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In Chile, a prickly coalition tries to bring a salt flat back to life

  • Indigenous communities, environmental activists and a mining company have agreed on a set of measures to try to save the Salar de Punta Negra salt flat in northern Chile.
  • Communities say the extraction of groundwater by copper miner Minera Escondida has drained the salt lake and caused irreparable environmental harm.
  • Under a court-mediated settlement, all sides have agreed to a series of scientific studies to help identify the cause of the problem and options for addressing it.
  • Not everyone is happy about the agreement, however, with some criticizing the meager budget allocation for carrying out the studies compared to the much larger funding for publishing the results.

Over the past 27 years, mining for copper by Minera Escondida, a company co-owned by Anglo-Australian mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto, has resulted in a dramatic reduction of water levels in the Punta Negra salt flat in northern Chile, according to public defenders and Indigenous groups.

Extraction of water for the company’s mining operations in the middle of the Atacama Desert, already one of the driest places on Earth, caused the surrounding wetlands and vegetation to dry out, according to a lawsuit filed by the Chilean State Defense Council before an environmental court. It added that much of the wildlife native to the region disappeared due to habitat loss, and that the ecosystem was lost “beyond repair.”

In early June 2021, the court announced that the parties in the case — Minera Escondida, on one hand, and the local Indigenous communities and the State Defense Council, on the other — had reached an unprecedented settlement. It includes 19 measures to try to repair and compensate for the damages.

The salt pan of Salar de Punta Negra. Image by Francisco Mundaca.

“This is the result of joint work marked by dialogue and a strong commitment to the sustainability of the Punta Negra salt flat,” said Cristóbal Marshall, Minera Escondida’s vice president of corporate affairs. He added that “now it is time for the implementation of an environmental plan to support sustainability in the Salar [salt flat] de Punta Negra.”

“We have hope that the salt flat can recover so that we can keep living off this land,” said Amanda Barrera, president of the Peine Indigenous community, the closest community to Punta Negra.

But for the ecosystem to recover, a fundamental question that Indigenous communities have been asking for years needs to be answered: What is the real state of the salt flat?

“It’s what we intend to achieve now with this settlement,” Barrera said. “We want the studies to take place and say if we can recover it effectively. Or maybe the studies can determine that there is no way it can be recovered.”

Damage to the salt flat

Some communities, like the Atacameños and Licakan-antay (“inhabitants of the territory” in the local Kunza language), used to graze their livestock on the fringes of the Punta Negra salt flat because “there was an abundance of water,” said Francisco Mundaca, an environmental civil engineer who specializes in hydrogeology. Mundaca said he has never seen the salt flat in any kind of “healthy” condition; neither has Barrera. But the Indigenous elders talk about it. Some were part of that last generation of Licakan-antay who grazed their animals on the trails that today are historic remnants of that Indigenous culture. On these trails, the animals used to drink from the natural watering holes that don’t exist anymore. And men and women harvested flamingo eggs to eat them “with unique respect,” Barrera said, because “they took only the necessary amount to divide among the village residents.”

Flamingos have long been an important part of the local culture, such that their feathers are still used in some ceremonies. But most of the flamingos have left Punta Negra. Today “there are less than half,” according to Barrera, and although “there was work for a period of time to create artificial nests to enable reproduction, it wasn’t very successful.”

“The damage is in plain sight,” she said. “You don’t see any vegetation.” The lawsuit filed by the State Defense Council said the extraction of groundwater by Minera Escondida was the only form of human disturbance in the basin that could have drained the groundwater, and that, therefore, it’s safe to say that this was the activity that caused the system to dry out.

Satellite image of the Punta Negra salt flat in 1988, showing a long stretch of water. Image courtesy of Francisco Mundaca.
Satellite image of the Punta Negra salt flat after 10 years of freshwater extraction. Image courtesy of Francisco Mundaca.

While the lawsuit described the damage caused as “ongoing, permanent, cumulative and irreparable,” the 19-point settlement will still try to rescue the Salar de Punta Negra ecosystem, at least partially. “If we don’t make a big enough effort to recover life in the salt flat, the judgment won’t have much impact,” said Sergio Chamorro, a lawyer with the Council of Atacameño Peoples, which includes representatives from 18 of the Indigenous communities in the area. “It will only be a document stating certainties that the communities keep repeating.”

Settlement measures

The environmental court proposed the measures that were then discussed and adjusted by the communities in long assembly sessions, Chamorro said.

These measures, according to the agreement, will start with a roundtable for socioenvironmental governance, featuring representatives from the Peine community, the Council of Atacameño Peoples, the State Defense Council, and Minera Escondida. The roundtable will help ensure the plan is developed as agreed by all parties.

