The Common Good
January 2012

Poisoning Eden

by Denali DeGraf | January 2012

Indigenous communities -- and local church leaders -- stand against open-pit mining that threatens to despoil Patagonia.

PATAGONIA IS A land of myth. Like Siberia or the Australian outback, it’s one of those far-off places that, despite today’s round-the-clock global information flow, remain a mystery. Unfortunately, the myth of Patagonia as distant wild country has become a smokescreen for those who profit from extracting the region’s subsurface resources—silver, gold, uranium, lead, and oil. From their point of view, the less anyone knows about what’s happening, the better.

When I arrived in the South American region of Patagonia nearly a decade ago, the general public was almost entirely unaware of the mining bonanza about to burst onto the landscape, though government and corporate officials had already set the wheels in motion. After a few years setting down roots, I saw the mining activity rapidly picking up speed. As a result I spent a year filming a documentary about extractive industries and widespread conflict over land rights in the area. As is the case with so many resource-rich areas of the world, the communities hardest hit, and least rewarded, by mining are Indigenous Peoples.

The Mapuche people native to Patagonia lived semi-nomadically on both sides of the Andes, in what is now Chile and Argentina. In the 1880s, brutal military campaigns by the Chilean and Argentinian governments finished a two-century-old project that wiped out the majority of the population and left survivors scattered in the most isolated and inhospitable land around, which of course no white folks wanted. Until recently, when they discovered profitable mineral deposits under it.

Last spring I made the trip out to the tiny settlement of Gan Gan, more than 200 miles from the nearest asphalt. Just outside town there are vast reserves of silver and lead spread in imperceptible dustings across tens of thousands of acres. All this underneath land where for centuries the Mapuche have herded their goats, hunted guanaco, raised their children, and buried their elders. The Canada-based Pan American Silver Corporation is spending tens of millions of dollars to explore what has been named the “Navidad” deposit and to build an open-pit cyanide-leach mine in this region.

PRIOR TO THE three-day assembly in Gan Gan of Indigenous community leaders from around the steppe—and what would be the first street demonstration in the history of the town—a group of us congregated before sunrise for a Mapuche spiritual ceremony. In this land of bitter cold and driving wind, it’s striking that the culture performs all its important rituals in the icy predawn hours—the time when all creation seems to bristle with energy ready to spring forth into the light of a new day, when spiritual forces are at their most potent. We circled the fire pit in pairs, scattering tea leaves and sugar, each of us murmuring prayers in our own way—the elder Mapuche leaders, younger Mapuche from cities on the coast, and a handful of huincas (non-natives) like myself.

One of the other huincas was David García, Gan Gan’s parish priest. A tall, rugged fellow in his early 60s, Padre David has been working with uncommon grit and determination to support community organizing against the mine. I can’t help but appreciate the delightful irony of a priest as a key opponent to a mine named for Christmas. Meetings and rallies would be virtually impossible without Padre David spending days driving back and forth on gravel roads across half the province to pick people up. His church publications constantly lambast the pro-mining actions of the local government. Despite being more than three decades my senior, his batteries never run down. I suppose when you’re looking down the barrel of an open-pit mine, you can’t afford to run out of steam.

But what is open-pit mining? How does it work? Here’s a primer:

  • Nearly all of the useful minerals on Earth that could be found by simply digging and sifting out bits of ore mechanically have already been mined. The only minerals left are disseminated; meaning it’s now profitable, for example, to grind a ton of rock into dust to extract 10 grams of gold or 100 grams of silver.
  • It’s impossible to separate out these infinitesimal traces by any mechanical means, so after the rock is dynamited and pulverized, it is piled in enormous heaps and drenched in cyanide (though when “public relations” get to be a problem, other equally noxious but less scary-sounding reagents are chosen). To get any worthwhile amount of metal, you usually have to do this to an entire mountain, or dig several pits a mile wide and a half-mile deep.
  • The cyanide bonds to the coveted metal dust and separates it from the rest of the toxic slurry, which is then poured into a giant artificial pond where it often leaches into the groundwater.
  • This process may go on for a decade or two at any given site, after which the mining company packs up and moves on. Anywhere a mining operation like this has taken place, whether in Colorado or China, Montana or Mozambique, the only thing that falls faster than the water quality is the real estate value. The only human activity more destructive to a place than open-pit mining is outright warfare.

To prevent this from happening to their homes, the native communities, huinca supporters, and the Catholic Church have held public demonstrations in Gan Gan, press conferences in the larger cities nearby, and two marches in the provincial capital demanding a response from government officials. Both times, the crowd gathered outside the state house and waited the entire day without a word from authorities.

