Chubut’s government called for calm on Friday after two nights of clashes between police and protesters after the local legislature approved a controversial law that paves the way for mining in the province.
With 14 votes in favour and 11 against, Chubut’s Provincial Legislature on Wednesday approved a new Zoning Law that authorises mining exploration, without the use of cyanide, in the region’s central plateau.
Following approval of the law, which activists say paves the way for “mega-mining” in the region, incidents broke out between protesters and police in the provincial capital of Rawson on Wednesday, with reports of arrests and minor injuries.
Clashes took place outside the provincial legislature and a building housing the provincial Education Ministry. A number of people were hospitalised with minor injuries after being hit with rubber bullets.
On Thursday, hostilities erupted once again when hundreds of demonstrators again clashed with police, who responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Fires were set in the provincial government house and 15 other public buildings as tensions escalated.
Protests also took place in Comodoro Rivadavia and other cities across the region, including Puerto Madryn and Esquel.
Governor Mariano Arcioni, who signed the bill into law earlier that day, appealed for calm. His office said that at least 30 people had been injured and seven arrested in the unrest.
“We have overcome many critical moments, but I call you to do so through dialogue and democratic coexistence,” he said in a post on Twitter that lashed out at “ideologues.”
Chubut’s Security Minister Leonardo Das Neves rejected criticism of the police’s handling of the protests, saying there was “nothing to reproach” them for.
“They have acted very professionally – if the police had not acted it would have been much more serious,” he argued.
The new law, which has been strongly resisted by broad sectors of local society and criticised by experts from the Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia San Juan Bosco and CONICET (National Scientific and Technical Research Council), will allow metalliferous mining of silver, copper and lead in areas of the province, including Telsen and Gastre.
The bill's defenders argue that the owners of mining projects will have to present “Environmental Baseline Studies,” an “Environmental Impact Study” and obtain state approval through an “Environmental Impact Declaration” before winning approval to begin mining. They also argue it will create vital new employment options and generate royalties and additional contributions that will improve the province’s coffers.
The bill was close to losing parliamentary status and was included in Wednesday's debate by surprise, with activists expecting it to be voted on the following day.
Speaking to Radio AM750, local activist Pablo Lada said lawmakers were using “euphemisms” to covertly allow “mega-mining” in the region.
"Since 2003 we have had a law that prohibits open-pit mining and the use of cyanide. This would be like an exception zone where the activity would be allowed, and there is an article that allows it to be expanded," he said in an interview.
At the close of debate, government deputy Carlos Eliceche (Frente de Todos), who chairs the Economic Development, Environment and Natural Resources Commission, said that the project responds "to a request from President Alberto Fernández for mining to develop and exist investments."