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Chile fishers brace for fallout after massive mining port is approved

  • The iron ore export terminal was approved for an area rich in marine resources that artisanal fishing communities rely on, and is just 29 kilometers (18 miles) from the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve and the Choros and Damas Islands Marine Reserve.
  • The project’s approval went practically unnoticed at a time when attention was focused on a debate over the planned construction of another mining port, Dominga, just 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the south.
  • Once completed, the Cruz Grande port will serve 75 ships a year carrying away 13.5 million tons of iron ore — less than 300 meters (1,000 feet) from fishing sites that hundreds of families rely on for their incomes.
  • This section of the coast is an important whale migration corridor and is also home to 122 species of birds, among them the Humboldt penguin. Chile’s only colony of bottlenose dolphins also lives there, as do 68 species of fish and 180 species of microalgae and invertebrates.

LA HIGUERA, Chile — On Jan. 30, 2015, the Chilean environmental agency granted permission for the construction and operation of the Cruz Grande port in La Higuera, a community in northern Chile’s Coquimbo region. The port, built to handle 13.5 million tons of iron per year in 75 shipments, lies just 29 kilometers (18 miles) from the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve and the Choros and Damas Islands Marine Reserve.

The Cruz Grande project is owned by an affiliate of the Compañía de Acero del Pacífico (CAP), the main iron mining and steel production group in Chile and the biggest on the western coast of the Americas. The project’s approval went practically unnoticed at a time when attention was focused on the construction of the nearby Dominga mining project and port, owned by the Chilean company Andes Iron SpA and with ties to President Sebastián Piñera’s private businesses.

Massive protests against the Dominga project were organized in a bid to stop what many people feared would lead to irreversible impacts on one of the Pacific coast’s most important marine reserves. Yet the Cruz Grande project, located just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Dominga, obtained its environmental license without drawing much attention. It’s also even closer to the natural protected areas than Dominga, with higher projected port traffic and shipment volumes.

Rich marine resources

Chungungo, the inlet closest to the under-construction mining port, yields some 200,000 tons of abalone and 300,000 tons of clams for local shellfish divers. “Who can tell us that we aren’t productive?” says Luis Castro, president of an organization of traditional fishers who work in the inlet.

A fisherman harvesting clams in La Higuera. Image © Eduardo Sorensen/Oceana.

There’s no pier in Chungungo; the land where one can be built is owned by CAP. “They’ve spent years telling us that the land will be sold to the state so that we can have a pier. But I have gone to [the Ministry of] National Assets and there is nothing. They have been lying to us all this time,” Castro said. The fishers are skeptical of anything CAP tells them, and they don’t believe in its good intentions — manifested in things like a gift basket during the national Native Land holidays, every Sept. 18, filled with “a piece of beef, a piece of pork, a piece of chicken, a drink, and a can of peaches,” Castro said.

For Castro, the Cruz Grande port could be the end of life as he knows it. “We have lived all our lives alongside the sea, and if they contaminate it, we’re going to have to leave,” he said.

The environmental impact study commissioned by the company says otherwise. It identifies six sites classified as sustainable fishing areas close to the project location, but says they won’t be affected by the port’s operation. These sites, known by their Spanish acronym AMERBs, are marine areas assigned exclusively to traditional fisher organizations for the sustainable and managed extraction of seabed, or benthic, resources. The fishers’ main harvest in and around Chungungo include abalone, clams, limpets and algae.

The coastline of La Higuera in northern Chile. Image by la jotita via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The AMERBs in La Higuera are among the most productive in all of northern Chile, accounting for a fifth of all clams harvested in Chile, and four-fifths of the Coquimbo region’s clams.

The area includes two upwelling zones, where cold, nutrient-rich water from the ocean’s depths rises to the surface, dispersing the nutrients in the surface waters. This oceanic phenomenon, which also occurs along the southern and northwestern coasts of Africa, the western United States, and off Chile and Peru, allows for extraordinary marine biodiversity as species from the length of the food chain come to the surface to feed. Extremely high levels of krill and anchovies, both essential food sources for marine birds and mammals, are found there. This also makes this stretch of the coast an important whale migration corridor. The region is home to 122 bird species, including the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), as well as Chile’s only colony of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops spp.), 68 species of fish and 180 species of microalgae and invertebrates — part of some 560 marine species that live in the area.

This extraordinary abundance of marine life has made it so that 60 percent of the coast from Punta Poroto in the south to Punta Pájaros in the north constitute AMERBs, providing the main economic activities for coastal communities.

The Chungungo inlet alone holds eight AMERBs, three of which will be within just 300 meters (1,000 feet) of the future Cruz Grande port. CAP says the project will have no impact on the productivity of the marine and fishing industries in the area, but scientists say they have evidence to the contrary.

Spills and invasions

Freight ships weighing up to 300,000 tons will be able to dock at the $250 million Cruz Grande port, which will have a handling capacity of 13.5 million tons of iron ore a year. The ore will come from CAP’s own mines, as well as those run by other companies.

Map of the planned Cruz Grande and Dominga mining port projects near the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. Image © Oceana Chile.

