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In the lands of the llastay
During the last decade, two battles were won by Diaguita communities in northern Chile. In 2006, they were legally recognized by the national government and achieved social visibility. And in 2013 they stopped a mega-mining project that threatened their livelihood. Great news in a world where these sort of victories are really scarce.
The Diaguita, the indigenous inhabitants of the Chilean Norte Chico and northwestern Argentina, used to believe that the high Andean peaks and the parched valleys where they live, were protected by the llastay, an ancestral spirit who assumed the form of a huge, white, woolly guanaco, and watched over the wild herds, their pastures and the springs where both men and animals quenched their thirst.
However, at some point in the past, the llastay seems to have been forced into hiding, probably shortly after the arrival of miners. For there were many who harboured plans to plunder a treasure trove of natural resources that had remained unspoilt under the watchful eye of the mythical creature. Within the Chilean Diaguita’s territory, silver deposits were discovered and mined at Agua Amarga (1811), Chañarcillo (1832), Tres Puntas (1848) and Capote (1930), while at the same time pirquineros (independent, artisanal miners) flocked to the region to make their fortune digging for valuable minerals. The latest mining “venture” in Diaguita lands has been undertaken by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp. at Pascua-Lama site. This time, however, indigenous communities have broken the silence imposed on them in the past and have come together to raise their voices and speak out against social injustice and environmental devastation.
Pascua-Lama is a giant open-pit mining project located at 4,200-5,200 metres up in the Andes, straddling the border between the Chilean province of Huasco (Atacama region) and the Argentine province of San Juan. Initial estimates suggested considerable deposits of 18 million ounces of gold, 731 million ounces of silver and 662 million pounds of copper – 75% of them fall within Chilean territory; specifically, at the upper Huasco river basin, under three “ice fields” (Toro 1, Toro 2 and Esperanza) and several glaciers (Estrecho, Amarillo, Los Amarillos, Guanaco and others).
Gold was meant to be extracted by cyanidation, a process associated with health risks, environmental contamination and poisoning, affecting soil and water quality – water that is used for irrigation along the upper Huasco valley, especially in Alto del Carmen (Huasco Alto), located at the confluence of El Tránsito and El Carmen rivers (tributaries to the Huasco river, in the southern reaches of the Atacama Desert). According to Barrick, there is no need to worry: by reading the FAQs about Pascua-Lama on the company’s website you will get the impression that it is only a barren land where nobody lives, a desolate place with sparse vegetation and few wild animals; that the province has hardly any farmers (which should not come as a surprise given that only a small part of the land is arable); and that “ice fields” make a negligible contribution to groundwater and river flow.
This information is not just misleading but a false depiction of reality. Despite of the poor access to water and the lack of land suitable for cultivation, the region is home to approximately 70,000 small Diaguita farmers living in 28 communities scattered in Huasco Alto. Their culture traces back to pre-Hispanic times. Upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the native population was divided into two encomiendas (Huasco Alto and Huasco Bajo) capitalizing on the Andean dual organization model. Since the seventeenth century, Diaguita farmers have concentrated in Huasco Alto, especially in the vicinity of El Tránsito valley.
Diaguita communities are dependant primarily on subsistence farming and nomadic herding. During colonial times their herds of Andean camelids flocks were replaced by sheep and goats, and shepherds still maintain the old practice of moving flocks from lowland pastures in the winter to highland pastures in the summer. Crops grown at the time of the arrival of the Spaniards included maize, beans, quinoa and squash, supplemented by carob beans, chañar and other wild fruits. Today, the local agricultural production is based on citrus, fruits, vines and figs, used to make alcoholic beverages, jams and arropes. In addition, Diaguita farmers grow potatoes, wheat, maize, onions, tomatoes, garlic and beans, as well as peaches, apricots, apples and pears for their own families. Even under the pressure of colonial administrators, post-colonial governments and modern society, Diaguita peoples have always managed to maintain at least part of their traditional lifestyle and cultural heritage (including the knowledge and practice of traditional medicine, the art of pottery and textile work).
At first, they were not properly recognized by Chilean “Indigenous Act” 19.253 (1993); since they were not organized, they were somehow invisible to the Chilean authorities – and fellow citizens. In 2002 the first Diaguita organisation was formed, and others would follow, including Centro Cultural Diaguita Huasco Alto (Alto del Carmen, 2003). In 2004 they were promised that they would be included in the “Indigenous Act” – having been recognized by law in 2006 (Act 20.117). The first legal Diaguita community (Huasco Alto, whose inhabitants are known as Huascoaltinos) was created in March 2007. At the same time as they were struggling for national recognition and visibility, the Diaguita sought to protect their territory and its limited resources. Pascua-Lama represented a direct threat to their rights over their lands and natural resources, and their complaint was taken up by the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
The CONAMA [Chile’s National Environmental Commission] gave the green-light to Barrick’s project in 2001. Meanwhile, in Argentina (where Barrick was already working in Veladero, Iglesia department, San Juan province) massive demonstrations were organised against mega-mining projects and Barrick’s dark practices (Argentina would update its anti–terrorism law at the end of 2011 so that it could be used against environmental protesters). Pascua-Lama was expected to become operational in 2009, but after many twists and turns the project was halted in April 2013, after the complaint of the seven Diaguita communities complained that the project was threatening their water supply, polluting glaciers, and damaging the “ice fields”. A Chilean Court suspended Barrick’s Pascua-Lama operations and the company was fined 13 million euros for its practices.
It seems that, in the end, old llastay will have the chance to protect flocks, rocks and streams again. At least, in northern Chile.
[Thanks to Sara Plaza for suggestions and corrections].
* Edgardo Civallero is an Argentinean librarian, musician, writer and teacher with a long experience on Latin American indigenous peoples, their culture and their struggles.
Anti-Pascua Lama mural in a Diaguita community. http://ipsnoticias.net/fotos/1_Muro_contra_Barrick_DanielaEstrada_IPS.jpg
Pre-Hispanic Diaguita pottery. http://www.taringa.net/posts/noticias/17558201/Represion-y-detenidos-en-una-comunidad-diaguita-calchaqui.html
Diaguita musicians. http://www.doob.cl/diaguitas-tendrian-titulos-de-dominio-donde-opera-barrick-gold-chile/