1. Diaguita Huascoaltinos People
The Diaguita Huascoaltinos Agricultural Community is the heir to the lands that their ancestors have inhabited since time immemorial: the valleys and mountains of the Huasco Valley. This valley is located at the southern end of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, and it is characterized by special natural and cultural qualities.
Our community is made up of 250 families of indigenous farmers and shepherds of the Huasco Valley, and it is the only indigenous community in Chile that has a domain title recognized by the Chilean State over their ancestral lands. While other indigenous groups live in the Huasco Valley, none of them have this territorial basis.
1.1 Our History
The history of our domain title begins in the sixteenth century, when the Spanish colonizers ordered the definition of so-called Indian Peoples. During that time, the Spanish authorities recognized the Indian People of Huasco Alto and gave the community a domain title over the highest part of the Huasco Valley. Most of the Indian People defined by the Spanish authorities during the Chile’s colonial period were not respected and disappeared during that period. However, because of the isolated nature of the community, the Diaguita Huascoaltinos were the only indigenous community in Chile that maintained domain over their lands and was not absorbed by the Spanish expansion.
Later, at the dawn of the Republic, the State enacted a law requiring the measurement of Indigenous lands. In 1902, the lands of the Huascoaltino people, which were known as the “Estancia de los Huascoaltinos,” were registered under a legal procedure that allocated our community a total of 381,000 hectares of communally held lands. The Community received a legal domain title for these lands in 1903. This new domain title gave the community less land than the original domain title held during Spanish Colonial rule.
From 1910 through the 1990’s, individuals registered domain titles to some portion of the land for which the Huascoaltinos already held title. Then, in 1997, our lands were registered again by the means of a special law called the “Law of Agricultural Communities.” At that time, the Chilean state still did not recognize the existence of the Diaguita as an indigenous people. However, this law allowed for the communal ownership of land that enabled the maintenance of our traditional way of life and organization. Unfortunately, due to corruption in the implementation of this law, all the new title claims illegitimately registered by individuals became legal, and those lands were excluded from our communal territory. Thus, all of the territorial encroachments committed to date were validated, and our lands were reduced by almost 140,000 hectares.
Since 1903 the Community has regularly paid taxes on the land despite the territorial encroachments and our community continues to pay taxes on 381,000 hectares.
Even though we have a domain title recognized by the State of Chile, our community continues to be pressured by the Chilean government and other private interests. These private interests, with no respect for our traditions or our community decisions, have seized large tracts of land that belong to our community. Our Assembly regularly decides to take legal action against these private companies in search of justice. However, the Chilean state, through the mining code, supports the actions of the big mining companies and does not allow us to deny entry to these large companies.
Most freshwater reserves in the basin of the Huasco Valley are within our ancestral lands, and we have the responsibility to maintain custody of these lands to ensure the natural balance and prevent the death of this valley and our culture, as our grandparents had done. However, the large mining projects that now want to settle in the Andes threaten the natural balance.
2. Barrick Gold in Chile
In the nineties, Barrick Gold acquired two mines in Chile, El Indio and Tambo, through the purchase of Lac Minerals, a Canadian firm in Chile. El Indio mine, which is now closed, had two environmental emergencies – in 1993 and 1997 ¬– caused by contamination with cyanide, affecting the cities of Vicuña, La Serena and Coquimbo. While the company denies that these catastrophes took place, they are known through the testimonies of the affected communities.
Currently, the main project of the company in Chile is the Pascua Lama project, a bi-national mining project located on the border of Chile and Argentina in the Huasco Valley, the last unpolluted valley of northern Chile.
2.1 Destruction of our lands and our natural resources.
Pascua Lama project is framed within the binational mining treaty agreed to by Chile and Argentina. In Chile it is located on lands that ancestrally belong to the Diaguita Huascoaltinos, but this fact was never considered in the series of negotiations that led to approval of the project.
After thorough exploration work that began in the 80’s, the company found one of the largest gold deposits in the world called Pascua (in Chile) and Lama (in Argentina). The Chilean side of the site is under three glaciers that feed the basin of the Huasco Valley.
In 2000, Barrick presented the first report to the Chilean environmental authority, but the report did not even mention the existence of glaciers Toro I, II and Esperanza. The public protested and the environmental authority became the voice of warning. Barrick then submitted a second report in which they proposed the transfer of 24 hectares of perennial ice from Toro I, II and Esperanza to the Guanaco glacier, located several kilometers away. This proposal was again rejected by the public and excessive pressure led the company to submit a new draft to the environmental authority. The Pascua-Lama mining project was finally approved in 2006 with the condition that glaciers should not be directly disturbed in the project area.
