On Coup's Anniversary, Argentines Commemorate Another Victory

Thousands of demonstrators march from the National Congress (background) to the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires on March 24 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the coup d'état that started the most bloody dictatorship (1976-1983) in Argentina. (Photo: Daniel Garcia / AFP-Getty Images)

Last week Argentina marked a sad and tragic chapter in its history: the coming to power of a military dictatorship. Almost thirty years later many Argentines still have not forgotten the dark period of dictatorship, death and genocide that a March 24, 1976, coup d'état ushered in. The military leadership imposed an economic "model" on Argentina that served the interests of foreign investors and multinationals above all and resulted in a social and economic rollback of workers' and civil rights. Today the "new" democracy (still reeling from the economic crash of 2002) is just as beholden to the economic dictates of neoliberalism as it was when first introduced by the generals of the coup d'état decades ago. In this "historical" context there was also another more uplifting commemoration worthy of mention that didn't catch the international headlines: the third anniversary of the Esquel referendum, which was won by opponents of the Canadian-based Meridian Gold mining project.

In a 2003 public consultation, 81 percent of the people voted to block a planned open pit mine from operating in this resort town nestled among the Andes mountain range. Three years on, in the town's Plaza San Martin, musicians played popular local folk-tunes as citizens marched in the streets in celebration of their victory. They carried banners reading "three years, 50 marches: the mountains and the people are standing up!" and "We, the people of Esquel continue to march on, today celebrating, but we remain very attentive to the speeches and actions of the those who are associates of death." Undeniably, the growing power of "civil society" and popular activism against the foreign-owned mining companies has caught many in the industry by surprise. A symbolic ceramic tablet offered to the town by local workers was mounted on a wall in honor of the third anniversary of the vote. It bore this inscription: "Water is worth more than gold — this locality says NO to mining contamination."

In a Spanish communiqué, the local citizens' group that had mobilized the popular resistance against the mine, Asambleas de Vecinos Autoconvocados the Esquel (The Assembly of Self-Mobilized Neighbors of Esquel), reaffirmed its determination to protect the town's greatest natural asset: water. "Blue gold" they warned, is threatened by contamination from highly toxic substances such as acidic waste materials, heavy metals and other effluents that make up the "tailings" leftover from the gold or mineral extraction process. In addition to the tailings, citizens have denounced the huge quantities of fresh water required to separate the prized metal deposits from ore and rock.

For Esquel and many other communities in the South American region of Patagonia (a backpacker's paradise), the local economy is heavily dependent on tourism revenue. Hence, their pristine landscape belongs to all of humanity as part of the world's natural heritage. It is worth more to the town's residents than the gold in the ground.

In addition, the "autocovocantes" in their determined struggle against the gold mine venture are also drawing attention to the "plunder" of mineral resources. They decry the skewed laws favoring foreign mining companies, which sacrifice in the process the health and well-being of the entire nation's population. Members of the group point out that the current mining legislation offers generous tax breaks, unlimited territorial concessions in the form of mining permits and unlimited access to public land. It's been three years since the plebiscite, the anti-mining activists point out, and local officials have yet to recognize the results of the public consultation, or to take measures to restrict mining activity.

Meridian Gold insists on its "right" to mine at the site despite a province-wide ban on cyanide mining. In a brazen disregard of the locals, Meridian Gold maintains its offices in the town, despite the overwhelming opposition to the gold mine.

Although still haunted by their nation's dictatorial past, the people have spoken — and their voices are not easily silenced. The plebiscite of 2003 while not legally binding is nevertheless a political slap in the face to the regional government and its mining-friendly neoliberal policies. The public's outcry against mining has been heard throughout the republic and resulted in similar democratically based actions against other mining activities.

A Spark for Similar Struggles Throughout the Country

The "historic" vote of March 23, 2003, asserted that the citizenry of Esquel in this town located in the Chubut province of Argentina rejected the type of "development" associated with extractive industries such as mining. Taking their cue from the citizens of Esquel other localities in the region also organized public meetings and other "popular consultations" in other communities such as Epuyen, Lago Puelo and Trevelin. Even in the tiny town of Gualjaina on could hear the echo of "no la mina" in a resounding "No!" to a mining company seeking to extract gold near a river that supplied its drinking water. Similar local citizenry based resistance has followed in the Rio Negro province (right next door to Chubut) in the town of Gastre and then spread throughout the country from the province of Catamarca to Cordoba where a mineral mining "boom" is well underway.

Defending the Democratic Process by Protesting in the Streets

Despite the growing opposition to mining activities throughout Argentina, in Buenos Aries, the capitol, Congress remains "stone deaf" to the calls by its citizens to get mining companies out of their communities. And in a symbolic salute to the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who marched until justice was done for the victims of the military regime's repression, the anti-mining activists intend to continue marching in their towns and villages until the message gets across to the legislators and governors in "high places" who refuse to acknowledge the grass roots struggle: stop open pit mining, address the concerns of local communities and enact laws that respect the will of the people not the will of the companies.

To increase the pressure on the politicians, activists have called on the national mining commission to take into account the Esquel referendum in all future policy decisions related to the mining industry. Above all, the "convocantes" are wondering if it will take another 30 years for Argentina's leaders to act to protect the people's inalienable rights to clean water and a healthy and safe environment.

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