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Indigenous Chileans take mining giant to international court

Chile to face two different accusations of human rights abuses on the same day.

by Joe HinchliffeSantiago Times
October 27th, 2011

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights will begin a trial on Friday to determine if a controversial mine on the ancestral land of Chile’s indigenous Diaguita community violates their fundamental human rights, as established under the American Convention on Human Rights.

petroglifoPre-Hispanic culture in Chile’s northern deserts. Photo by Jaime/Flickr.
The case relates to mining giant Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama project -- already in the early phases of production -- that stretches across the Andean border between Chile and Argentina.
Representatives of the indigenous community of Huasco Alto in Chile’s northern Atacama Region submitted the plea, along with a swath of reports detailing the potential negative effects of the mine on the indigenous community.
The reports also detailed concerns over the impact that heavy chemicals used in the extraction process, such as cyanide, will have on glaciers that surround the mine and the rivers of the Huasco valley that they feed.
In drafting the plea the Diaguita community received legal advice from Nancy Yáñez, co-director of Observatorio Ciudadano, a Chilean NGO that protects indigenous rights.
“Rights are not only laid down in this [Chilean] body of law, but also in the Indigenous Act, on the basis of the environmental sustainability and on Convention 169 [of the International Labor Organization, which Chile has ratified],” said the lawyer. 
Yáñez criticized the government for green-lighting the project without a proper assessment of its impact.
“We are seeing an irresponsible attitude on the part of the State which has effectively argued that the only path is to assure that this project is executed, without considering the good of the community and the obligation of the state, much less the public interest.”
Community leader Sergio Campusano accused Barrick Gold of an international campaign that depicts the community in a folkloric manner, and portrays the community as being in favor of the project. 
Campusano said that the community had been divided over the issue.
"They [Barrick Gold] have everything: money, trucks, training, travel. They have studied us well and know what the basic needs of people living in Huasco Alto are and they use them,” he said.
He also criticized the policy of local governments in dealing with the dislocation of people caused by the project.
“Many have considered selling their properties to move to La Serena, Copiapo and Vallenar,” said Campusano, referring to other northern cities. “There are people who have left their jobs on farms and are living on subsidies that are given to them by the municipality. The people are all subsidized, so [they think] why go to work?” 
Campusano was critical of the fact that the Diaguita community has been forced to seek justice outside of Chile’s tribunal system.
"We hope that justice is done, as we could not find it in Chile” he said. “But we will not be quiet, we will continue to denounce what is happening in Huasco Alto.”
The Human Rights Commission will hold another hearing from a Chilean human rights organization on the same day, as the Institute for Equality will raise concerns about police violence exercised during the last few months of the student protests in Chile.
The protests have been occurring for nearly six months now, drawing crowds of hundreds of thousands across the country and becoming the nation’s most debated political issue.


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