Mining vs. Environment in Chile Chico

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Los Domos. Photo: Doerte PietronLos Domos. Photo: Doerte Pietron
 
 
By Tomás Moggia and Cristóbal Pérez
 
Editors Note: The following is from Issue 19
 
In a measure celebrated worldwide and called historic, then president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, together with conservationist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins signed decrees to create five new national parks at the beginning of 2018 that would help to form a “Route of Parks in Chilean Patagonia.” Despite widespread jubilation, as the weeks passed, voices opposed to the measure gradually began to speak out, arguing that one of the new parks, Patagonia National Park in Aysen, would have an especially strong impact on the mining industry.
 
Some Aysén authorities, among them Senator David Sandoval and the mayor of Chile Chico, Ricardo Ibarra, led the anti-park operation with a clear objective: help facilitate “Los Domos,” a mining exploration project that could potentially lead to gold and silver extraction and a project investment of up to US$ 1.4 billion. The mining sites are operated by Southern Gold, which is controlled by Australian mining company Equus Mining.
 
The same company was found to be doing illegal prospecting work in the interior of the Jeinimeni National Reserve, which was annexed to the park, near the geo-site “Domo Lunar Valley” and the national monument “Cueva de las Manos,” and also near Cerro Colorado or Apidame, a climber’s paradise reminiscent of the iconic Devil’s Tower in the United States.
 
The polemic intensified in May 2018, after Chile’s minister of national property, Felipe Ward, made known in Chile’s Senate Environmental Commission a series of irregularities. But through intense lobbying, representatives of Southern Gold succeeded in getting a meeting with government officials, and by July the ministry had confirmed that the mining site was closed and that it had been executed outside of the borders of the protected area, albeit by only a few meters.
 
The differences that emerged between the tourism sector and the mining industry caused the Tourism Association of Chile Chico to withdraw from the working group summoned by officials at the Chile Chico town government to address the creation of Patagonia National Park. Their decision was backed by the Federation of Tourism Professionals of Aysén, which is concerned, too, about the environmental impact that the project could have in an area which is heavily involved in tourism. The organization argues that a productive sector cannot grow at the cost of others, and that it is necessary to opt for productive activities that have already been prioritized in highly-participatory processes that do not put sustainability at risk.
 
 
Cerro Colorado. Photo: Daniel MillacariCerro Colorado. Photo: Daniel Millacari
 
 
The knockout punch was still to come. In mid-October, minister Felipe Ward visited Chile Chico announcing that he had managed to “sign a landmark, historical agreement.” For the current government of president Sebastián Piñera, the solution to the conflict consisted in allowing gold mining to go forward through the redrawing of the borders of Patagonia Park, thus responding to the demands of some rural families for grazing pastures, and to the mining lobby on behalf of the Australian company Equus Mining.
 
Ricardo Ibarra, mayor of Chile Chico, was exhilarated: his work had borne fruit. “We are making a big step toward unity. This is not a triumph for just one of the sectors; it is a triumph for Chile Chico and everyone is called to be part of it,” asserted the mayor. Under this new scenario, at the end of December the park finally became official.
 
For Patricio Segura, president of the Private Corporation for the Development of Aysén (Codesa), during the entire process there existed a clear conflict of interest. “The government included ‘’Los Domos” months ago as the one investment that it will support in Aysén within the framework of its Office for the Management of Sustainable Projects, and today is making changes to public policy that are under way in order to benefit this project in particular,” said the environmentalist.
 
Also cause for concern is the strong pressure on the Lake General Carrera watershed due to mining interests. They are coming from many sides. As the Australian mining company Laguna Gold, controlled by El Toqui, tries to move ahead with five projects in the Puerto Ingeniero Ibáñez area, the Canadian firm Mandalay Resources wants to reopen the Javiera mine, and GoldCorp is already exploring the area north of the lake.
 
The conflict is escalating over time. At the end of October, following the Aysén Environmental Evaluation Comission’s unanimous approval of new mining exploration projects by Laguna Gold, the Aysenian community’s anger has transformed into repeated protests, in Coyhaique, Cochrane, Puerto Cisnes and Puerto Tranquilo. According to environmental groups, they organized the first-ever simultaneous public demonstration linked to the mining offensive in the region, which is not limited exclusively to the Lake General Carrera watershed, it also encompasses just under 300 drilling platforms in the municipalities of Lago Verde, Coyhaique and Río Ibáñez, where environmental impact statements for the Santa Teresa, Katterfeld, and Terrazas projects, respectively, were approved.
 
