Chile pen­guins win bat­tle in war against mine

Hum­boldts thwart bil­lion-dol­lar project in one of the An­dean na­tion’s most de­pressed re­gions

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

They may be less than a me­tre tall but they have con­quered a Go­liath: Chile’s vul­ner­a­ble Hum­boldt pen­guins have thwarted — for now at least — a bil­lion-dol­lar min­ing project in one of the coun­try’s most de­pressed re­gions.

The rare species is only found on the coasts of Peru and Chile, which has cre­ated the Na­tional Hum­boldt Pen­guin Re­serve — but it’s also an area rich in nat­u­ral re­sources which has put the an­i­mals on a col­li­sion course with min­ing gi­ant An­des Iron and their US$2.5 bil­lion (83 bil­lion baht) project.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists jumped to their de­fence when the com­pany un­veiled plans to con­struct a huge open-cast mine and a port near the re­serve, 600 kilo­me­tres north of San­ti­ago.

The Dominga mine would have pro­duced 12 million tonnes of iron ore a year, mak­ing it the big­gest of its kind in the coun­try, and 150,000 tonnes of cop­per.

For months it made headlines amid a bit­ter na­tional de­bate over eco­nomic devel­op­ment and en­vi­ron­men­tal con­ser­va­tion that was fought out on so­cial me­dia and split the so­cial­ist gov­ern­ment of Chilean Pres­i­dent Michelle Bachelet.

The project was re­jected in March by an en­vi­ron­men­tal com­mis­sion but An­des Iron ap­pealed the rul­ing.

In Au­gust, a spe­cial cab­i­net com­mit­tee which in­cluded the en­ergy and mines, health and en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ters, fi­nally ve­toed the project cit­ing of a lack of guar­an­tees for the pen­guins.

The Hum­boldts have been pro­tected here since 1990, when the re­serve was set up to en­com­pass the is­lands of Dama, Choros and Gaviota, a stun­ning na­ture trail beloved of whale, sea-lion and pen­guin watch­ers.

Ro­drigo Flores, vice-pres­i­dent of the fish­er­man’s union in nearby Punta Choros, a jump­ing off point for tours of the is­lands, wel­comed the move.

“Dominga is an in­va­sive project, for na­ture and for so­ci­ety,” he said. “It is in­com­pat­i­ble with a place con­sid­ered a hotspot of bio­di­ver­sity at the global level.”

But that’s not ev­ery­one’s view. Joyce Aguirre is one of the project’s staunch de­fend­ers in the lo­cal com­mu­nity of La Higuera.

“Ev­ery project has an im­pact,” she said, ar­gu­ing that the gov­ern­ment had a duty to come down on the side of jobs.

“We want to be vig­i­lant and watch what’s go­ing to hap­pen. We are the ones who live here and we would never want to dam­age the area.”

The re­gion is among the most un­der­de­vel­oped in Chile and many lo­cals lament the loss of thou­sands of jobs promised un­der the plan.

Con­ser­va­tion NGO Oceana warned of the risks to the ecosys­tem from the mine, whose port ter­mi­nal was set to be built only 30km away from the is­land of Choros.

The con­ser­va­tion group ar­gued that in­creased ship­ping traf­fic, with its greater risk of oil spills, would do un­told harm to a known cetacean mi­grant route and pris­tine wa­ters that pro­vide a rich food source to sev­eral vul­ner­a­ble species in­clud­ing the sea ot­ter.

“I’ve been div­ing in other ar­eas and I’ve seen that residue from min­ing ac­tiv­ity is no­tice­able on the ocean bot­tom, killing all ex­ist­ing life,” said fish­er­man Mauri­cio Car­rasco. “That’s what we’re afraid of.”

In Punta Choros, 160 fam­i­lies in the fish­ing com­mu­nity play an of­fi­cial role in watch­ing over the pen­guin re­serve, which is home to 80% of the species.

Re­cent stud­ies have shown the wa­ter to be pris­tine, largely due to con­ser­va­tion ef­forts.

But the re­serve “is con­stantly un­der threat from megapro­jects”, warned Lil­iana Yanes, re­gional di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Forestry Of­fice in Co­quimbo.

French gi­ant Suez was forced to pull out of a project to build a power plant in Bar­ran­cones, near Choros, in 2010. The then­pres­i­dent Se­bas­tian Pin­era de­manded that the power plant be built else­where af­ter thou­sands of peo­ple protested.

Around 60km away in the town of La Ser­ena, part of the pop­u­la­tion has come out strongly against the U-turn on the Dominga project.

“We feel the dis­ap­point­ment, as Chileans, be­cause the gov­ern­ment is clip­ping our wings,” said Marta Aran­cibia, adding that the re­gion was one of the poor­est in Chile.

She is a mem­ber of a res­i­dents as­so­ci­a­tion that signed an agree­ment with An­des Iron, in which they promised to in­vest heav­ily in lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion, health­care and

potable wa­ter projects.

“The state hasn’t been present for us over the last 20 years, so we see these pri­vate en­ter­prise projects as op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Ms Aguirre, who also signed the agree­ment.

An­des Iron has sig­nalled its in­ten­tion to con­tinue the bat­tle in Chile’s en­vi­ron­men­tal court and if nec­es­sary, take it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Round one to the plucky pen­guins, though it seems the war has only started.

Hum­bolt pen­guins, a threat­ened species that only nests in Chile and Peru, stand on the rocks at Da­mas Is­land, in front of Punta Choros beach, Co­quimbo re­gion, about 500km north of San­ti­ago.

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