Then, a series of studies will assess the current state of the salt flat. These will include an environmental forensics study that will try to establish the cause of the system’s deterioration and who is responsible for it. Other studies will include a hydrogeographic analysis of the state of the aquifer, studies of key species, habitat and soil composition, and a biodiversity inventory of land and water, including the microorganisms that contribute to life in the ecosystem.

Salt flats where mining activity occurs. Image courtesy of the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture.

The ponds in salt flats are a habitat for microbial mats, made up of microalgae and bacteria. Cristina Dorador, an expert in salt flat microbiology, told Mongabay Latam that if the ponds dry out, the microbial mats lose their complexity and diversity, and in the long term that can lead to the decline of other organisms, like flamingos, that feed on them. “That’s why a large part of the measures is focused on studying how to protect these microorganisms and how we are going to multiply them to ensure the survival of flamingos in the future,” Barrera said.

One of the key measures in the agreement is to find out whether Salar de Punta Negra will ever go back to what it was, by adding water to accelerate the natural recovery of the aquifer. This calls for looking for water outside the territory, or in neighboring sub-basins, or through other options that arise from the roundtable’s research, such as rainwater or previously treated gray water. In any case, the water would need to be treated to the same quality as the water that emanates naturally from the salt flat, according to the agreement. “We need to find alternatives to determine which [option] is the one that should be applied,” Chamorro said.

Once a source of water is found and the water is pumped into the ecosystem, lab studies will assess the impact on microbial mats. If everything goes well, the soil will be irrigated in a pilot project to verify the suitability of this water, and as a last step, the process of gradually reinjecting it in the salt flat will be escalated.

Flamingos flying over the Surire salt flat. Image by Rodrigo Ordenes via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Minera Escondida is already pumping a steady stream of water, at 20 liters (5 gallons) per second, to the salt flat. But there have been no studies to establish whether this is contributing to the recovery of the salt flat, Barrera said. Mundaca, the hydrogeologist, who is also in charge of the Council of Atacameño Peoples’ Environmental Unit — a team of professionals and environmental monitors from the communities who conduct monitoring independent from that of the companies — said this irrigation only tries to serve the biggest animals, like the few flamingos that are left and the vicuñas that cross the area. “But you don’t see insects, you don’t see any other species like frogs that used to exist [here], chinchillas, native rodents, that live on the edges of all salt flats.”

The objective under the new agreement is that studies should be done to determine if injecting water is the way to go.

Chamorro acknowledged the apparent contradiction in insisting on the option of “irrigating” the salt flat when the measure hasn’t shown any results yet. But, he said, “all measures need to move forward together.”

“[Injecting water] shouldn’t be seen as an isolated action but as part of the set,” he said. “This means that it is necessary to gather information about the ecosystem, the current conditions of the salt flat and then find alternatives to recover some its ecosystem functions.”

The agreement also calls for identifying one or more Andean wetlands with key characteristics similar to those of Punta Negra, and developing there a conservation plan that includes, for example, the recovery of degraded areas and the elimination of current threats.

Salar de Punta Negra. Image by mapio.net.

Other measures being considered include removing the industrial infrastructure for extracting and transporting water; rehabilitating herding paths; and transferring all water use rights to the Ministry of Environment.

All the measures will appear in a management plan that will be developed by independent third parties together with the roundtable for governance. The plan will serve to ensure that all measures are applied over the long term.

Budget allocations

The implementation of the settlement agreement will cost at least $81 million and could go as high as $93 million. But some members of the communities have expressed dissatisfaction with the way in which the money will be used.

The detailed budget indicates that $1.98 million will be used to disseminate the results of the measures once they’ve been implemented. However, certain elements linked to the scientific analysis have a considerably smaller allocation. The environmental forensics study, for example, will be carried out for just $100,000. The money allocated to establish the baseline that will detail the physical, aquatic and terrestrial components of the ecosystem is $352,000.

“Why are we spending so much money on dissemination if the important thing is to recover the salt flat and finding out what happened?” Mundaca said. “These funds are going to go to greenwashing the company.” He added he was not fully in favor of the court-ordered settlement.

Experts in ecologic restoration say there need to be more details about what questions each of the studies is trying to answer, in order to allocate resources effectively.

Chamorro said these are reference amounts and not the final ones, reiterating that “all measures are linked and cannot be observed individually.”

Mongabay Latam tried to contact Minera Escondida for clarity on the budget details but didn’t receive an answer.

Chamorro said “it will take at least 12 years to start generating projections about the salt flat.” That’s how long it will take before the local communities finally know whether there’s hope for Salar de Punta Negra.

 
Banner image of environmental inspectors from the Council of Atacameño Peoples carrying out monitoring. Image by Francisco Mundaca.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on June 28, 2021.