Patagonia Goldrush: thousands of hectares of untouched nature to be exploited

SANTIAGO – Newmont, the biggest gold mining company in the world, has applied to exploit 50,000ha of land in Chilean Patagonia. A gold rush is drawing mining companies to one the world’s last untouched natural reserves. Should Chile be glad?

A large area of land near the Argentine border will soon be transformed into a goldmine, as Newmont, the world’s largest gold mining company, has set its eyes on the Aysén region. According to the official gazette Diario Oficial, a total of 50,000ha of land will be exploited by Newmont, in an area where native trees such as the Antarctic beech and the Lenga beech grow.

With the recent and anticipated takeovers in the mining world involving Newmont, GoldCorp, and Barrick Gold, Chilean Patagonia should prepare for a true gold rush.

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Gold mining in Chile

Newmont acquired GoldCorp, a Canadian mining company, last month for US $10 billion, becoming the largest gold mining company in the world. GoldCorp was already involved in Chile, with two mines in the Atacama region, and another one in the Aysén region.

Barrick Gold, the second biggest mining company in the world and already working with GoldCorp in the aforementioned mines in Chile, is currently trying to take over Newmont. For Chile, this would mean larger scale projects in still-unexplored parts of the country, which Chile’s GoldCorp country manager Mauricio Álvarez confirmed to La Tercera newspaper.

“The projects Newmont will participate in, are large initiatives concerning very important gold reserves that ensure a long life of active mining operation. A big part of Newmont’s future is focused on Chile,” Álvarez said.

Patagonia attracts mining companies from all over the world. In December 2018, it was announced in the Diario Oficial that the Patagonia National Park, a national reserve of 309,445ha (as planned under the Bachelet administration) would be reduced to 304,527ha. The 5,000ha difference was handed to Australian Equus Mining, to be used for gold and silver mining.

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Burning activists and poisoned drinking water

The mining companies’ plans for Patagonia excite their shareholders and capitalists in Chile, but their track record in the Americas proves that utmost caution is required, especially regarding environmental damage and human rights violations.

In Peru, a local farmer took a case to the highest court, after her home, built on land where Newmont aimed to mine, was destroyed. Peru’s Supreme Court ruled in her favor and against Newmont in a criminal case regarding the occupation of the land, but two related civil cases regarding ownership of the land continue to wind their way through court.

In Guatemala, local people accused GoldCorp of having an activist beaten and burnt alive. The activist was demonstrating against the environmental damage caused by one of the Canadian company’s mines.

In Mexico, mining companies were accused of human rights violations in several states.

Gold mining: an environmental disaster

Given its limited population, the primary concern for Chilean Patagonia is the environmental damage the gold mining sector brings. According to mining critical website Sciencing, “mining just an ounce of gold from ore can result in 20t of solid waste and significant mercury and cyanide contamination,” and the acids used for mining contaminate water and cause acid rain that can seriously damage the ecosystems in Chile’s southern regions.

As a result, the large scale activity planned there can turn into an environmental disaster, especially if the contaminated water migrates off site, through rain or groundwater. The celebrated “Route of Parks,” connecting the most spectacular landscapes in Patagonia, might very well become the “Route of Mines.” The gold rush has begun.

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