According to CAP, the Cruz Grande port project’s area of influence “is limited to the maneuvering area of the ships inside the port — specifically the part of the coast located in front of the Chungungo inlet — and also the approximate maneuvering area of the ships as they approach the port.”

During the environmental evaluation of the Cruz Grande project, the Chilean National Fisheries Service (SERNAPESCA) noted that this area of influence “does not consider the risks to the activity nor the circumstances of being located immediately adjacent to six AMERBs.” In each addendum to the environmental impact study, CAP said the project “will not modify the productivity of the area given its limited geographic range” and that its operations “will not generate significant effects, since they do not entail any type of draining (of liquid or solids) into the marine area.”

Even so, the company recognizes that the main threats to the area are potential oil spills, iron ore spills, and the introduction of invasive marine species.

Dolphins off Isla Choros. Image by Elias Rovielo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

According to CAP, there’s only a small risk of an iron ore spill into the sea because “it could only happen if there were a rupture in the conveyor belt protection system, which is between the storage areas and the holds of the ship, or if the telescopic sleeves fail.” The company has considered the possibility of a spill of up to 45 tons of ore, which it says would “cause the benthic communities to suffocate if the material is not removed rapidly.”

In the event of an oil spill, it says, “The macrobenthic communities of plankton, fish, birds and mammals could be affected.” If such a spill were to occur, the oil would remain within the port’s area of influence after six hours, according to CAP’s own research. The company says it will have a contingency plan to deal with emergencies quickly; there will also be a plan to rescue, rehabilitate and release any wildlife affected by a potential spill.

The problem, according to Javiera Calisto, a legal expert and marine pollution campaign manager for the NGO Oceana Chile, is that “our environmental evaluation system does not take into account the development of studies by the state that could counteract the information submitted by the companies.” In other words, there’s no information that proves, or disproves, that any potential oil spill would behave in the way CAP predicts.

Southern American sea lion in Isla Choros. Image by Elias Rovielo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Then there’s the potential for invasive species to be introduced into this delicate ecosystem. Massive oceangoing freighters carry thousands of gallons of ballast water to distribute their weight evenly. This water often contains marine species from where the water was taken on, and these are then transported to the ports along the ship’s route, often colonizing new habitats. Sometimes these species are imperceptible to the human eye, but can have a ripple effect on the ecosystems in which they’re introduced because of a potential lack of predators.

Abalone, the main catch of the local fishers, could be affected by introduced species, according to Sergio Cortés, a marine biologist and aquaculture inspector with the National Fisheries Service. The millions of larvae produced during the abalone reproductive phase need to swim for about three months before finding a place to grow. This stage, known as larval drift, ends when the larvae settle in intertidal algae in the transition area between the sea and land. There, they feed until they grow larger and become carnivores. At that point, they rise toward the water’s surface to begin feeding on other marine animal species.

“The introduction of invasive species from ballast water represents one of the greatest threats to larval drift in terms of competition for food and space, predation, and sanitary conditions,” Cortés said. Essentially, it’s possible that the larval abalone and other native species could be hit by diseases brought by the invasive species.

To reduce these risks, CAP has proposed that the ships visiting its port should change their ballast water outside Chilean maritime territory, and also monitor the water to detect any invasive species early on. “In the case that they were to be detected, a contingency plan would be activated. It would involve the recruitment of an academic entity to do the necessary studies. We would also generate a management plan, or containment plan, specifically for that species,” the company said.

A Humboldt penguin. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

But these measures won’t eliminate the risk entirely, says the National Fisheries Service. In fact, 38 percent of exotic invasive species detected in Chilean waters were introduced by transoceanic cargo ships, according to data from the country’s shipping regulator.

Despite the fact that the scientific community, civil society and some government officials consider the Cruz Grande port’s predicted area of influence “deficient,” the project still received its environmental permit. According to the National Forest Corporation, which opposes the project, the problem is that “without adequate information, there is no design for repair, mitigation and compensation that could take responsibility for the true scope of the project.” Oceana’s Calisto says the project was pushed through “without citizen consideration and participation,” hence the lack of strong oversight for the environmental impact studies and the weak mitigation and compensation measures. All these issues prompted legal challenges against the Cruz Grande port project. But in April 2018, Chile’s Supreme Court finally gave the project the green light.

Óscar Avilés, president of the traditional fishers’ association in the Punta de Choros inlet, near Chungungo, says he still doesn’t know how the project got approved. “We didn’t even realize it,” he said, then after a pause: “It’s that Dominga’s impact was larger. Cruz Grande, on the other hand, did the work quietly.”

Calisto agrees, saying that “press coverage made a very big difference between one project and the other.”

The date for construction of the Cruz Grande port to begin has not been set yet. For Oceana, the fear is that once it starts, the AMERBs, the sustainable fishing sites, will be compromised.

“By damaging the biological productivity of the AMERBs, [the Cruz Grande project] would be working against the fishing community’s administration model, which has been able to contribute to the conservation of benthic resources and to the economic sustainability of traditional fishing activity,” the NGO said.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published here in Spanish at the Latam site on Oct. 23, 2018.

Banner image of sea lions in Isla Choros, Chile. Image by Elías Rovielo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).