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By Sergio Carreras
Today as yesterday, Belén does not have paved roads to show off, it has 600 families that survive from the state dripper of the Jefas y Jefes aid plan; Belén does not have new neighborhoods with gardens where the new bourgeoisie read the newspaper, it has 26 percent of homes that do not cover their basic needs.
… They came from Tucumán and Salta to set their homes. Gold sparkled in the eyes. The Mining Festival was held; it lasted three or four years, until Bethlehem discovered that the gold shone too far from her need ...
Before the first charge of dynamite threw a portion of the mountain into the clouds, Catamarca Governor Arnoldo Castillo burst into tears and interrupted his speech, excited. He and the crowd that that October 31, 1997 laboriously ascended 2,600 meters high in the middle of the foothills desert, believed they were witnessing the birth of something fat; They looked to the sides trying to detect where the golden chariot of progress would make its entrance, finally a good one for the olympically forgotten Argentine Northwest! While explosives pierced the celestial curtain, down in the valley, in the kitchens and bedrooms of Bethlehem, the neighbors gave free rein to the dream trade: they saw the thousands of jobs, the new neighborhoods with neat gardens, the roads of gleaming pavement, bridges and schools, everything that the largest gold and copper mine in the country would spill over the region.
Belenlandia: Belen is a small and peaceful mountain town, on which scenes of Disneylandian harmony are projected, with doors that remain unlocked at night and bicycles that spend days parked on the sidewalks without their owners looking out every five minutes to check if they haven't been stolen yet. The 13 thousand belichos? That's what they called? they walk on the main nut-producing valley of Argentina and sleep watched over by a giant white cement virgin that at night, illuminated, floats like a specter on the tip of an invisible hill.
Today as yesterday, Belén does not have paved roads to show off, it has 600 families that survive from the state dripper of the Jefas y Jefes aid plan; Belén does not have brand new neighborhoods with gardens where the new bourgeoisie read the newspaper, it has 26 percent of homes that do not cover their basic needs, and old schools with cracked classrooms and crammed students. Well, Bethlehem does not have everything that they promised she would have. Belén keeps, under her wool poncho, an enormous list of things that she never tires of waiting for. At the last Children's Day party organized by the municipality, Mayor Daniel Ríos confessed to a collaborator, in front of seven thousand heads that were shaking:? What future are we going to offer them when they are 20 years old?
Just 110 kilometers from Belén, the La Alumbrera mine unfolds its mouth, a gigantic open-air hole in which dozens of cathedrals fit. Just putting it into production would have cost $ 1.2 billion. It is the most important undertaking in Argentine mining and its specialty is offering high-sounding titles for economic supplements: the largest foreign investment, the largest consumer of electricity in the country, the largest gold producer in South America and the ninth in the world. La Alumbrera will blow up more than 1,500 million tons of rock in search of gold and copper, which are propelled by an underground tube to the port of Rosario first, and later to developed countries, where the final processing takes place. that is not made in Argentina.
Hot tires: Among the technological toy store with which La Alumbrera overwhelms, stands out a quarantine of Caterpillar trucks that move on six Bridgestone tires almost four meters high. As each of those rubber is worth 18 thousand dollars, putting the shoes on a single truck costs 108 thousand dollars, a figure comparable to the total annual collection of the city of Bethlehem, of only 112 thousand of the same currency. Said directly, only the tires from the trucks, which are barely a grain of grape in the mine's vineyard, represent more than 40 times the taxable capacity that the entire population of Belén possesses for one year. Of course this is just a piece of information. But buttons like this warm the warlike blood.
The Bethlehem River remains dry most of the year. The lands are ideal for the sowing of numerous species, but that occur after September, the last month in which the river carries water, then they cannot be sown. Last year it rained 159 millimeters, hardly a dew. The La Alumbrera mine uses more than 51 million liters of water per day, obtained from six wells drilled in an underground aquifer reserve. Bethlehem does not have a single well, much less a dam that allows crops. In the Irrigation Administration, Juan Reyes Yapura points out that there is only one reservoir, 20 centimeters deep, built 25 years ago and that is only used to feed the drinking water plant.
In the heights, in addition to the good housing conditions offered to its staff, La Alumbrera built tennis courts, paddle courts, a covered football 7 court with synthetic grass, another for football 5, a basketball court, a gym with equipment top quality and functional music; and a huge recreation room that, among other things, has 12 pool tables. The city of Bethlehem does not have that quality of sports infrastructure or half the tables to rehearse caroms.
