Plans are advancing in Chile to dig what might become the biggest hole in the world – a title currently claimed by the Chuquicamata copper mine, 1,000 kilometres to the north in the Atacama Desert.
Critics say that the proposed mining ‘mega project’ threatens to destroy the Humboldt Penguin National Park, the Isla Damas Marine Reserve and the semi-desert coastal ecosystem of Los Choros, 70 kilometres north of the city of La Serena.
The Dominga project comprises in all some 23,000 hectares of consolidated claims to proven iron-ore (and some copper) deposits. A new port at Totoralillo Norte would be capable of shipping millions of tons of ore every year. Two enormous open-cast pits would create a giant mound of toxic tailings.
Dominga has been owned since 2011 by Andes Iron, a consortium of super-rich Chilean financiers previously more familiar with vineyards, real estate and private healthcare, who say they plan to invest $2.5 billion in the project.
However, between 2002 and 2011 the mine passed through the hands of six speculative ventures, one of which went bankrupt as a result. There are few obvious reasons to believe that Andes Iron is not the next one. Uncertainty currently prevails about the demand for steel in China – and therefore the potential profitability of the Dominga project.
Andes Iron says it will supply all its own insatiable demand for fresh water from a sea-water desalination plant, without affecting scarce supplies to local communities. Critics say that Andes Iron's own plans, as well as an Environmental Impact Assessment, reveal that ‘temporary’ disruption is inevitable. Andes says that there will be little or no pollution; critics that acids will leach into the aquifer and particulates will contaminate the air. Andes says it will create 4,000 jobs; critics that few will go to local people. Andes claims it will protect the marine environment; critics that the migration routes of Blue and Fin whales, and the very existence of the protected Humboldt penguin, will be endangered by the new port.
In common with mining mega-projects around the world, Andes Iron may well be counting on the likelihood that by the time the critics have been proved right (as they invariably are) it will be too late – and Andes itself may have sold the project on for a mega-profit. The company points to its restoration of a ‘heritage’ grocer’s shop in an impoverished local town as ample evidence of what it has already been doing to improve an enthusiastic local population.
Very active local community and environmental groups accuse Andes Iron of lying. They have published a reasoned statement of opposition to the Dominga project – having already seen off attempts in 2010 to build a large power station at nearby Barrancones.
Meanwhile, they are establishing a ‘sustainable’ local economy. This relies on rich artisanal inshore fishing, agriculture (especially olive oil) and tourism – all threatened with destruction by the Dominga mine. The fishing boats that take metropolitan Chilean tourists to the island reserves are collecting thousands of signatures on a petition against the mine. The boats fly banners of resistance: ‘Yes to life! No to the mine!’
And abundant life there still is in the arid lands of Los Choros. Scrub and cactus filter Pacific mists for water. Desert foxes and hawks take bread from camera-happy tourists from time to time. But guanacos do not. Close relatives of vicuñas and alpacas, these graceful animals have finer hair than their more renowned cousins, yet they have never been successfully domesticated for commercial exploitation. They invariably die of stress in captivity.
The price of life may not be quite so high for the people of Los Choros, but they evidently believe it's worth paying.
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Periodismo Internacional Alternativo (PIA)