Malvinas Islands gold plans spark anger over sovereignty and environment

Argentina’s government and environmental activists oppose an ‘environmentally responsible’ company’s plans to explore for gold in the disputed territory

Malvinas Islands landscape. Source: Erik Anestad via Wikimedia Commons

The chilly, windswept landscapes of the Malvinas Islands are often left undisturbed except for the penguins, seals and flightless ducks. But that could change this year if a new gold exploration initiative goes ahead. 

In July 2023, the Islands Government granted an exclusive gold exploration license to Warrah Resources, which describes itself as an environmentally responsible gold and battery metal exploration company. Warrah aims to apply modern exploration technology to underexplored areas of the islands, which could include the carbon-storing peatlands home to a rich variety of animal and plant life.

However, environmentalists point out that gold mining often devastates ecosystems — and the Argentine government has condemned the decision to allow gold and mineral exploration in territory, which is illegally occupied by the United Kingdom.

The first step of exploration would involve reviewing historical data, before conducting a non-invasive survey using deep ground-penetrating radar, the Islands Government told the Herald in an emailed statement.

Environmental impact assessment

The project would then proceed to examine further surveys, which would be subject to an environmental impact assessment, before being reviewed and approved by the government. There is no need for an environmental impact assessment at present, but one will be provided when necessary, the statement added.

While the license stops short of granting Warrah the right to exploit resources on the disputed islands, the company states on its website that it hopes to proceed to exploratory drilling by late 2024. The license “covers a significant proportion of the land mass” of the Islands, the company notes.

Mining projects typically go through a long list of steps including permitting, environmental and other impact assessments. An exploration permit does not guarantee that the project will be developed.

Warrah was registered in October 2022, and the concession is its only active project. The Islands Government said Warrah was the only applicant to the concession, which was listed in the Island Gazette’s July 31 2023 issue.

In January, Warrah Resources announced it had received investment from the Malvinas-based company Fortuna, which would allow it to progress with the project.

Warrah Resources Limited did not respond to requests for comment from the Herald

Attempts to mine gold in the 1990s and early 2000s failed to find viable deposits, according to the Islands Government. According to Warrah’s website, indicators of gold deposits were found at the time, but further exploration was obstructed by the peat that covers the islands in a layer up to six meters thick.

This raises the question of the possible environmental impacts if the project is ultimately developed — the government’s website states that biodiversity has allowed the economy to flourish.

Key carbon stores

Peatlands can store more carbon than forests, making them key in the fight against climate change. However, they form very slowly under highly specific conditions, meaning that damage to such ecosystems is irreversible. 

Peat grows at around one centimeter per year and in Argentina, some of the largest peatlands are 10 meters deep, according to Nancy Fernández Marchesi, an environmental education researcher at the University of Tierra del Fuego, who has studied peatlands.

The peat wetlands on the Malvinas are among the richest in the world, according to nonprofit Falklands Conservation. The organization told the Herald there was not yet enough information to comment on the possible impacts of the current gold project.

Red represents upland deep peat, brown valley peat, orange mixed upland organo-mineral and deep peat soils, and grey areas with little or no peat cover.
Map of Malvinas, showing peatlands in orange. Source: Evens et. al. Implementation of an emission inventory for UK peatlands. Report to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology

Because of their sponge-like ability to suck up water, destroying peatlands considerably increases the risk of flooding in the local area, according to Fernández.

“Peatlands are 80-90% water. Walking on them is like walking on a cushion,” she said. “To extract anything from one, the first thing you have to do is to dry it out […] Once it’s dried, it’s impossible to recover. It’s not a renewable activity.” 

Tierra del Fuego passed a provincial law in 2022 protecting the Mitre Peninsula, 80% of which is covered in peatlands — but the project faced opposition precisely because mining companies wanted to prospect for gold there, according to Fernández.

Stephen Lezak, a researcher and environmental policy specialist at Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Institute, has warned against gold mining on untouched land in general. “In an ideal world, we would be mining developments on land already disturbed by human industry,” he said. “Global demand for gold can easily be met by recycling and recycling alone.”

Argentine condemnation 

Argentina’s government has condemned the moves towards mining gold in the Malvinas. It points out that they violate a 1976 United Nations resolution establishing that neither Argentina nor the UK should take unilateral actions that change the situation on the ground while the territory is in dispute. 

“The Republic of Argentina once again rejects in the strongest terms this unilateral activity of the United Kingdom […] to concede a new license to explore for gold and other minerals on the Malvinas Islands,” the Argentine government said in a press release after the licenses were awarded. 

The government reaffirmed its commitment to finding a peaceful resolution to the dispute surrounding Las Malvinas.

Argentina’s foreign ministry had not responded to requests for comment on the issue at the time of writing. However, President Javier Milei’s government has reiterated Argentina’s long-standing position towards the islands. 

To Tierra del Fuego environment defenders like Fernández, the pain of the issue is twofold. “For the people of Tierra del Fuego, the dispute over the Malvinas is very close to our hearts,” she said. “They’re part of our province, it’s in our provincial constitution.

“This kind of action creates great anger, because they’re taking a unilateral action. The exploitation of natural resources worries us, but we don’t have the capacity to act.”

Editorial disclaimer

Although the UK refers to the Malvinas territory as the “Falklands Islands,” Argentina strongly contests this name. The Buenos Aires Herald refers to the islands as the Malvinas Islands.


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