Behind Latin America’s Anti-Mining Protests: Water Concerns.
Lyuba Zarsky |Thursday, June 25, 2015
Mining conflicts are intensifying across Latin America, with 218 mining projects embroiled in conflicts with 312 communities—including six conflicts spanning national borders—from Mexico to Argentina. One of the most prominent protests flared up this spring in southern Peru, at the $1.4 billion Tia Maria copper mine run by the Mexican-owned company Southern Copper. In late May, more than five years of protests came to a head there, with a general strike and police crackdown that resulted in five deaths and hundreds wounded and arrested.
One issue above all is driving the Tia Maria protests, the 34 others in Peru and the dozens more at mines across the region: water, which is heavily used and polluted in many projects. More than half of the respondents in a regional survey in 2012 pointed to water availability, water pollution or pollution in general as the source of Latin America’s mining conflicts. At the open-pit Tia Maria mine, for instance, farmers said the project would contaminate a vital river, threatening their rice crops.
|Mining machinery and barrels with chemicals sit on the facilities of Barrick Gold Corp's Pascua Lama project, northern Chile.|
Mining projects often take place in areas already facing water scarcity and water security issues, including the Atacama Desert in northeastern Chile, the glacial high Andes of Argentina, nearly all of Mexico and the Pacific-facing Peruvian slopes of the Andes, the site of the Tia Maria mine. In 2013, such mineral-rich but water-poor areas accounted for some two-thirds of all Latin American mining revenues.
Water security is a major global challenge, with the global demand for freshwater projected to outstrip supply by 40 percent by 2030. With some 31 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, Latin America is relatively well endowed. But most of it is in heavily forested Brazil, while parts of Peru, Chile, Mexico and the Caribbean face high levels of water stress and scarcity. With the impacts of climate change, parts of Latin America could face an 80 percent or more increase in water stress by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario.
Water-intensive mining directly competes for ground and surface water with agricultural and domestic users. Water is used in every stage of the mining process. Excavation requires what is known as dewatering, which lowers the level of groundwater. Water is used to turn mined rock into a slurry and transport it to a processing facility. But the highest use of water is in the processing stage, where it is mixed with cyanide or sulfuric acid to separate out the desired ore. Water thickens the byproducts left over from mining, called tailings, and transports them to a tailings pond, where water evaporates and/or seeps into the surrounding area.
The average amount of water used in mining varies by commodity sector, project scale, local climate and hydrology, mine management and the grade of ore. Gold and copper use the most water per ton of mineral or metal, in large part due to low ore productivity—less than 10 grams per ton. But in many Latin American countries, since higher-grade ores have already been mined, average water use is expected to rise. Under expected growth, the water consumption of copper mining in Chile, for example, would rise by 45 percent by 2020.
For local communities, mining poses risks to both water access and water quality. Dewatering can alter local hydrogeology, depleting water resources available for local agriculture and drinking water supplies. At the Tia Maria mine, Southern Copper planned to draw from the River Tambo, the primary source of both drinking and irrigation water in the agricultural valley surrounding the mine. In response to intense opposition, the company claims it will build a desalination plant and rely on water from it instead, but has provided few details.
Communities also face risks of water pollution. Cyanide and sulfuric acid used to separate ore from rock in the processing stage may leach into local waters from processing plants or tailings ponds. Heavy metals, like mercury, arsenic and lead, can leach from waste rock dumps, seep from tailings ponds or be pulled up in depleted groundwater. In the highlands of Guatemala, one study found that activities at the Marlin mine, run by Goldcorp, a huge Canadian company with a poor environmental record, drew arsenic-rich groundwater to the surface. Water pollution from such heavy metals can last for decades.
These water risks are exacerbated by the lack of access to clean water and sanitation sources across Latin America. Despite recent improvements, water availability eludes some 100 million Latin Americans, mostly in poor rural areas, including 28 percent of the rural population in Peru. In the agriculture-dependent indigenous communities surrounding the Marlin mine in Guatemala, almost half of households have no access to piped water and depend on ground and river water for drinking, crop irrigation and watering livestock. Often governments are as much to blame as the mining companies: According to a report on the economic benefits and environmental risks of the Marlin mine, the Guatemalan government granted a mining license without undertaking a hydrological survey or ensuring water oversight.
Mining companies themselves face growing water risks that are cutting into their bottom line. In 2014, Toronto-based Barrick Gold, the world’s largest gold-mining company, reported that its $8.5 billion Pascua Lama open pit mine straddling the Chile-Argentina border was stalled over “tension with a community due to sharing of water resources” and “inability to maintain an adequate water supply to an operating mine” resulting in “higher costs.” The consulting company EY listed “social license to operate” and “access to water and energy” as among the top 10 business risks facing the mining and metals sector in 2014 and 2015.
The mining conflicts across Latin America are rooted in the perception by local communities that they are losers in an extraction-based development strategy. Ensuring net benefits from mining for these communities—economic returns that outweigh the long-term environmental, social and economic risks—would require a robust level of water oversight by both governments and companies.
But water governance in Latin America has historically been poor. With governments such as that of Peruvian President Ollanta Humala focused on promoting an extraction-based development strategy, policymakers have largely treated water as an inexhaustible resource and have biased water allocation in favor of extractive producers. According to the United Nations’ 2015 World Water Development Report, Latin America lacks institutions to manage water use in ways that are “in tune with the practices and conceptions of society.” Many countries in the region also lack policy instruments, integrated water authorities and control systems for water allocation and pollution.
Without reforms in how water is used and shared, with an eye toward equity and sustainability, mining conflicts won’t just endure in Latin America. They will escalate.
Lyuba Zarsky is professor of sustainable business and development at the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey.