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Chile government faces backlash after U-turn on copper mine

ErwinWoenckhaus, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

  • In April 2023, Chile’s government approved the extension of Los Bronces, a major copper mine near the capital, Santiago, after having rejected it last year over environmental concerns.
  • As part of the approved plan, Anglo American, the majority owner of Los Bronces, has committed to replacing 70,000 wood-burning stoves used in households across Santiago with electric burners — but critics say this is unrealistic.
  • The mine extension project faces a backlash from environmental activists and local and regional authorities, who say they plan to take the matter to court.
  • They cite potential impacts to air quality, as well as dust pollution that would darken glaciers in the region and speed up their melting, thus threatening a key water supply for Santiago residents.

Macarena Martinic wasn’t surprised earlier this year when the Chilean government said yes to extending the life of Los Bronces, a large, centuries-old open-pit copper mine in the Andes, an hour’s drive from the capital, Santiago.

“A week earlier, Chilean Economy Minister Nicolás Grau mentioned how important the mine was to the Chilean economy,” says Martinic, a lawyer with FIMA, an environmental NGO. “To be fair, we already felt the storm coming. Nevertheless, I was very disappointed. This approval is a big contradiction in what this government projects.”

Los Bronces was discovered and first exploited in 1867, when the mountainous region lacked adequate infrastructure, and the technology to extract minerals from the ground was limited. In the early 20th century, mining operations took off in earnest, turning Los Bronces into one of Chile’s largest copper mines, currently producing nearly 330,000 metric tons of the metal per year.

In May 2022, the Environmental Evaluation Service (SEA), the Chilean government’s environmental regulator, determined that new plans by Anglo American, the U.K.-headquartered mining giant with a majority stake in Los Bronces, would threaten the health of residents of surrounding areas. It rejected Anglo American’s plans to extend its operations, warning that air quality would be severely impacted by mining and that surrounding glaciers could melt faster because of snow pollution.

Dust pollution from mining could affect the life of glaciers in the vicinity of the mine as dust pollution would increase ice melting. Image by Shriram Rajagopalan via Flickr 2.0.

In response to the agency’s rejection, Anglo American announced that it would come up with new plans to reduce the mine’s environmental impact and ensure it could continue its extension plans. Less than a year later, a committee of ministers, including Chile’s environment minister, decided that a permit would be allowed for the $3 billion extension project. The mine should remain open until at least 2036.

The government also said it had decided to approve the extension of Los Bronces while imposing high environmental standards that the mine would have to comply with to protect human health, alongside strict monitoring and control of water resources, protected species, and the glaciers neighboring the project.

Government flip-flop

When the government rejected the mining extension in 2022, Anglo American had already promised to reduce the mine’s impact. It said that more than 30 kilometers (19 miles) of dirt road would be paved, money would be invested in environmental centers (although there are no details on what those would entail) and an adjacent nature reserve, and $120 million would be set aside for dozens of electric vehicles to transport mine workers.

In the newly approved proposal, Anglo American promised to install electric heaters to replace up to 70,000 wood-burning stoves in homes in Santiago. At an estimated total cost of $85 million, to be borne by the mining company, this effort aims to improve air quality in one of the most polluted cities in South America.

The plan to combat air pollution was also one of the reasons for approving the project, according to Marcela Hernando Pérez, the minister for mining​. Speaking at the International Copper Conference in April, she also pointed out the economic benefits: “This is good news for the economy and for employment, since it involves an estimated investment of $3 billion and will create more than 5,000 jobs. The approval of this project with the demanding conditions imposed will allow us to reconcile economic development and environmental protection.”

Anglo American wants to offset its emissions from Los Bronces mine by replacing thousands of wood-burning stoves in Santiago with electric burners. Image by Victor San Martin, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela Poo, a public policy director at the Ecosur Foundation, an environmental nonprofit, suggests it’s this latter, economic, reason why the extension was approved.

“The first factor is that recently a major tax reform was rejected,” she tells Mongabay. “I think the government started searching for investment and said, ‘Let’s look at income through extractivism.’”

“Second is the international demand. The Global North seeks more carbon neutrality in its own industries. But that means they start looking at other countries for their minerals. This green capitalism means they will drain copper from Chile until the last drop,” she says.

A lack of compromise by the government was also a factor, according to Poo: “You can present yourself as an ecologic government, but truth is, that’s impossible in a country with so many minerals.”

According to Poo, the plans to replace tens of thousands of wood-burning stoves isn’t realistic.

“I really do not believe this will happen,” she says. “Not because the company cannot [afford to] do it — they clearly have the means. The issue is, how do you convince people to switch from firewood to gas or something electric. Apart from the traditions people have, they have energy bills to pay. Who’ll take care of that?”

Glaciers and water supplies at risk

Los Bronces sits in the vicinity of major glaciers that provide much of the clean water for residents of Santiago and its surrounding areas. The revised plans for the mine call for alarm systems to prevent damage to glaciers, something Camilo Rada, a glaciologist at the University of Magallanes, says he’s not sure about.

“It sounds nice, a system that issues early warnings. But how will it work? What if we are above alert levels? All those details are missing,” he says.

To Rada, himself an avid mountaineer, the government underestimates how important glaciers are to Chile, especially in the central regions of the country, suffering from an ongoing drought.

“Glaciers are like a savings account: they save water,” Rada tells Mongabay. “Chile has very marked seasons. When it rains in the winter, it falls as snow on the glaciers. The water gets stored in the mountains as it turns into ice. Then in the summer, when it’s dry and warm in the capital, glaciers release water. And given the mega-drought we have in Chile, these glaciers are essential.”

A bridge crosses the dry bed of Chile’s Copiapó River.
Mining has caused water scarcity in other Chilean regions as well, leaving bed rivers dry. In the case of Los Bronces, pollution impacts on glaciers could undermine water security in Chile’s capital, Santiago. Image courtesy of Seba Flores.

Rada points out that the biggest impact of Los Bronces is difficult to measure in the short term. That’s the massive volume of dust that comes from open-pit mining, which, when they settle on glaciers, can speed up their melting.

“Glaciers have what we call an albedo, which means that a certain amount of solar radiation reaching glaciers gets largely reflected [away] because of the white snowcaps,” he says. “But dust emissions darken the glaciers around the mine, meaning more radiation gets absorbed, causing the glaciers to melt faster.”

Vowing to wage a legal battle

In response to the project’s approval,  several environmental organizations say they will pursue court action to reverse the government’s decision. Local and regional authorities, including Claudio Orrego Larrain, governor of the Santiago metropolitan region, have also declared their opposition to the project.

The Chilean government declined to comment to Mongabay on the issue.

Martinic, the environmental lawyer, says the fight is far from over.

“We will take this as far as we can, from environmental tribunals to the Supreme Court. So we still have a long way to go,” she says.

She adds the issue of Los Bronces should be seen as both an end and a beginning point.

“I think the current climate crisis, especially in one of Chile’s most populous regions, calls for political decisions that are more in line with the situation we are facing,” Martinic says. “That means looking more closely at the long-term consequences of such projects, and daring to say ‘no’ to projects with a big impact.”

Banner image: By Erwin Woenckhaus, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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