By Víctor L. Bacchetta
According to official sources, in mid-2011 3.5 million hectares were requested for prospecting and mineral exploration activities, with the intention of developing open-pit iron and gold mining. If we add to it the occupation, in the two previous decades, of two million hectares by large-scale forest monocultures and soybean -with prospects of growing even more-, it is more than a third of the surface of Uruguay, which in almost its All of it is suitable for agricultural activity.
This new reality, coinciding with an unprecedented process of concentration and foreignization of land ownership, has been explained by the Frente Amplio governments as a policy of productive diversification and greater industrialization of the country. However, in national territory the projects do not go beyond the production of raw materials such as wood and cellulose, iron ore and gold bars, with a view to supplying the industrial enclaves that dominate the world economy.
The reprimarization of the economy - which is also expressed in the export of live cattle, wheat and rice - is an extension of the traditional role of supplier of raw materials assigned to the periphery by the central capitalist countries. In Latin America, this pattern of development is called the “extractivist model”, characterized by the large-scale looting and depredation of natural resources. In Uruguay, the natural fertility of the land and the abundance of water are exploited, now adding minerals.
In recent years, the strong growth of Asian economies, China in particular, and the financial speculation unleashed around raw materials has particularly disrupted the market for metals, which recorded a large jump in prices in 2008, from of the financial crises in Spain and the United States. In three years, the value of the ton of iron multiplied by five and this explains why the Uruguayan deposits of the metal, which were never exploited, today may be being desired.
The most studied reserves in the Uruguayan subsoil are iron, especially the Valentines area, in the center, and Zapucay, in the northeast, and gold found in various departments. They are small deposits and poor in concentration - iron at 28% and gold at 1 to 1.9 grams per ton - but the international speculative situation has made them profitable. Added to the above are the contracts signed by Ancap for the possible extraction of unconventional hydrocarbons in the northwest of the country.
As these are small and poor deposits, foreign investors who come to the country seek large-scale and rapid exploitation, such as the most notorious case of Aratirí that proposes to do so in 12 years, to take advantage of the high prices on the international market. For the same reason, this project is associated with the construction of a pipeline and a deep-water port on the oceanic coast, to facilitate the transport of iron to the destination countries with the largest ships manufactured today.
Impact of megaprojects
The present conjuncture of the international market also generated a boom in mining investments in other countries of the continent, such as Chile, Bolivia and Peru, which have large mineral reserves and a long tradition of mining exploitation. Although in these cases the mines are located mostly in the Andes Mountains, in desert or semi-desert areas, as they are large-scale open-pit operations, the environmental and social impacts have generated strong popular movements of resistance.
With the advance of megaprojects (they are so named because they handle millions of dollars of investment and production), communities are forced to defend their livelihoods by seeing the water and land on which they depend threatened. The phenomenon has been increasing throughout the region and, through assemblies, marches, plebiscites and other forms of participation and action, they express a movement with a territorial base, such as projects, and of great social diversity, such as populations. affected.
Uruguay never had large mining operations and, therefore, did not know a social movement in correspondence with this problem until the arrival of the transnational company Zamin Ferrous - which called the subsidiary in the country Aratirí - with its iron extraction project to large-scale open pit of the Valentines field. When entering the exploration stage, the first conflicts arose with family producers who have lived for generations in a wide area of small and medium rural properties.
The conflict grew and populations from the seaside resorts of the Rochense coast joined, which in turn felt threatened by the pipeline and the deep-water port designed to transport the minerals abroad. At the beginning of 2011, rural producers, coastal residents, social organizations and citizens of other localities formed the Movement for a Sustainable Uruguay (Movus) in order to inform themselves, inform and mobilize public opinion against the proposed projects.
Access to information was an essential need of the movement, verifying that both the company and members of the government did not provide accurate data on the characteristics and consequences of the project. Moreover, Aratirí's strategy to obtain the approval of the population has been to offer the public a sweetened version of his proposal, different from the one presented to state agencies, and to exploit the division of the community between the producers in conflict and the workers hired by the mining company.
With the contribution of professionals and academics from different disciplines, it was found that the proposal would be the simple looting of a non-renewable resource in the country with serious consequences of environmental depredation. The mineral would be exported raw and, due to the rate and volume of the extraction, would cause the destruction of a large area of the national territory. For the sake of a mere temporary business, undoubtedly very lucrative for the transnational company, we would be mortgaging a productive ecosystem of unlimited duration.
A national mobilization
As the information and critical analysis of the project spread, through talks in small groups and fliers in public places - at the beginning of 2011, the press did not report on Aratirí's proposal - sectors of society initially did not Affected by the conflict, they perceived that it was a matter of national interest and joined the mobilization. In this way, the first National March in Defense of the Land and Natural Assets was created, held on May 13, 2011 in Montevideo.
