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Uruguay: Controversy Over Open-Pit Iron Ore Mining Project

A project to build an open-pit iron ore mine in Centro Chato – a village of 3,144 inhabitants according to the 2000 census [es] – in central Uruguay has divided Uruguayans. While some see it as an opportunity for employment and economic growth, others are concerned about the environmental consequences and question whether the country will actually benefit from the mine’s profits.

As reported by AFP at the beginning of June:

The Aratiri project, owned by Zamin Ferrous, a London-based minerals company, will cost an estimated $2.5 billion (1.7 million Euros), the largest mining project ever in South America, and equivalent to more than six percent of Uruguay's gross domestic product.

For the past two years, the company has been permitted to prospect for iron on 120,000 hectares (460 square miles) of land around the village of Cerro Chato in the center-east of the country.

The report continues:

In Uruguay the sub-soil belongs to the state, and it has asked farmers to let the company use their land to hunt for iron ore.

For relatively meager compensation, Claudia Perugorria allowed the mining company's digging machines onto her 47 hectares (116 acres), where she raises about 30 cows and sheep. Today, her pastures are scarred with traces of tires, craters and holes where animals may stumble and injure themselves.

March against Aratiri on May 15, 2011. Image by Gonzalo Useta, Flickr user Gonzak (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

March against Aratiri on May 15, 2011. Image by Gonzalo Useta, Flickr user Gonzak (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

El Pueblo Frente a la Minera Aratiri (The People Against the Aratiri Mine) [es], a blog that opposes the venture and posts articles, reports and other media about the project, states:

Como uruguayos preocupados en el desarrollo verdadero, la salud ambiental y humana y el derecho de la población a opinar y participar de los procesos de decisión que afectarán directamente sus vidas y medio de supervivencia, nos preguntamos: ¿cómo se conjuga el Uruguay Natural al que apuesta el gobierno con un emprendimiento minero de tal envergadura?, ¿cuán grande será el beneficio en términos económicos para nuestro país si se tienen en cuenta el daño social y ambiental irreversibles?, ¿qué pasará con esas tierras una vez que la empresa se retire?, ¿esto está incluido en los cálculos?

As Uruguayans concerned about real development, environmental and human health and the right of people to express their opinions and participate in the decision processes that will directly affect their lives and means of survival, we wonder: How does the ‘Natural Uruguay’ the government is pushing coincide with a mining project of this magnitude How big is the benefit in economic terms for our country if we take into account the irreversible environmental and social damage? What will happen to the land once the company withdraws? Is this included in the calculations?

Supporters of the project cite economic development as one of the project’s potential strengths. Felix Obes Fleurquin in Equinox Fin de Semana [es] writes:

Estoy a favor de este proyecto, y de todo proyecto que nos saque o nos ayude a salir de la pobreza […]

Hay riesgos con la mineria y hay muchos riesgos con la mineria a cielo abierto, eso no cabe duda, como los habia con las papeleras, pero esos riesgos hay que afrontarlos […]

I am in favor of this project, and of every project that will help take us out of poverty […]

There are many risks in open-pit mining, there is no doubt about that, like there were with paper mills, but those risks must be faced […]

On Sunday June 26, farmers and neighbors of Cerro Chato marched against the project. The blog Observatorio Minero del Uruguay [es] explains that most of the protesters:

vive y trabaja en algunas de las 120.000 hectáreas pedidas por la empresa para prospección y en las que, por tanto, enfrentan dificultades para planificar su actividad agropecuaria a futuro

live and work in some of the 120,000 acres requested by the company for exploration and, therefore, face difficulties in planning their future farming activities.

The day before, on Saturday June 25, the company's employees and other supporters of Aratirí marched along the same streets defending the project. The blog Aire Libre [es] shares audio and photos of the two protests.

Most Twitter users commenting on Aratirí seem to oppose the project, although there are a few exceptions, like the user @Uruguay_Mejor, who writes:

En principio, estoy a favor del puente #LagunaGarzon, de #Aratirí y del desarrollo del #Uruguay. También quiero mayor control de DINAMA…[Dirección Nacional del Medio Ambiente]

In principle, I am in favor of the #LagunaGarzon bridge, of #Aratirí and of the development of #Uruguay. I also want greater control of DINAMA…[National Directorate of Environment]
"I will not sell the rich patrimony of the 'orientales'", José Artigas. Image by Flickr user Frente Aratiri (CC BY-SA 2.0).

"I will not sell the rich patrimony of the 'orientales'", José Artigas. Image by Flickr user Frente Aratiri (CC BY-SA 2.0).

But journalist, lawyer and writer Graziano Pascale (@grazianopascale) shares a common concern:

@MBBATLLISTA // los extranjeros cada vez msas ricos con el hierro uruguayo

@MBBATLLISTA // foreigners getting richer with Uruguayan iron ore

Later he tweets [es]:

Quien controla el hierro controla el Uruguay..Al manejar 3.000 millns de dls anuales Aratiri será un estado dentro del estado.

Whoever controls iron ore controls Uruguay..By managning 3,000 million dollars annually Aratiri will be a state within a state.

Ricardo Berois (@rberois) refers to President José Mujica’s announcement of a second company – Gladiator Resources (Ferro Minas S.A. in Uruguay), from Australia – that seeks to extract iron ore from Rivera:

Mujica dice que hay otra empresa a parte de Aratirí ! Entonces a nacionalizar el hierro si quiere más guita como dijo

Mujica says there is another company apart from Aratirí! Then let’s nationalize iron ore if he wants more money like he said

Marcelo Bacigalupi (@Cr_Bacigalupi) writes:

EL DEBATE DE ARATIRI ES ESTERIL. HAY QUE PROHIBIR LA MINERIA A CIELO ABIERTO. HAY QUE CUIDAR EL 1/2 AMBIENTE. EL CAPITAL ESTA EN LA CABEZA.

The Aratiri debate is sterile. Open pit mining must be banned. The environment must be protected. Capital is only in our heads.

On YouTube, noalamegamineriaUR (no to mining Uruguay) [es] posts a video which informs about the consequences of a project like Aratirí and also shows marches against the mine:

Uruguayan newspaper El Observador [es] reports that environmental impact studies for Aratiri will be ready in 18 months. Until then, we can expect the conversation to continue on the streets and on social networks.

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