William Sacher, author and mining researcherSunday, April 27, 2014
‘Pascua Lama is a country owned by Barrick Gold’
Lives in: Ecuador
Previous education: Engineering in Hydraulics and Hydrology from INPG University, France; PhD in Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences from McGill University in Canada.
Current education: Working on his second PhD at FLACSO University in Ecuador on Development Economics, with a focus on large-scale mining.
Published books: Noir Canada, Imperial Canada Inc and Paradise Under the Earth
Favourite book: The Call of the Wild by Jack London. Also likes French literature of the XIX century.
Newspapers: Le Monde, El País, New York Times, The Guardian and alternative websites such as Rebelion.com.
It was a busy week in Buenos Aires City for mining expert William Sacher. His thesis adviser’s decision to move to Argentina saw him travel here to get some guidance on his PhD on large-scale mining. But when he arrived, his phone didn’t stop ringing with requests for interviews and event appearances. Before returning to Ecuador where he currently lives with his girlfriend, Sacher met the Herald in a large coffee shop near Parque Centenario to analyze the expansion of mining in Latin America and review his long-term legal battle with Barrick Gold that was a result of his first book, Noir Canada.
How did Barrick Gold effectively remove your book off the shelves?
After living in Africa, I moved to Canada and started investigating as part of a team what mining companies like Barrick Gold were doing in that continent. The company’s practices had been questioned in reports and investigations that pointed to environmental destruction, tax evasion, poisoning entire towns and working with warlords. We collected all those investigations and published Noir Canada, my first book.
And what was Barrick Gold’s reaction after you released it?
They accused us of defamation based on all the parts of the book where we mentioned the company’s name, even though those mentions were based on reports written by others. On the day we officially presented the book back in 2008, they sent us a letter threatening to sue if we didn’t take the book off the market, which we refused to do. We endured a three-year trial that ended with the publisher deciding to take the book off the market. It’s a case that represents the lack of freedom of speech in Canada over certain issues, including mining.
Is mining growing in Latin America?
Yes, there’s a mining boom. Rules for the sector were changed in the 1990’s in most of the countries of the region to favour foreign investment. Mining codes were redefined based on the Washington Consensus and the paperwork was simplified for big companies. Now there are numerous large projects being developed but in lower-quality deposits.
Why lower-quality? Have all the high-quality ones already been exploited?
Companies currently exploit low-quality deposits with a low concentration of minerals and the scenario will worsen in the upcoming years. Working on those types of reservoirs means using more energy, water and chemical products and generating larger amount of waste. That leads to a larger environmental impact.
Does the same situation occur with oil and gas, with hydraulic fracturing becoming increasingly popular to obtain more resources?
Yes, gas and oil are going through a similar situation as mining. Companies need to exploit areas that they wouldn’t have considered years earlier. The high-quality resources are scarce and the demand continues to increase.
Pascua Lama in Argentina and Chile seems to be one of the largest projects in the region. What makes it different?
Pascua Lama is a country owned by Barrick Gold because it is in the border of Argentina and Chile. It’s one of the most important projects in Latin America but it’s in an exploratory phase. The company’s patience is likely to run out soon amid the ongoing (regulatory) delays.
How does a mining project affect the environment?
Large-scale mining pollutes everything but the most sensible issue is water. Companies use a lot of it and if there’s not that much of it where a project is located, it can lead to shortages. At the same time, chemicals used by companies can pollute the water.
Still, companies assure us that they are environmentally friendly and take all the necessary measures to protect natural resources, especially waterà...
Companies can say whatever they want but reality shows their objective is to reduce costs and increase profit. Companies pay universities and researchers to carry out investigations that obviously end up speaking in favour of mining.
But companies have to carry out environmental impact studies before starting their projects and most of them are accepted by governmentsà...
Companies hire consultancies to carry out those studies and obviously the results are going to be what the companies want. If the consultancy says something different, it wouldn’t get hired again. It’s basic business logic. At the same time, environmental impact studies are quite simplistic.
Even with an environmental impact, companies highlight the economic benefits mining projects bring to a community, including job creation in remote regions. Do benefits not outweigh costs?
If a cost-benefit analysis were carried out seriously, there would, at the very least, be a tie. Companies don’t create as many jobs as they claim. They hire more people for the exploratory phase of the project but then the number decreases drastically — and they mainly hire men and hardly any women.
Is it possible to develop an environmentally friendly mining project?
If the current high-profits goal continues, it would be impossible. Most of the projects around the world create catastrophic damage that continues many years after the project ends. No mine in Canada has been fully closed, for example. If Canada with its large legal framework doesn’t control companies, it’s impossible to think a country like Argentina would be able to do so.
What differentiates Argentina from other countries regarding mining?
I actually see numerous similarities when comparing Argentina to other countries in the region. Both left-wing and right-wing governments in Latin America are encouraging mining and oil projects. Their objective is to provide the necessary political, economic and social conditions for companies to continue moving forward with their projects. If social organizations object to a project, the state represses or disciplines them through propaganda. The prevailing model in Latin America is to protect the interests of companies.