A multi-million dollar gold mining project in Chile - which protesters say will destroy three glaciers in the Andes - has come up against violent opposition.

Environmentalists and police clashed violently in Santiago de Chile two weeks ago, when activists presented the government with a petition containing 18,000 signatures against the Barrick Gold Corporation’s Pascua Lama project in San Juan on the borders of northern Chile and Argentina.

Canada-based Barrick has 14 working mines around the world and five in north and south America.

The San Juan region has been enjoying something of an agricultural renaissance for around 70,000 farmers and grape growers – a situation which it is claimed is threatened by the mining project.

The petition was presented by opposition politicians and the Anti Pascua Lama Front, a coalition of several protest groups.

The silver and gold mining project, located on the border between Chile and Argentina, will invest US$1.5bn over 17 years. The project will produce 5,000 tons of copper, and 17.6m ounces of gold. It is expected to last 21 years in total.

It is understood Chilean politicians have endorsed the ‘transfer’ of Andean glaciers to make room for the mining operation. Among other substances, the company will use large quantities of cyanide, which will be transported via road and river.

Protests – focussing on the pollution and the issue of moving glaciers – have been escalating in the region, with local organisations accusing it of bribing key players and funding a pseudo-scientific reports. The Chilean government is also accused of active complicity with the company.

‘Pascua Lama will use sodium cyanide, arsenic, and produce toxic byproducts. The rivers El Estrecho, San Félix and El Tránsito together with Santa Juana dam are liable to be polluted by Pascua Lama. These dangerous poisons will be handled at the sources of the rivers and could damage water supplies to farms,’ said César Padilla of the Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts.

Vincent Borg, vice president of corporate communications at Barrick in Canada, told decanter.com ‘glacier experts’ had defined the icefields in question as ‘ice reservoirs or icefields’.

‘Regardless of what the experts call them, Barrick is committed to their preservation and conservation. We will move only 5 acres of ice and it is a straightforward procedure that has been proven in the past to conserve the ice. The ice in question only affects about 3-4% of the ice in the Valley so it is not an amount that some sensationalists would like to make it appear,’ he said.

On the issue of use of toxic chemicals such as cyanide he said, ‘Cyanide is used worldwide and can be safely used in many industrial applications. Mining comprises only 13% of cyanide use.’

Barrick has now reached an agreement with the Junta de Vigilancia, the main stakeholder group in the Valley. It says it has received 93% support for the ‘modifications, enhancements, and improvements’ that it has proposed.

It has also agreed to invest in building and water quality projects in the region.

‘Our agreement with the stakeholders envisions that we would invest US$3m per year on projects, that a joint board would recommend, for infrastructure and water quality and quantity projects,’ Borg said.

Written by Jaquelina Jimena in Buenos Aires