They organized this march, in addition to producers and residents of Cerro Chato, Valentines and the oceanic coast, the Collective of Social Organizations of Struggle for the Earth and the Union of Sugar Workers of Artigas (UTAA). In the proclamation read at the end of the march, the Aratirí mining project was rejected and the right of producers and their families to continue working their land, the delivery of land to those who want to work it, and the preservation and development of the tourism potential of the Rocha department.
In the second National March, on October 12, 2011, which ran from the Obelisk to the Legislative Palace, new groups were added such as the Representative Table of producers and residents of Route 7, Vichadero, of the 5th. Treinta y Tres, Caraguatá and Sarandí Grande section, the Union of Solid Urban Waste Classifiers (UCRUS), the Charrúa Nation Council (CONACHA), Adeom de Tacuarembó and the recently constituted Confederation of Coastal Towns (CPC).
The proclamation of this march raises three identifying demands of the movement: 1) that they stop the delivery of the land and natural assets of the country to foreign investment that plunders our wealth; 2) prior consultation with the communities affected by investment projects that interfere with their productive activities and their ways of living; and 3) that all citizens are widely informed and consulted on decisions that involve substantial changes in the country's productive model and matrix.
It is an unprecedented social movement in Uruguay. Already the first march showed that multifaceted character, both due to the broad social and generational spectrum and the forms of expression of the protest, which was reiterated in the second march on October 12, 2011 and in the third march, on October 11, 2011. October of this year, with a multiplied presence of convening organizations and people, moved the main avenue of the capital. This time, virtually no news outlet was omitted to report.
The third National March was convened by more than 30 organizations of producers and rural workers from Artigas, Canelones, Cerro Largo, Durazno, Florida, Rivera, Lavalleja, Rocha, San José, Tacuarembó, Treinta y Tres, Maldonado, Colonia; neighbors of La Paloma, La Pedrera, Coronilla, Valizas, Aguas Dulces, Cabo Polonio, La Esmeralda, Punta del Diablo, Chuy, Aiguá, City of the Coast, Atlántida, West of Montevideo, indigenous peoples; workers, students, professionals and retirees.
Until now, with the exception of OSE workers, who promoted the constitutional reform of water, the participation of student unions and workers has been scarce. Influenced by the government's position, these sectors confuse agribusiness and mining with modernization and productive diversification. However, environmental depredation is an integral part of the profitability of these companies and, socially, they concentrate more land ownership and use less labor than the old latifundia.
Another idea of participation
But the marches represent only the tip of the iceberg in shaping the movement in defense of the land and natural assets, because the mobilization goes far beyond the people who can travel, especially with their horses, from the interior to the capital to participate in a demonstration. In the most affected areas, civic actions are developed that, relying on the legal framework, seek to make themselves heard in another way, to the extent that the authorities do not show the will to address the claims
On Tuesday, March 13, 2012, a group of citizens of Treinta y Tres announced the sending of a letter to President Mujica, backed by 1,718 signatures, requesting a hearing to discuss mega-mining. They received no reply. The same group began, on September 12, another collection of signatures, to deliver now to the Mayor, the Board and the deputies of the department, so that they adopt an ordinance that prohibits the installation of extractive megaprojects in the territory of Treinta y Tres.
At the same time, in Lavalleja, a petition supported by 400 signatures was presented to the Departmental Board to approve an ordinance that prohibits the extraction of metals in the open pit. There are about 4,000 registries with mining requests, which represent 45% of the department's surface. The proposal submitted to the Board is based on Article 47 of the Constitution, Law 17.234 of February 22, 2000, Law 17.283 of December 28, 2000 and the Law of Territorial Organization of June 18, 2008.
In its session on October 10, the Lavalleja Board rejected the petition by a majority of 18 to 11 votes. Immediately, the citizens who had accompanied the discussion, gathered outside the premises and announced that they will begin collecting the signatures required to call a departmental referendum. The same option has been anticipated that the citizens of Treinta y Tres will adopt if their request is rejected. In Rivera, Cerro Largo and Rocha there is similar concern and similar initiatives are being evaluated.
In turn, the group Tacuarembó por la Vida y el Agua began, on October 18, to collect signatures with a view to a plebiscite that would prohibit open-pit metal mining in that department. Fifteen days later, 3,500 of the 15,000 they intend to reach were collected. The group in charge of the initiative in Tacuarembó is made up of journalists and communicators, rural producers, businessmen, workers, union representatives, councilors of all parties, ecclesiastical authorities and neighbors in general.
It is difficult to foresee the outcome of this process, but the dimensions it has reached are indicative of the existence of a new concern of the population for the nature and consequences of these development proposals of high social and environmental impact and of doubtful benefit for the population. country. And a new idea of participation seems to be emerging, where it is not enough to choose every four years and let others decide, but people want to be informed and decide on the development projects that affect them.
(Published in the magazine “no tea forget ”, N ° 13, Year III, November 2012)