MAC: Mines and Communities

Hunger strikers surpass day 50 in Chile

Published by MAC on 2010-11-29
Source: Santiago Times (2010-11-19)

Hunger Strikers Surpass Day 50, Accusing Mine Company Of Contamination

By Alison Silveira

Santiago Times

19 November 2010

Over 100 demonstrators gathered outside of the La Moneda presidential palace Thursday afternoon to call attention to a hunger strike that has lasted nearly two months with minimal, if any, media coverage.

Protesters demand closing and removal of El Mauro tailings dam in northern Chile
Protesters demand closing and removal of El Mauro
tailings dam in northern Chile
- Photo by Alison Silveira, Santiago Times

Eight men and three women, between the ages of 21 and 60, have been on a hunger strike for the last 53 days, since Sept. 28, to protest of the dangerous tailings dam situation affecting their community of Caimanes, located in the Coquimbo Region north of Santiago.

Organizers explained that the primary danger to their community is water contamination resulting from the El Mauro tailings dam constructed by the wealthy Luksic Group's Antofogasta Minerals Company. The mining waste stored in the dam is reportedly seeping out and contaminating the ground water, the community says, rendering it unsafe for both drinking water and irrigation purposes.

The Luksic Group is owned by the politically influential Luksic family.

Protestors are demanding the immediate closure of the tailings dam, as well as its removal from the community. Community spokesperson Cristián Flores demanded action from President Sebastian Piñera: "We hope Piñera comes to our aid, and quickly, before we lose one of our hunger strikers to this cause."

After countless demonstrations in the Coquimbo Region, which protesters say were frequently repressed by police forces and which were not covered by the local media, the movement's leaders made the trip to the nation's capital this week to deliver a letter to President Piñera, urging his intervention.

The group also held a meeting with Dep. Alejandra Sepúlveda, president of the Chamber of Deputies, to discuss their conflict with the Luksic Group company and see how she might help get the hunger strikers' message to the Piñera administration.

Until Thursday, no one in the Piñera administration had spoken to the issue. But Mining Minister Laurence Golborne insisted to Radio Universidad de Chile on Thursday that the dispute is between private groups and does not involve the government.

The Caimanes community disagreed: "The government is the one who approves of these tailings dams," Flores told Radio Universidad de Chile. "So it is necessary that they take part in this conflict."

The El Mauro tailings dam began operating in 2008 and houses the leftover materials and waste from the nearby Los Pelambres mine, one of the world's largest copper mines. According to materials given out by activists, it is now the largest tailings dam in Latin America and the third largest in the world.

Although the tailings dam meets Chile's standards for construction, it falls far short of meeting internationally accepted environmental protections, said the Committee for the Defense of the Community of Caimanes and the Valley of Pupío. The dam was not properly sealed, they said, and was constructed of sand instead of hard concrete, thus making it a major accident and flood risk in the event of an earthquake.

Chile's looming tailings dam problem has been ignored by national media for decades. But the issue finally received some national coverage recently following a CNN Chile-CIPER report that chronicled the death of an entire family after an abandoned tailings dam broke as a result of last February's earthquake. The CNN-Ciper reports also revealed an unpublicized government agency report listing 200 potentially dangerous abandoned tailings dams.

Organizers criticized the broad media silence on their struggle, which Flores termed "censorship," linking it to the Luksic Group, which owns 60 percent of Los Pelambres mine.

The Luksic Group recently bought controlling interest in Canal 13 television channel, and controls most local news outlets in the Coquimbo area. The Luksic group - owner of the nation's largest bank, the Banco de Chile - has business interests across the country.

At the time of publication, representatives of the Los Pelambres mine were unable to be reached for comment.

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