Blog Entry

Background on Pro-Mining Law Amendments in Mendoza, Argentina

On December 20th, the Provincial Court of the Argentinean province of Mendoza amended an anti-mining Law (#7722) to permit the use of dangerous chemical substances banned under the law like cyanide and sulphuric acid used in the mining industry, essentially giving a green light to large-scale mining in the province. 

Following the decision, reported that there were 19 mining projects which would have benefited from the amendments, and MiningWatch Canada found that at least 5 of those projects are owned by Canadian companies. 

In an interview with La Izquierda Diario, Argentinean expert and activist Lucrecia Wagner gave some excellent context and background on the move to change the law. We believe the information she shares is relevant not only for understanding the pro-mining lobby in Mendoza and its attack on anti-mining legislation, but that it also resonates with other Argentinean regions currently facing Canadian industry-backed pressure, like Chubut.

Following the disputed decision, thousands of people took to the streets in Mendoza to march and block major highways to oppose the amendments, which were subsequently repealed by the legislature on December 30th. The decision sends a strong message to lawmakers and the mining industry to back off.  

Lucrecia Wagner: “The Mendoza move is not isolated. There is a national push towards mega-mining”

(Original article found here.

Conicet expert in socio-environmental conflicts related to large-scale mining strongly criticizes legislators for their vote in favor of reforming the provincial Water Protection Law 7722. And she is an activist with the movement in Mendoza as well.

Daniel Satur

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Lucrecia Wagner is a researcher at Conicet, (a public agency that fosters science and technology in Argentina). She works at the Argentine Institute of Nivology, Glaciology and Environmental Sciences (IANIGLA) in the Mendoza Scientific and Technological Centre. She has a bachelor’s degree in Diagnosis and Environmental Management and a PhD in Social Sciences. She specializes in investigating socio-environmental conflicts, mainly related to large-scale mining. Her doctoral thesis was precisely about conflicts over the development of mining projects in Mendoza province and she has been analyzing the situation for years.

The happenings over the last days achieved reached national proportions, and revealed as evidence the pact between the radical governor Rodolfo Suarez’ term and the Mendoza [political party] Frente de Todos-PJ to benefit extractive-sector multinational companies and pollutors. Wagner has been analyzing the situation in Mendoza for years. In this interview with La Izquierda Diario, she discusses what is happening, why it is happening and what may happen next.

What do you think of the reform of Law 7722 approved by the Mendoza Legislature?

I think it was a reform [which took place] behind the backs of the people. This was clearly seen, when, starting Thursday afternoon, they cordoned off the Legislature. I believe the arguments put forward by legislators who voted in favor of the amendment are not real.

For example?

That they are honestly concerned about control and that mining be developed in a way that does not affect the environment and, especially, the hydrological resource. I think that is just a speech. In practice they have not proven this to be a real concern. If it were, they should have consulted specialists on the subject before voting.

Was the institute you work with consulted?

No. Our institute specializes in glaciers and nivology. Neither were other institutes consulted, for example, the National University of Cuyo, the Technological University or other universities; they did not consult sectors of the Mendoza economy, such as producers who have demonstrated against mining; with the fishing industry, there are fly fishing associations also opposed to mining. And, they did not consult the people, who for many years have been rejecting large-scale mining, the same people who fought for the enactment of Law 7722 back in 2006.

The people have been repressed by the police.

The absence of consultation adds to a greater control on social protests in the province. On Monday, it was clear that the Government was not willing to listen. I really think that decision to reform [the law] was already made regardless of what the legislators want us to believe and was totally without a consultation and rushed to be passed before the end of the year.

What is the scope of this reform in terms of an attack on the environment?

With this reform, they took away the most important articles in Law 7722 that guaranteed the protection of the environment, especially water, as well as the guarantee of a plurality of voices in the evaluation of mining projects. They removed the article prohibiting the use of cyanide, sulphuric acid and other toxic substances. The only [article] which remains explicitly is the prohibition of the use of mercury which is unnecessary because this is already prohibited by other laws, and it has not been used for a long time [for mining]. 

This is an essential modification of the regulatory framework for this activity.

The removal of that article is very important because not only did it prohibit the use of sulphuric acid, cyanide and mercury in Mendoza, but it also specified that if a mining project was proposing using another chemical substance, a specific evaluation of its toxicity would be performed. That happened with the San Jorge Project in Uspallata, which was modified by its proponent, the Canadian mining company Coro Mining, to use xanthate instead of sulphuric acid. The evaluation studied whether xanthate was toxic. So now the detailed assessment of the toxicity of the chemicals used is no longer specified.

Another significant modification is that the Government is given more decision-making power in detriment of the Legislature.

Of course, with this reform a key step was also removed: the need for approval of the environmental impact statement, which is the permission granted by the Executive, by way of the Legislature. It is quite paradoxical that legislators themselves now decide to stop making these kinds of decisions. The only project where this happened was with San Jorge in 2011, which was rejected by the Legislature. In this instance, many actors in Mendoza's society were allowed to voice their opinions. [As a result], since the project was highly questioned, the legislators did not approve it. Obviously, for the mining sector, this was devastating. For this reason, this modification gets rid of this step for the environmental permit. 

Regarding water, what other aspects of the reform are critical?

As no specialists were consulted, aspects that are essential to protect the hydrological resource were not considered. For example, as IANIGLA we proposed to legislators that it was very important to include snow protection in the Law, especially in places where there is accumulation, because Mendoza's rivers depend on glaciers but, mainly, on the accumulation of winter snow. Our studies show that glaciers only act as the last reserve, when there is not enough accumulation during the year. Snow fulfills the fundamental role of feeding the flow of rivers, and that was not taken into account by this reform. Lawmakers lie when they want to make us believe that this reform was intended to protect the water resource.

