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Environmental issues mobilize thousands
Maxine Lowy
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Residents in country’s diverse geographic regions unite to protest environmental damage.

Chile’s vast geographic diversity is said to mark personality differences characteristic of each region. However, on July 9, geography united 15,000 Chileans in 20 cities throughout the country, in one of the first nationwide protests against the devastating practices that impact the environment, diminishing quality of life.

Although 70 percent of Chile’s economic development model is rooted in the exploitation of natural resources, environmental damage has not historically been a major cause for public demonstration.

In the 15 years since the fall of the dictatorship (1973-1990), Chileans have demonstrated extensively for human rights and union issues, but not with the same force for environmental issues. Simultaneous demonstrations were carried out in the capital, Santiago, as far north as Arica, and as far south as the lake district city of Puerto Montt, illustrating a growing public awareness of how environmental degradation affects daily lives.

Multinational companies investing in natural resources extraction projects generate high expectations in communities with rampant poverty and unemployment. The population often becomes divided between those who see the project as immediate relief to their economic hardship and those who fear having to pay an exceedingly high price in terms of health and safety in the long run.

The Pascua Lama case

Pascua Lama, a project of the Canadian firm Barrick Gold, the world’s third largest gold producer, in the northern province of Huasco in Region III, has created such a rift. Barrick Gold expects the Pascua Lama mine to yield an average of 750,000 ounces of gold and 30 million ounces of silver during the first 10 years of production. The company already exploits 80 percent of the deposits that lie beneath three glaciers, the source of water basins that hydrate the fertile Huasco Valley, home to 70,000 Chileans.

Based on the current price of gold, the company estimates that it will amass US$7 billion in profits over 17 years of operation from gold extraction along, according to a mining industry bulletin.

But in order to achieve this lofty goal, Barrick Gold needs to expand by 20 percent. The company intends accomplish this through a "glacial management plan", which would imply moving the glaciers, something that has not been attempted anywhere else in the world. As a result, acid waters would flow down into the rivers that are born at the mountain summit, posing a threat to agriculture, the valley’s residents’ principal livelihood.

Few jobs

Pascua Lama has posed itself as a panacea for the chronic unemployment that affects Chile’s Region III. However, environmentalists warn that the promised jobs would translate to 3,000 positions during the construction phase, but of the 1,000 jobs that will be generated during the operational phase, only an estimated 40 positions will be filled by local residents. The remaining jobs require highly skilled personnel, who will be hired from larger urban areas.

"Agriculture, the activity most threatened by the Pascua Lama’s construction, accounts for 8,000 jobs," said Patricio López, a national coordinator of the environmental demonstrations and public affairs director for the Oceana Foundation. "You have to consider how many jobs Pascua Lama will create and how many it will destroy. Pascua Lama will destroy the environment, will not pay taxes, and will earn millions in profits," López said.

The National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) decision on the Pascua Lama expansion is expected in mid-September.

Approximately 300 kilometers (185 miles) to the south, the Los Pelambres Mine extracts copper, silver and gold deposits in Chile’s Region IV. In operation since 2000, Los Pelambres is an enterprise of the Luksic economic group, responsible for severe environmental damage in Peru caused by the Luccheti plant.

During the mining process unusable waste products such as mixtures of arsenic, cadmium, lead and sulfur are separated from the metal ore. These mixtures are released into the air in the form of dust particles, and into water that is channeled into tanks.

Despite assurances from the company and the Chilean government that the tanks present no risk, residents’ fears were confirmed in June 2002 when heavy rainstorms caused the tank to overflow cooper concentrates into the area’s rivers.

Rampant mismanagement

This past May, the Chilean economy minister presented Las Pelambres with the National Management Quality Award in recognition of "exemplary management practices." Just one month later, archeologists discovered that in the course of building a new tank, the company had bulldozed ancient Inca and Diaguite sites dating back 2000 years, adding the destruction of a national landmark to its dismal environmental track record.

Further south in Valdivia in Region X is the cellulose pulping plant Celulosa Arauco y Constitución (Celco), six months after the plant opened in February 2004, black-necked swans and other fauna in the Carlos Andwanter Wildlife Sanctuary began to die off.

While each community is beset by specific environmental conflicts, they share similar characteristics. According to López, what happened at Celco and Pascua Lama exemplify "an improper relationship between investment projects and political officials, an inoperable environmental protection structure, and citizens who denounce the situation to no avail."

Alvaro Ramis represents the interfaith Ecumenical Center Diego of Medellin, which was a co-convener of the environmental demonstrations as well as the Chilean Social Forum last year. Ramis signals the Social Forum as the venue that "permitted socialization of environmental conflicts that are hidden and rarely visible in the press."

López agrees. "Until about five years ago, environmental issues were commonly viewed as something like a tribe of ecologists who keep to their own little niche," he said. However, he noted that environmental issues have become a vantage point from which to question the prevailing economic model of Chile. He then added, "We are pleased that the demonstrations reflected this way of seeing things, and that people are beginning to grasp the connection."


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