The human and environmental cost of mining in Chile: the case of Caimanes
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The human and environmental cost of mining in Chile: the case of Caimanes

For almost a decade the community of Caimanes in northern Chile has been fighting against Antofagasta Minerals, a mining giant it claims has deprived them of a vital resource and fundamental human right: water.

The community’s battle may be drawing to an end as Chile’s Supreme Court ruled out in favor of the people of Caimanes, demanding the Pelambres copper mine to demolish a tailings dam reservoir, which the community blames for diverting the natural course of the Pupío estuary, drying out the Choapa River and polluting whatever little water is left.

After 100 days of protest, which in its final days degenerated into violent confrontation with Chile’s Special Police Forces, the people of Caimanes celebrated the court’s decision, its spokesperson Cristián Flores applauding “the triumph of a small community against a gigantic one”.

Accounting for 8.5 percent of the country’s GDP, mining is the backbone of Chile’s economy. The industry alone is also responsible for 9 percent of the country’s water consumption. Implanted in the arid north of the country, the water-hungry industry increasingly threatens the region’s natural eco-system as well as social peace. This fragile equilibrium comes at a time when severe drought has been affecting the country for the past 8 years.

The human cost: the division of a community

A small town in the northern region of Coquimbo, Caimanes is located only 10km from El Mauro, the artificial waste deposit bank that has torn apart this community comprised of a mere 1,200 inhabitants.

The dam has not only compromised the locals’ agricultural activities and forced them to rely on trucks transporting water for sanitation and consumption; it has also shattered the town’s social cohesion.

As is often the case with powerful mining conglomerates whose activities are not welcomed by local communities, money is poured in to defuse criticism, leading to division between those who see it as an opportunity and those who perceive it as a threat to their livelihoods.

While many cheered the court’s decision, a sizable portion of inhabitants from Caimanes and neighboring towns took to the streets in opposition to the agreement, fearing for their jobs. Antofagasta Minerals has in fact claimed the destruction of the dam could imply closing down the mine, putting in peril 5,465 jobs, 3,200 of which are held by workers from the Choapa province.

Doubts remain over the fate of Caimanes

In recent years, notorious mining projects have been suspended by Chile’s Supreme Court after they were found to endanger the environment and pollute water resources, including El Morro in Northern Chile and the controversial Pascua-Lama mine in the Andes, both owned by Canadian gold corporations.

Despite positive signs from Chile’s judiciary, as the case of Caimanes may demonstrate, the environmental damage imposed by certain mining projects can be irreversible.

The people of Caimanes have welcomed the destruction of the El Mauro dam as a triumph, but doubts remain over the potential ecological damage this may incur and whether demolishing such a large piece of infrastructure is even possible.

Built over 1.4km and more than 240m tall, El Mauro is a massive waste reservoir where the Pelambres mine dumps the remains from the mineral extraction process, a slurry mix of rocks and toxic substances. The question now is where will the waste be taken, if removing it is part of the plan at all?

“It’s very difficult to know where to dispose of this mineral waste. These types of works are done to be a definitive destination where all this waste will stay,” Jorge Nuñez, a researcher at The Water Center for Arid and Semi-Arid Zones in Latin America and the Caribbean (CAZALAC), told local media.

A permissive regime dating back to Pinochet’s dictatorship

Whether justice is done or not, the mismanagement of Chile’s water resources is structural and will persist as long as a permissive system established during Pinochet’s dictatorship remains unchanged.

According to Chile’s 1981 water code, the state can grant concessions free of charge and for perpetuity, as long as there is enough water in the river or ground. Those who are granted water rights are also not obliged to report how the water is being used, allowing them to sell their rights to companies without government oversight. This system has effectively enabled the privatization of water and the mismanagement that can ensue.

As part of her campaign promises, President Michelle Bachelet announced in August 2014 a set of measures the government would bring forward to reform this controversial system. Among the different proposals, the government has hinted it would like to enshrine the concept of water as a “national resource for public use” in the constitution. Bachelet’s proposal, however, remains extremely ambitious, as it is part of a contentious package of constitutional reform that is expected to face stiff opposition.