What does the reform propose in terms of "environmental controls"?

There is a very dense articulation in terms of environmental controls. But it is not clear how they are going to be implemented, or with what budget they will ensure that this complexity of controls will work. It is also not clear how this new law is going to blend with the existing environmental legislation. I think that the legislators do not know either. And, to top it off, in the case of institutions like IANIGLA, they have not even had the respect to consult them, and thus include them.

Why do you think this reform was made, even when society and environmental assemblies and organizations raised their voices against it?

Since Law 7722 was authorized, the mining business sector, in collusion with government sectors, has wanted to repeal it, modify it or veto it, using various strategies. First, they challenged it as unconstitutional, but the Supreme Court of Justice of Mendoza ratified its constitutionality in 2015. From then on, they sought to remove the articles on environmental protection from the law. Evidently, Suarez made that promise to the mining sector.

And to do so, he also had the support of the Peronist opposition.

It’s that this is combined with a nationwide push to develop mining. The previous government wanted it and the new government clearly made the decision in recent weeks. What is happening in Mendoza is not exceptional. It is also happening in Chubut. And it must be said that Chubut and Mendoza are two of the provinces where resistance to mega-mining has been more organized, strong and persistent over time. Removing these laws would be a severe blow to mining resistance, nationwide.

And in addition to reforming the laws, they beat up those who protest.

In Mendoza the government has been generating strategies to criminalize social protest. They did so with the new Contravention Code and the various charges against protesters that it establishes. This past Monday people were arrested, and people were even fined for having parked their vehicles in front of the legislature. The government has prepared a strategy where, on the one hand, there is an advance of the extractive sector and on the other, a way paved for more repression of social protest. This Monday was the worst repression experienced in Mendoza, and is clearly one of its most tremendous expressions of this.

You were seen marching with thousands and thousands of people these days. What do you think of the mass mobilization that was generated?

I think it is the new expression of a struggle that comes from more than fourteen years ago, when in the Uco Valley, specifically in San Carlos, the first demonstrations arose against a mining project by Tenke Mining Corp which was to be developed near the Laguna del Diamante Provincial Reserve. The rejection of large-scale mining, with its use of potentially-contaminating chemical substances articulates different social sectors, that would possibly hold contradictory positions on other issues. The rejection of this activity, which is considered to put Mendoza's water at risk during a time of extreme scarcity and climate crisis, generates massive mobilizations.

In addition, there is a long-standing tradition of organizing to fight here.

Totally. There was a call by the Assemblies (Asambleas por el Agua), which are the historical subjects that have been mobilizing. But they were also joined by many other sectors such as farmers, fly fishermen and wine producers. And many people, teachers and students, schools and universities, the scientific sector, families [joined the march]. The cacerolazo (protest with pots and pans) in Mendoza’s centre on Monday was clearly an expression of people’s indignation against the repression, all of the people were furious. I heard many people say, ‘this transcends the issue of water, we just cannot let them repress us like this.' People became furious as the images circulated. Personally, I saw policemen on motorbikes shooting into the air through on Mitre and Colon streets [downtown Mendoza]. This was an unprecedented occurrence for the province, and I think it is very important for the people to react and put a stop to this. Obviously, the authoritarianism of the government is only sustained by repression.

What perspective do you have of this conflict? 

On one hand, I see a governor who is ready to pursue the advance of mega-mining. On Monday, following the repression and the protests, the law was approved and that evening it was in the legislative bulletin. This was a clear provocation to the population. What happens from now on, will depend on the protests continuing. People are very indignant and angry with the way that the vote was carried out: with repression, with the cordoning-off of the legislature.  All of this revealed the way of imposing government decisions. It will also depend on the tensions between the Nation and the province now that they are of different political colors. 

Peronsim voted for the reforms together with Suarez but now it appears that there are leaders who are trying to distance themselves.

It will be important to see if the discourse that some of the members of the PJ party from Mendoza are using translated into concrete action, or if they are simply trying to detach themselves from the decision that they took to support this pro-mining advance. This will also depend on the discussions that are had nationally. The President says that he does not really understand what is happening in Mendoza. At the same time, the Minister of Environment says that it is the province who should decide. 

On a social level, what do you think will happen?

If this continues, the conflict will be transferred to the territories. As was said before in San Carlos, it is one thing to reform a law which was the product of a large social mobilization and is socially legitimate, and another thing is when the mining projects arrive and it is known in which territories they will be developed. Those territories will have to face the conflict, where the population will have to strongly protest. They are moving the conflict to the level of departments but this also has social costs and [generates] greater stress for the local people. How the conflict develops in the next weeks and months will depend a lot on the strength of all of these actions that are being brought forward. 

What do you think the 7722 reform finally means?

Not only the modification of a law. It is an attack on the environmental institutions of Mendoza, which were historically constructed and socially legitimized. Law 7722 is the result of this trajectory around environmental matters. By its bases and foundations, it is a respected law and very well evaluated at both national and international levels. For example, it forced us to think about the concept of “basin” when working on the evaluation of environmental impacts. It also enabled different actors to participate in decision making processes. A feature of Mendoza's society is being overpowered and the people will surely defend themselves. If the voices of the people connect with those of the scientific, academic and technical actors, the provincial government and the legislators will pay a tremendous political cost.