 
Los Domos. Photo: Doerte PietronLos Domos. Photo: Doerte Pietron
 
 
The measure continues to be striking and incongruous for some environmentalists, who months earlier applauded an announcement made by the Senate Environmental Commission, whose goal was to solicit from state agencies reports on mining contamination in the Lake General Carrera watershed. The decision undoubtedly raised questions about the authorization of mining in new areas of the region, especially considering that current and past operations have not taken responsibility for the environmental liabilities they have generated. Nevertheless, the initial optimism seems to have been erased with the stroke of a pen.
 
By the use of the slogan “Patagonia sin Mineras” (“Patagonia without Mining”), the demonstrators seek to stress the importance of putting the brakes on mining in territories where agriculture, livestock ranching, tourism, and conservation have already been prioritized.
 
For Patricio Segura, the defense of Lake General Carrera, or Chelenko, as the Tehuelches call it, is fundamental to make sure the watershed does not end up as a mining dump. “With the intention of the government’s policy to allow gold mining to go forward now clear, the protection of the main reservoir of fresh water in Chile from the documented impacts of the mining sector is today one of the socioenvironmental objectives of Aysén,” affirmed the president of Codesa.
 
To the north, the El Toqui mine has also been enveloped by irregularities that further call into question mining in the region. The poisoning of livestock was detected, along with the presence of heavy metals (lead, arsenic, and mercury) in some 30 residents of Alto Mañihuales, who for months had been denouncing the mine’s bad practices and negligence in the face of government inaction and lack of oversight. Could this foreshadow things to come for the Lake General Carrera watershed?
 
In November, Andrei Tchernitchin, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Chile, conducted an intense tour of Aysén holding workshops to inform people living in affected areas about the impacts of mining on both human and environmental health, and to discuss their findings related to the poisoning of Alto Mañihuales residents.
 
Tchernitchin, also president of the environment department of the Chilean Medical Association, said it is worrisome that mining companies are setting up in the region, especially considering the serious problems due to mining already experienced in other parts of the country. He said that even in processes involving prospecting and mineral extraction, there can be acid drainage into the surrounding waters, a phenomenon that is more prevalent still when the toxic mineral trailing dams—those deposits with a high concentration of contaminants—begin operating.
 
 
"Water is Worth More Than Gold," reads the protest sign by Agrupación Comunal Funcional Puro Ibáñez. Photo: Marcelo Mascareño"Water is Worth More Than Gold," reads the protest sign by Agrupación Comunal Funcional Puro Ibáñez. Photo: Marcelo Mascareño
 
 
“Any rupture of rocks containing sulfides, due to the high mineral content, forms acid—from oxidation when it comes into contact with water—and that acid drains and dissolves the elements found in the rocks and in the sand,” explained Tchernitchin, adding that the resulting sulfuric acid as well as the undissolved and exposed heavy metals have the capacity to contaminate groundwater and surface water flows. And the great fear is that this will come to pass even in the pristine waters of Patagonia, where rivers as iconic as they are abundant—like the Baker—could be at risk.  
 
Troubling national track record
Since the colonial period, and even before, the territory encompassing Chile has had a mining vocation, and today the country is a world leader in the production and exportation of minerals such as copper, molybdenum, and lithium. It is not for nothing that years ago Chuquicamata was considered the largest open-pit mine in the world, and the greatest producer of copper. Nowadays, El Teniente, located near Rancagua, a few miles away from Santiago, is the largest subterranean copper deposit on the planet.
 
Mining firms are scattered throughout the northern and central zones of the country; an extraction-based model that leaves scars in its tracks, in the mountain ranges, in the numerous and enormous active mine tailings left throughout the area, and stories of local communities affected by pollution and whose food and water sources have been contaminated by mining activity. Tocopilla, Mejillones, Huasco, Quintero and Puchuncaví are palpable examples of “sacrifice zones”; highly industrialized geographical areas where priority has been given to the establishment of centers for, among other things, the processing of minerals, above and beyond any concern for the wellbeing of people and the planet.
 
Is this what the future holds for Patagonia? While for many actors in the region, Lake General Carrera possibilities are closely tied to the formation of a geopark—where tourism and conservation would coexist in harmony—today this territory is living through what are probably its most delicate and decisive days, in a heated debate over activities that appear to be incompatible and opposed to one another. Will Aysén continue on as a refuge for life, or will it become a sacrifice zone?