Bethlehem was the cradle of Vicente Saadi, leader of a family dynasty that made the province famous internationally. His birthplace, an adobe ranch with a roof sprouted with weeds, stands tall in the downtown area. Also here was born Luis Franco, a socialist writer and poet raised to the heights by opinions such as those of Roberto Arlt, Leopoldo Lugones, Juana de Ibarbourou and Armando Tejada Gómez. One of the writer's grandsons, Guillermo Valdés Franco, is the number one enemy that La Alumbrera won in Belén.
Changacha, as everyone knows him, is a 36-year-old unemployed person who supports his family by selling nuts and kneading homemade bread and biscuits that he later distributes on a bicycle. He organized more than 30 roadblocks to prevent the passage of the mine trucks and in 2000 he spent seven days in chains in front of the Catamarca provincial bank to denounce that the Government had misappropriated the money that, due to mining royalties, corresponded to the department of Belén . They told him that it was not true but, two months ago, this was recognized by the new governor Eduardo Brizuela del Moral. Changacha shouts that "La Alumbrera infected not only the environment but also the political and social system of the region." Where are the 20 thousand jobs it would bring? Where is the development? Is a gotcha! He only distributes alms to churches and municipalities.
Any school that needs something, no longer makes raffles, directly asks the mine. What example do we set for the children? Are we going to lose our dignity like this? Aren't we going to defend our resources? Does La Alumbrera have to be a bad word in the schools of Catamarca ?.
Espejitos: Rubén Lasa is president of the Belén Economic Chamber, which groups some 300 small businesses, since there are no major companies in the area, except, of course, the Swiss Xstrata, owner of the mine, which last year took out of the pocket 2.95 billion dollars to buy the Australian group MIM Holdings Limited, the previous owner.
But, returning to local proportions, Lasa emphasizes that La Alumbrera barely scratches the 200 Catamarca employees, of the thousands that the province hoped to bring in, and that it does not consider the region even as a potential supplier of food for the workers of the mine. … They don't even buy food here, they absolutely underestimate us. The arrival of the company has not represented anything of what was expected or what was promised. It is a huge undertaking surrounded by atrocious poverty, which only provides handouts and minimal contributions to local institutions. What does La Alumbrera generate for the area? Do they keep selling us colored mirrors?
The deputy director of the Fray Mamerto Esquiú school, the oldest in Belén, Miriam de Luna, says that the mine provides them, when they ask for it, didactic material for the children, ladles for the kitchen, curtains and even money to pay for soft drinks and the sound of end-of-year parties. "They give us those little things, although now we have a broken building built just five years ago, 200 students studying elsewhere and we need eight new classrooms. We believed that the Three Wise Men came with the mine, but we continue as usual."
Armando Iturriza is the director of Colegio Polimodal 19, where 450 boys, more than half of the total number of students, study mining or electromechanical technical courses, dreaming of sometime receiving the salaries paid by La Alumbrera, all above the two A thousand pesos. The mine is the patron of the school, providing everything from lathes to internships.
Every year 100 graduates in these two specialties go out to the streets, but today the mine only has 80 graduates among its staff, not a few of them, according to sources from the municipality, working as employees of the dining room. "People see La Alumbrera with anger but because the State did not do any works. We are grateful here and we want the company to never leave," says Iturriza. This end of the year, the graduates of the school will have dinner and medals paid for with the money from the mine will be hung.
Seated under a gigantic two-meter-long photograph of La Alumbrera, the president of the Deliberative Council of Belén in charge of the mayor, Claudio Reales, says he is not "so dissatisfied" with the mine. "Everything they have left over, wood, pieces of carpet, cement, they donate to institutions. In all of Belén there should not be a house that does not have a cable or a pipe from the mine. Without La Alumbrera, we would be worse off" .
The west of Catamarca produces 80 percent of GDP but it is the poorest area of the province. When the mine began to be built in 1995, Belén saw the return of inhabitants who had gone to work for the Caleta Olivia oil companies in Patagonia for years. Tucumán and Salta residents arrived to set up residence. The Mining Festival was held; it lasted three or four years, until Bethlehem discovered that the gold shone too far from her need.