Villagers in Loncopué, in the western Neuquén province in Argentina, overwhelmingly rejected on June 3rd large-scale open-pit mining near their village, in the first binding referendum of its kind in Argentina.
Eighty-two percent of the more than 2,500 villagers who participated in the referendum voted in favor of a municipal order to ban mining within the 8,000 hectares (19,760 acres) of the village’s urban area.
Since 2008, the village of some 7,000 people had been fighting a copper project by Emprendimientos Mineros, backed by Chinese investors and the state-run Neuquén Mining Corporation. That year Loncopué residents filed a suit against the provincial government alleging the contract was null and void because the local indigenous community’s rights were not respected. In September 2009, provincial courts halted the project until it could investigate.
The Neuquén Superior Court rejected an appeal by the provincial government and said the indigenous community would have to be consulted before the project could proceed. The mining company’s attempt to block the vote was also rejected by the courts.
“A government that answers to the interests of the oil and mining companies, a government that does not listen to its people, had a lesson in democracy today,” said Cristian Hendrickse, a member of the Loncopué community assembly.
He said the vote echoed a similar struggle in Esquel, in the southern Chubut province, where in 2003, 80 percent of residents rejected a gold project by Canada’s Meridian Gold. While that vote was not binding, the company ended up abandoning the project.
The provincial government is now trying to have the court declare the Loncopué vote unconstitutional, arguing that the local government has no power to call a binding referendum.