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 claim paves the way for “mega-mining,” incidents broke out between protesters and police in the provincial capital of Rawson, with reports of arrests and minor injuries.
According to initial reports in two local outlets, 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.
The initiative, which has been 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.
"They made a big diversionary manoeuvre. They pulled an ordinary session out of the bag. It had been called for tomorrow [Thursday],” said local activist Pablo Lada, who is opposed to the plans.
Speaking to Radio AM750, 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."
The zoning law will allow mining at a number of sites, including the Navidad silver mine overseen by Canadian mining company Pan American Silver Corp.
It still has to be signed into law by Governor Mariano Arcioni and officials have yet to define the specific rules that will allow exploration to begin.