A Tale of Three Towns - Catamarca and Esquel and Puhipuhi

Last month far away in a village not unlike Whangarei,– something extraordinary happened. The Argentine town of Esquel celebrated 10 years of community solidarity, sustainability and true democracy. Thousands of people came out onto the streets to remember an unlikely victory for a town of only 30,000 people, against toxic mining that had threatened their town water supply.

To understand what is so remarkable about this is to know that Argentina was in economic meltdown and unemployment was three times as high as what Northland’s is today.

In 2003 the massive open pit mine in Catamarca - the Alumbrera-in the North was still being hailed as the gold bullet which would save the economy (it took until this February for a massive uprising of illiterate small holding farmers there to rebel against contamination in the air and waterways). Esquel is also at the other end of the country from where decisions get made.

But Esquel proved problematic for the mining PR men mainly because unlike their countrymen to the north, the residents are the educated middle class escaping the capital to establish environmentally sustainable businesses around the natural resources there.

Instead of taking the Environmental Impact Report from the mining company at face value the residents hired scientists from the University of Patagonia and found that the original EIR was deeply flawed. They formed an apolitical ‘Neighbourhood Association’ to better inform the community of the true costs of the mine as well as looking at a hard business case for it.

Consultation with the company broke down over a lack of integrity in the discussions. Namely; the mine sued residents over a leaked tape of PR and mining execs discussing ‘hiring community leaders to sway opinion and persuade hard liners’ to accept the mine and it’s proximity to the waterways despite the environmental risks.

This upset more than a few and over 8000 people turned out to protest. The Mayor – sensing a tide change– called for a referendum to decide whether or not the mine would go ahead. 81% of the people of Esquel voted against the mine and eventually passed a local bill banning all toxic mining in the province.

Esquel’s solidarity inspired other small communities throughout Latin America but it also became a case study for mining companies to ensure that it didn’t happen again. There was too much lead time for the community to get informed – they were educated and organised. Esquel and her fishing, skiing and National parks are today a thriving centre of sustainable business based on the vision of the genuine community leaders from 10 years ago.

De Grey has exploration rights now in two areas – the sparsely populated, arid and impoverished province of Santa Cruz in Argentina, and rights to 6000 hectares 30kms north of Whangarei, in Puhipuhi.

There has been no clear public information on whether this area is in the catchment for the town water supply.

The Ngati Hau report on behalf of Fonterra states that the Waiariki Stream in Puhipuhi is already high in mercury ‘to a level that indicates that adverse effects of mercury on the biota living within the sediments could potentially occur frequently’.

Ironic that De Grey’s info pack on Puhipuhi has dairy cows on the cover.

There is no mention in Stephen Joyce’s Economic Activity Report on how toxic mining could affect the production of Northland’s real white gold; milk powder. Or that it regularly floods there.

Instead – local politicians and PR men tell those who ask to ‘trust us – we know what we’re doing’.

They told the residents of Catamarca and Esquel the same.

About De Greys:

Ngati Hau report on behalf of Fonterra:





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