AFP, published on Monday, October 18, 2021 at 8:19 a.m.
Less known than the Galapagos (Ecuador) but rich in an equally unique ecosystem, the Humboldt archipelago, in northern Chile, is under threat from a controversial mining project: “environmental crime” for some, assurance of a “job” for others.
“The wealth we have may not be material, but it is in our archipelago, in the fact of navigating freely around our islands”, tells AFP Elias Barrera, 26, third generation of fishermen and divers in these dark waters of the South Pacific.
“Scientists around the world agree that there is no other place on the planet like this,” said Carlos Gaymer, marine biologist from the Catholic University of the North.
Partly visible from the Chilean coast, made up of eight islands, three of which are a protected nature reserve, the archipelago is a “treasure” of biodiversity, says the researcher.
Along with Humboldt penguins, an endangered species that breeds only in Chile and Peru, the archipelago is home to chungungos, the world’s smallest endangered otter, and hundreds of sea lions and bottlenose dolphins that swim in them. among algae and schools of fish.
Its waters attract thousands of birds, which take flight when whales – up to 14 different species – come up from the depths to breathe.
– “A disco in a maternity ward” –
But this natural wealth is threatened by the “Minera Dominga” project, an open pit mining operation for copper and iron located in the Coquimbo region, 530 km north of Santiago.
Some 2.5 billion dollars of investment are planned, indicates on its website Andes Iron, which owns the concession and did not wish to respond to AFP’s requests.
The complex would include the construction of a desalination plant and an ore loading port at Totoralillo, just 30 km from the archipelago.
The construction of this port, essential to the profitability of the project, is the main point of disagreement with the defenders of the environment, endangering, according to them, the marine and terrestrial ecosystems of the archipelago.
It is “the destruction of our ancestral culture, that of the Chango people who have predominated for more than 10,000 years in these territories, living in a sustainable way with the environment”, deplores Elias Barrera, in reference to this people of northern Chile.
For the director of Greenpeace Chile, Matias Asun, it would be a “real environmental crime”. “Carrying out a mining project there, even the best project that can be, is like setting up a discotheque in a maternity hospital,” he said.
In addition to the marine fauna, the surroundings of the site are home to guanacos, desert foxes and colonies of large and endangered Tricahue parrots.
– “Great opportunity” –
The 22-year operation foresees an annual production of 12 million tonnes of iron and 150,000 tonnes of copper. Andes Iron promises to create 10,000 direct and 25,000 indirect jobs during the construction phase and 1,500 direct and 4,000 indirect jobs during operation.
In early August, an environmental assessment commission approved the project despite protests. Appeals have been lodged with the Supreme Court.
“This is a great opportunity (…) beyond the impact that it can have on the environment, because any project has an impact”, told AFP Yerko Galleguillos, the mayor of La Higuera, village of 4,000 inhabitants, located not far from the site.
Without drinking water, a sanitation network or a supermarket, in La Higuera all are hoping that the mining project will bring economic prosperity to this desert area.
“There are a lot of people who go looking for work elsewhere, who leave their families. If Dominga arrives, there will be work for everyone,” said Johanna Yvonne Villalobos, a 47-year-old housewife.
For biologist Cristina Dorador, member of the Assembly responsible for drafting a new Constitution, Chile’s development model, based on the exploitation of raw materials to the detriment of nature, must change.
The end of “sacrificed areas”, these natural spaces where mining takes precedence over the defense of the environment, was also a demand of the demonstrators during the social protest at the end of 2019.
“We must develop alternatives (…) so that Chile becomes a knowledge society and does not depend on foreign markets and demand for minerals,” said the biologist.
This project is all the more controversial as it is now tainted with suspicions of corruption directly implicating the Head of State, Sebastian Piñera (2010-2014, re-elected in 2017), the subject of an investigation and under threat. of an impeachment procedure launched by the opposition.
In question, the sale in 2010 of Minera Dominga by a company belonging to his children to one of his relatives, whose family is a shareholder of Andes Iron. However, this sale had one condition: that no natural protection zone be declared on the site of the mining project.