In 2005, the General Directorate of Waters (the agency responsible for management of water resources at national level) released a report stating that the three glaciers mentioned had already decreased in size between 50 and 70% due to company activity. Subsequently, the Chilean government made public statements claiming that the damage to the glaciers was due to climate change. These statements show political support to Barrick Gold but have no technical bases, because there have been no technical reports from the State to refute the 2005 report's findings.
The territories that now belong to Barrick Gold are called Chañarcillo Ranch and Chollay Ranch. These lands were part of our domain title in 1903, however, after a complex series of fraudulent transfers and acquisitions that began in 1913 and culminated in 1998, the Nevada Mining Company, a subsidiary of Barrick Gold in Chile, purchased the land of Franco Ignacio Ahumada. Barrick Gold then closed the roads, denying the shepherds in our community access to their traditional summer grazing areas. Despite the fact that there is a public policy that prohibits the closure of the main road, it is kept closed and monitored by company security.
Now, Barrick Gold seeks to extend the Pascua Lama project to the top of the Pachuy Ravine, which is located within the grounds of the Community lands recognized by the 1997 domain title. Although the Diaguita Huascoaltinos have decided to deny Barrick entry to our land, the Mining Code requires us to let them take over our ancestral lands.
Our community members have reported that Barrick has been performing unauthorized exploration in other areas of our territory (such as the areas known as El Encierro, Valeriano, Colorado, Las Palas, Las Flechas, La Laguna, Chollay, among others).
Although the mining work has not begun to date, there have been roads built by the mining company, and the exploration activities carried out in the high mountains have created severe deterioration of some wetlands and large-scale landscape deterioration. This is especially critical as the landscape determines the drainage capacity of the rock formations and defines microclimatic conditions.
2.2 Socio-cultural Intervention.
The image of mining companies has been affected by the harmful impacts of their activities on the environment and the surrounding communities. In response to public criticism, these companies have implemented policies on Corporate Social Responsibility and Community Relations.
According to these policies, Barrick Gold requires the consent of local communities to develop its projects. However, our community – the only organization with a territorial basis in the Huasco Valley and the owner of the ancestral land where they are located – was never consulted by the company to mine on our lands. Moreover, we have repeatedly expressed our rejection of the development of mega-mining projects in our territory.
Despite this, for several years Barrick Gold has conducted the process of reinventing the Diaguita culture, which is intended to make the public believe that they have the support of the Diaguita Huascoaltinos. To this end, the company has brought in professionals from other parts of the country to conduct workshops on the ‘traditional’ Diaguita crafts, essentially inventing a nonexistent Diaguita culture and denying the ethnicity of our community. They have raised false leaders, who are now attending meetings with the company and the media, discrediting the real leaders of the community and creating irreconcilable divisions between community members and their neighbors.
All these actions have led to confusion and they have weakened the identity of the Diaguita Huascoaltinos. To face this situation, we have implemented a strategy of intensive work, requiring a large investment of time and resources that we do not always have. At the same time, we must also work to counter the constant lies and rumors of the company to prevent the deterioration of our community’s internal cohesion and the destruction of our cultural identity.
After exhausting all the legal channels in our country, in 2006 the Assembly of our Community decided to sue the State of Chile for the Pascua Lama at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and today the demand is awaiting investigation. This case has also been presented to James Anaya, Special Rapporteur of the United Nations for Indigenous Affairs, Irene Khan, General Secretary of Amnesty International and Danielle Miterran, President of the Foundation for Freedom of France.
3. The Huascoaltinos Private Nature Reserve: our own development path.
Our community has always built its road of development independently. Between 1997 and 2005, we had intensive discussions to develop a plan that would allow us to protect the natural balance of our land as our ancestors did, while maintaining our way of life and traditional customs. In 2005, we decided to make our Community lands a Private Wilderness Protected Area. In this way, we took the tools existing in the Chilean legal system that could help us to protect nature and our territory, and merged it with our world vision, thus protecting our lands and all life forms that develop in them, including the human beings. This will be the first protected area in Chile with communal planning and management, where inhabitants make regular use of natural resources and where the preservation of our culture is as important as the conservation of our natural resources.
Given that our lands hold the main reserves of fresh water for the Huasco Valley, by preserving the supply of water and ecosystems at the top of our territory, we will ensure the life and livelihood of all who inhabit the bottom of the valley, whether or not they are part of the Huascoaltinos community. We are now in the final stage of community planning and will soon begin operating the Huascoaltinos Private Nature Reserve. This is our commitment and is the path that we will continue developing.
This initiative was presented to the Chilean environmental authority CONAMA in 2008 in the form of a Development Plan, which aimed to establish an administrative framework to ensure the protection of biodiversity and ecosystems in the upper part of the territory. However, CONAMA – for the first time in the history of the institution – refused to evaluate a project by declaring themselves incompetent. Thus, this initiative remains neither approved nor rejected.
Environmental conservation and mega mining projects are not compatible. We just want this company to leave and let us develop our projects in peace.