The level of government collusion with the industry approaches absurdity. In 2003, after massive public protests over proposed mines near larger cities, the province banned open-pit mining. But the Navidad project continues. Mining companies confidently state that they are continuing with exploration because they have assurances the law will be changed soon. In effect, mining is prohibited—until someone is actually ready to begin digging. Environmental impact statements for the exploration process in Patagonia were released for public comment in May 2011, nearly a decade after exploration began.

THIS AUTUMN WE rode on horseback across the steppe to where the land is crisscrossed by exploration roads and dotted with sampling wells, machinery lots, and sheds full of chemicals. On foot, by car, by bus, and by horse, people converged on the mine site to say this is not what we do here.

We were joined by an anti-mining activist from La Rioja, in northwest Argentina, who told us how she and her town—desperate to survive—have kept mine access roads blockaded for the last five years. I wouldn’t be surprised to find us reaching that point here before too long.

Whether this is an “environmental issue” or one of “Indigenous rights,” at the core it’s about survival. Survival is why we gathered that morning facing the dawn. Survival is why a priest stood among us with the native elders scattering offerings across the fire. We all drink the same water, and we’re going to need all the help we can get.

During one of our long trips, I asked Padre David about where he sees himself in the relationship between Catholicism and the Indigenous identity. He told me it was a question of proper priorities. Sometimes that’s Mass, he said, and sometimes it’s addressing the mining issue. “When Jesus met with people, the first thing he did was find the sick and heal them, find those with problems and listen to them. Then, near the end of his life, he created the Mass,” David said. “As a priest, why all this effort? Because Christ has come to tell us we are a family. And that family is formed in a human way, accepting each other, listening to each other, finding ways we can live in solidarity with others.”

Still, many look askance at a member of the clergy working outside of typical territory. For a priest to be dealing with “the environment” is strange, they say, but for him to be meddling with problems faced by an Indigenous culture is downright worrisome. Their skepticism is not unfounded; other religious outfits put Mapuche-language phrases on their vans and drive around trying to convince the Indigenous people to come to church. With so many doing their best to stamp out the last remnants of Indigenous spiritual identity, it’s hard not to be wary of someone bearing a cross in matters of Indigenous rights.

Padre David himself is well aware of the many interests at play, especially around the mining project. “As a priest I have my own interests—my interest is to defend these people who have the right to live, and live a life of abundance.”

“What do [the mining representatives] do when they talk to people?” he asked. “They say, ‘You should live a better life; you’ll live better with the help of the company,’ but what’s behind that? They just give handouts to convince people not to oppose the mine, and slowly people are starting to pick up on that.” Cultivate dependence and you cement your hold on power.

After decades of cultivation by governments, corporations, and charities, the culture of induced dependence is hard to break. If you put it in terms of the old “give a person a fish ... or teach a person to fish ...” adage, the strategy used by those in power has been “give everyone fish, so they will forget how to fish for themselves and depend on us for food.” The fact is, this is a place where people still know how to fish; you don’t have to give them fish or teach them to fish. They’ll be just fine if you just let them fish, which means not pouring poison into the river. More to the point, those of us concerned for people’s welfare need to make sure other people don’t pour poison into the river.

Watching Padre David, I realize that the “preferential option for the poor,” the deep-seated spiritual commitment to care for those most overlooked, is reaching a historical turning point. As industrial civilization hurtles toward ecological collapse, to care for those most overlooked in places like this does not require charity, a redistribution of wealth, or finding ways to provide for those ravaged by systemic poverty. Instead, it requires siding with the most vulnerable in defense of the land that sustains them.

What these people need from us directly is ... nothing. All we have to do is ensure that their land is not poisoning them. But “not poisoning them” is harder than one imagines.

Neither you nor I is physically dynamiting mountains or pouring cyanide into the groundwater, and it’s delusional to think we can shop our way out of this by not purchasing silver jewelry, or by any other “personal change” solutions that still operate within the framework of consumption and capitalism. “Not poisoning them” means nothing less than dismantling the foundations of the modern consumer society. It means understanding that the differences between them and us will not be apparent for much longer. Sooner or later, it won’t matter where you are in the hierarchy of an unjust social system. When the system has eaten away the very ground it rests on, all of us will find ourselves with the short end of the stick.

If civilization careens off the cliff of unsustainable consumption, the crash will be painful and dangerous. We are nostalgic for far-off places on the periphery because they are our best hope for rediscovering our relationship to the great mystery of earth and spirit that sustains us. Before long we’ll be asking people like the Mapuche to teach us to fish.

Denali DeGraf is a photographer, lute-maker, and radio journalist based in the Andes mountains of Patagonia, Argentina.

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