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Chile’s denial of Dominga port project is a just energy transition victory and lesson (commentary)

  • Last week, Chile rejected the Dominga copper and iron mining project and its port, proposed for a location near the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve.
  • Dominga’s estimated 20 to 30 years of operation would have jeopardized a marine biodiversity hotspot, along with human livelihoods and communities’ access to basic resources.
  • “Dominga’s rejection is a victory for environmental justice and a lesson about the underlying tensions in the energy transition,” writes the author of a new op-ed.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Imagine having to choose between having water or a mining project in your backyard. Or between having a job or polluting your community. What would you choose? This dichotomy is the choice that the people of La Higuera in northern Chile were proposed by Dominga’s project developers. However, this false framing – which is faced an innumerable number of times by communities around the globe – hides the fact that the people of La Higuera (and the world) should not have to choose between prosperity and healthy ecosystems; we can have – and deserve – both.

Moving away from our current environmental and climate crises means moving beyond a trade-off between caring for our planet and caring for ourselves. The failure to recognize this interdependence brought us here in the first place.

Last Wednesday, January 18, the Chilean committee of ministers rejected the port and mining project “Dominga.” Despite the fact that project representatives will appeal the decision in Chilean environmental courts, this is a strong signal against a project that exemplifies the tensions of the energy transition. The project jeopardized the livelihood of local communities, many of them Indigenous, and marine ecosystems surrounding the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, a global biodiversity hotspot.

Valued at $2.5 billion, Dominga consists of an iron and copper open-pit mine, a port for mineral exports, and a water desalination plant. Its history has been rife with controversy, from putting mining and fishing interest at odds to two rejections by environmental authorities, and a Supreme Court case. It even involved Chile’s former president, Sebastián Piñera, who dodged impeachment charges due to financial conflicts of interest regarding the project.

A mural protesting Dominga, the proposed mining and port project. Image by telly gacitua via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Dominga’s rejection is a victory for environmental justice and a lesson about the underlying tensions in the energy transition. It shows that the only way to move forward with a just transition is through community participation and a focus on environmental justice. Without these, we face future conflicts in the places that hold the minerals needed for clean energy and the communities that call those places home. This implies moving beyond the outdated dichotomy between development and healthy environments.

Project opponents and the environment scored this time, but the world still needs copper and iron, two minerals Dominga would have provided. The case is the epitome of the tension between environmental justice and the growing mineral demand for the energy transition.

Can we reconcile this? A community-centered approach offers an alternative. New ways of managing materials and minerals might even eliminate the tension. Policy and international cooperation are needed to support this new thinking.

However, it is a fact that the world needs an increased supply of critical minerals to enable the energy transition. Clean energy technologies, from electric vehicles to solar panels, are more mineral intensive than fossil fuel-dependent alternatives. With current climate policies, total mineral demand will double by 2040 and might increase as climate targets become more ambitious. Trying to obtain those minerals disregarding communities’ rights will not only delay and possibly stop projects that can mine them, but would be the exact opposite of the just transition the minerals are supposed to enable.

See background: Chile port project nears approval despite scientific opposition

Map of the proposed Dominga mine and port project near the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. Image courtesy of Oceana Chile.

Unfortunately, there already are environmental justice fights taking place for every critical mineral. Lithium, necessary for batteries – and thus for electric vehicles and storage – will be demanded 42 times more in 2040 than in 2020. Communities in Chile are already fighting the projects that mine the “white gold.” Demand for cobalt, another critical mineral for batteries, will increase 20 times and is already facing controversies regarding working conditions and human rights in the DRC. The need for nickel will grow 20 times, and communities in Indonesia are already seeing the consequences. Copper, the same mineral that Dominga would have supplied, is in the spotlight with Native American tribes, particularly the Western Apaches, fighting for their sacred land of Chíchʼil Bił Dagoteel, or Oak Flat, Arizona. Can we call this a just transition if it involves the sacrifice of these communities?

The need for minerals and solving climate change is so urgent that we should have an “all hands on deck” approach. However, this framing can become a Machiavellian slippery slope that justifies more mineral mining without adequately accounting for its impacts. It can be used to justify short-term mining projects – like Dominga – at risk of losing ecosystems that have thrived since time immemorial.

In a notable mismatch of timeframes, Dominga’s 20 to 30 years of operation jeopardized an ecosystem existing for millennia. By definition, the just transition must be equitable, redressing past harms and creating new power relationships for the future through reparations. Suppose mining projects are either not done because of environmental justice concerns, or are done putting the burden on communities. If the energy transition process is not just, the outcome will never be, or might never happen.

Better mechanisms involve re-imagining how we approach community engagement and rethinking materials management.

We need new governance systems where decentralized and local decision-making plays a more critical role in project development and regional planning. Indeed, a recent report on Latin America’s Just Transition argues that communities historically left out of the conversation should have direct participation in climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Doing so involves decision-making systems where all relevant stakeholders – including Indigenous groups, workers, families, and government – come together to co-create a purpose for the territory.

It implies strategically planning what sectors should and should not be developed and under what conditions they should occur. Investors and project developers would also benefit from improved territorial planning since it would provide clarity regarding environmental safeguards, and potentially avoid conflicts like those Dominga is facing.

Sea lions at Isla Choros, part of another nearby marine reserve. Photo by Elias Rovielo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

It is crucial to recognize that proper planning can prevent environmental and social interests from being set against each other in the first place. Many who favor projects like Dominga do so because they genuinely and understandably want the prospects for better livelihoods that these initiatives bring forward. Recognizing that La Higuera still needs opportunities, the Chilean government accompanied Dominga’s rejection with the announcement of close to $700 million for local development projects in the region.

Fundamentally, we also need to question our approach to materials. Is lithium being used in electric vehicles that would not be necessary if alternatives like public transit and walkable cities were incentivized more? Are we prolonging the linear economy mindset that causes so many pollution and waste problems, when we could be dramatically re-imagining mineral recycling so that no, or much less, new mining is needed? Answering these questions with a just transition and environmental justice perspective is critical to truly moving beyond the ecological crisis and not creating a worse cure than the disease.

Finally, even though each of these issues plays out locally, they are deeply interconnected with global policies and supply chains. Recent regulations, such as the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., have clearly shown how minerals are a new hotspot for geopolitics. As such, there needs to be international policy support so that impacts are not leaked to places with less regulation and communities with less capacity to organize.

Humboldt penguins. Image by Víctor Bautista via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Leakage has already happened with carbon emissions and has sparked debate about the consequences of carbon adjustment taxes. Latin America and the Caribbean countries signed the Escazú agreement to promote access to information, public participation, and environmental justice. Further commitments from the international community, including the mining industry and trade organizations, must be put in place to ensure that critical minerals do not become “green conflict minerals.”

Many in La Higuera and advocates for marine conservation can celebrate that Dominga will not see the light of day. But if we don’t learn from these lessons and change how we approach minerals and infrastructure projects, the pressure will continue until the industry finds the path of least resistance. A laissez-faire approach to critical minerals leaves a terrain ripe for false dichotomies and transitions that won’t be just. Dominga’s owners went so far as to offer free access to water – a human right – in exchange for community support.

This is a false choice between thirst or opportunities so that the world can fulfill its appetite for copper and iron. Both of them are much needed to decarbonize our economy. We deserve better options if we want a just transition out of the environmental crisis. Better decision-making processes, rethinking our use of materials, and international coordination can create them.

 

Daniel Gajardo is an interdisciplinary environmentalist from Santiago, Chile, the co-founder of Engineers Without Borders Chile, and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University, where he is pursuing a MA in International Policy and a MSc in Environment & Resources.

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