By Juan Pablo Olsson*
On February 27, a group of 8 Argentinians finished their epic bike ride to send a message to their fellow compatriots and to the government: our water and our health is worth more than any gold. From the Andes Mountains area, through the Pampas and through the desert, they rode 1,400 km from the province of San Juan to the capital of Buenos Aires. This long trek didn’t scare, despair or discourage these actvists, who arrived to Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, and the National Congress on February 27th. During the 8 days ride, they crossed some of Argentina’s main cities, denoucing the silence of the authorities and the media about the outrageous pollution caused by mega-mining enterprises and the attempts by the govenrment to change the Glacier Protection Law.
In 2005, the Barrick Gold company began the extraction of the Veladero Mine in San Juan. The open-pit mining uses cyanide, sulfuric acid and mercury to extract gold and silver from the mountains in the Andes. After ten years, promises of job creation, prosperity and well-being for San Juan were revealed as mere deceptions. Since September 2015, the nightmare began with heavy pollution showing their darkest side.
Since then, three spills of millions of liters of cyanide water has occurred – contaminating five rivers that are a source of drinking water for the region. In addition, Barrick Gold is currently operating in the glacial and periglacial zones, polluting water resources despite a federal law for the protection of glaciers that prohibits this kind of activity.
The Jáchal River was one of the hardest hit by this pollution, and the neighborhood assembly “Jáchal No se Toca”, was created to fight against the installation of a uranium mine. They have demanded a serious study of the real contamination of that river, at the same time, the local government was trying to hide and refuse the studies conducted by the National University of Cuyo. These studies demonstrated that the Jáchal river basin was contaminated with heavy metals in doses of up to 14 times above the tolerable values defined by national regulations, and that this pollution posed serious risks to human health. The existence of a significant proportion of prohibited toxic substances was also verified in the Potrerillos, Blanco, Palca and Las Taguas rivers.
When the Minister of the Environment, Sergio Bergman, who is considered by the environmentalists as a “lobbyist of the mining companies”, made public his the intentions to modify the current Glaciers Law to guarantee the progress of 44 mining projects, the assembly members of Jáchal decided to undertake an epic bike ride to carry their message: “The Law of Glaciers should not be touched”.
As pointed out by Arturo Capdevilla, one of the jachalero cyclists, “we have to protect the glaciers because the water that all Argentines drink comes from them.” Domingo Jofré, another member of the Jachal assembly, also affirmed in his speech before the National Congress: “we are the ones who are in the tent of Jáchal, who endure and resist. We received the order and the mandate of our community, who told us: GRAB THE BICYCLE AND SAY THAT THEY WON`T PLAY WITH OUR LIVES!
From this act of heroism, the challenge is to strengthen the coordination between the environmental movements of the country, in defense of water and life – in order to oppose the impunity of corporations, who act with the complicity of government officials. The message conveyed in the act of welcoming cyclists by artists, musicians, social movements, environmental and human rights was clear: we are ready and willing to continue a long struggle, because “Water is worth more than gold” and “The Glaciers should not be touched.”
*Juan Pablo Olsson is climate campaigner of 350.org Latin America