CBC News - CANADA, July 18, 2007

Protesters say 'Harper go home' on PM's last day in Chile

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper was greeted with "Harper go home" and "Canada: What's HARPERing here?" signs on Wednesday morning as he spent his last day in Chile visiting a controversial Canadian mining company.

Dozens of protesters waited outside Barrick Gold's Santiago headquarters for Harper's visit, which one Chilean environmental activist called "inappropriate."

The protesters claim the company's gold and silver Pascua Lama Project in the Andes Mountains is displacing indigenous people, polluting rivers and damaging three glaciers charges the company denies.

Harper said Tuesday that as far as he knows Barrick "follows Canadian standards of corporate social responsibility." He said that it was up to Chile and Argentina to determine whether the company was meeting environmental protection standards.

Protesters demonstrate outside the offices of Barrick Gold during a visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Santiago on Wednesday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)
Karyn Keenan, program officer for the Halifax Initiative, an environmental coalition, said that the organization was worried Harper had not been properly informed of the issues surrounding the project.

"We're also concerned that Prime Minister Harper's visit to the Barrick offices might be viewed as a gesture of support for the project, just when the Chilean congress is considering forming a special investigatory commission to evaluate alleged irregularities with the approval process for the mine," Keenan, said.

Lucio Cuenca, national co-ordinator of the Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts, agreed with Keenan, claiming the visit implies "tacit approval" of the project on the part of the prime minister.

Cuenca says the local defence council is considering suing Barrick for the alleged destruction of the glaciers. He adds that a human rights complaint has been lodged with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Accusations being studied

A committee of lawmakers from Chile's chamber of deputies is studying the accusations.

One 2002 environmental report by the General Water Directorship estimates the three glaciers have shrunk by 50 to 70 per cent, allegedly as a result of work done during Barrick's exploratory phase, such as road building.

Runoff from the glaciers fuels watersheds in the area, supplying water to many communities.

"There's a shortage of water in the summertime, and it's only sustained because of the glaciers," one protester told CBC News. "Because of the destruction of the glaciers, there won't be water in the short-term, there won't be water for the communities."

Barrick says the glaciers are melting due to global warming.

The company's local director of corporate affairs, Rodrigo Jimenez, says the protesters represented "a small minority."

"A lot of them, as a result of professional activism unfortunately oppose any type of development whether it's mining, gas or any type of project around the world," he said.

Harper was scheduled to leave Chile Wednesday for Bridgetown, Barbados.

With files from the Canadian Press