddly, Michael, seated inside the car behind us, also notices the thousand-foot high cloud of dust blowing off Veladero. He asks the same question to his driver and Franco. They answer together, “It’s only dusty when the wind blows.” The players in this public relations theater might know their lines, but at 16,000 feet atop a continent I wonder when the wind doesn’t blow.
We drive by the glaciers - Toro 1 and 2 and Esperanza. Eduardo laughs at their size and explains again that they are barely glaciers at all and contribute less than 1% to the overall water supply of the valley below. He doesn’t mention that the slightest alterations at such high elevations as this can have dramatic effects on the overall ecosystem. Barrick officials sound exhausted to have to read from the glacier chapter’s script again.
As I hear it now for the fourth time the only difference is I’m looking at the glaciers in person. Esperanza’s top shines bright in the distance, a frozen layer over the mountain-side. Roads dead-end at an unnatural cross-section of the ice sheet and it seems that part of the mountain-side has been sheared off, including the glacier. I’ve seen plenty of glaciers and none have this dramatic edge to them without an underlying morphology to explain it. We snap photos, endure the wind, and climb back in the trucks.
The trucks return to camp, Franco the working anthropologist bobbing his head in altitude-induced sleep the whole way down.
CHEAP LAND AS NUISANCE
The machine is cranking up at Pascua Lama but a strange sense of stagnation exists. If the glaciers are safe, the infrastructure’s ready to roll, and workers are playing foosball at their lunch breaks, what’s the delay? Barrick casually mentions a few regional permits on the Chilean side. They don’t say a word about the Diaguita’s renewed interest in reclaiming their land title. Nor do they mention the lawsuit they just lost.
I had to ask Rod Jimenez, Barrick’s Director of Latin American Operations, about the recent court ruling in favor of a Chilean geologist and mine engineer. Rodolfo Villar filed suit against Barrick and won in November, 2006. In 1997 Barrick bought the land from Villar and, according to The New York Times, bought a smaller stake from Villar’s lawyer at the time. The lawyer received $650,000. Villar got $19 for his 8,600 hectacres.
Barrick is appealing the case. Despite the fact that Barrick’s only access road passes through Villar’s land, Jimenez asserts that the “nuisance suit” will have no effect on Pascua Lama’s development. When asked if the road passes through the land, Jimenez’s could not say yes or no, rather, “There will be no effect on the mine’s development.” Like Sergio, Villar apparently represents another pesky landowner out for his own financial gain.
We take the Barrick van down from Pascua Lama after our short, but rare visit. As expected, we don’t return with an expose of tortured workers and cyanide swimming pools. But while staring out the window at the natural pastures beside the Carmen River, alpacas dotting the green carpet, I’m awestruck first by the scale of a twenty-year, $18 billion dollar mountain-moving mine, then by a sense of doom: Pascua Lama could be multiplied three times if the future projects to the north gain momentum.
Back inside the van, Franco’s missing the view, his head still bobbing, full of corporate-anthropology dreams.
PAST VEGAS, WITH MIGUEL
Chollay is the last town in the Transito Valley. Fifteen kilometers from its small school and store the Barrick gate shines in dusty sunlight beside the Chollay River. Miguel Salazar lives in a small wooden house built next to his 80-year-old mother’s older stone house. A small orchard of avocado grows to the side, beyond the open-air kitchen where Adrianne cuts vegetables. Grapes drip from randomly placed canopies in the yard. We arrive late in the afternoon and Javier, Miguel’s twelve year-old son, greets us as we walk up the dirt driveway.
We leave our truck in the drive and cross the street with Javier to what has become our favorite swimming hole. The Pachuy River flows out of an oasis of overhanging branches and grass stalks. Above, the same bright, gray flanks of Andean dryness slant into the deep blue sky, but down here the 7pm shadow has swept over us, turning the pool behind the rock dam into a bowl of dark glass. We run across the flat dirt bank and push off the now-familiar jumping boulder, a flash of horizontal white that shatters the glassy water.
The Pachuy flows down from the Andes’ 15,000 foot crest 25km up the valley. A loose trail follows the river to the top, past a continuous string of vegas, the native grazing pastures of the valley livestock. Miguel has agreed to guide us on horseback so we can photograph the string of mountains housing the Pachuy gold Barrick wants to extract. The Huascoaltino group has title to this land and Sergio has no intention of letting it go. But Barrick has been exploring – their crude roads begin at about 11,000 feet, cut over the pass from nearby Pascua Lama. They know there is another lucrative gold pocket here, just a few kilometers north of Pascua Lama. The kids swimming in the Pachuy pool fear that its clean flow will soon be dirtied like the Chollay River that swallows the Pachuy in its milky blue just below the pool.
Miguel, Michael, and I stand around a small fire set into the makeshift stone encampment Miguel built up here for his frequent herding journeys. We rode for nine hours today to get to this elevation, a few thousand feet below the crest of the Andes but in an environment utterly different from the Chollay Valley. Up here, below the nearly lifeless zone at the crest, dense, spongy mounds of ground cover make an uneven carpet. Its green fluorescent glow among the dull red and brown rocks seems artificial, like an Epcot representation of an Andean vega.COPYRIGHT MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY
Miguel worked at Pascua Lama for a year. He helped map the landscape and was a certified explosives technician – he pulls out the old laminated card that says so. But he hasn’t worked there since, despite job offers. He doesn’t believe in what they are doing and he thinks it’s wrong to ruin the cordillera. And he doesn’t need the work; he’s putting his oldest son through university in La Serena and Javier is on track, too. This is Miguel’s backyard. He rides up this steep, dusty valley a few times a week. La Mula, the pack mule needs no direction. Miguel points to all the sources of water flowing from mountainside curves and gullies. He indicates the side valley that leads over a pass to the third Barrick project, Valeriano. The entire range will be covered with gold mines. Or uncovered.
We lean against the angular rock wall to eat rice and onions. The Andes rising around us turn black and look somehow more inviting than their stark daytime reality. Conversation slows with eating and the exhaustion that comes with elevation, a full-day of horsepacking, and struggling to understand Miguel’s difficult Spanish. Michael and I go to our tent. Miguel piles blankets and saddle pads between the two short walls that blend into the Andes, a one-man footprint on this high-elevation vega.
All of the farmers and cowboys we met share Miguel's perspective. They don't want the mine or its employment. Officials might argue they need it, but no one wants it. They have their own rustic lifestyle and it works with free, wild vegas and clean water flowing down the Pachuy, Cholly, del Carmen, and Transito Rivers. They don't need the controlled, vaccinated ranching life and consolidated agricultural economy that makes sense to big companies like Barrick. They need their children educated so they work hard to make that happen. One of the six scholarships Barrick offers to the 70,000 Huasco residents would help but so would winning the lottery.
The world wants gold. Barrick wants to supply it. Barrick’s directors and Website say they want to help communities. The farmers, teachers, clergy, and kids swimming in rivers want their valley left alone. It depends on who wants to listen.
COPYRIGHT ALL IMAGES MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY - ANY USE OF IMAGES WITHOUT AUTHORIZATION FROM MICHAEL HANSON PHOTOGRAPHY IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
For information on sources of clean gold, ideally scrap and recycled gold, go to www.NoDirtyGold.org