MAC: Mines and Communities

Chilean dam can't hold back the hatred

Published by MAC on 2014-04-06
Source: Guardian

Chilean dam can't hold back the hatred

Residents say the dam linked to the Los Pelambres copper mine 'created so much inequality that it broke the town'

Jonathan Franklin in Caimanes, Chile


21 March 2014

Visitors to the small Chilean village of Los Caimanes are greeted by a row of black flags and graffiti marking opposition to a huge $600m dam built in the Andean foothills above town. The opponents of the dam are called "Las Banderas Negras" (the Black Flags) and dozens of homes have the flags and hand-printed signs in their front yards, with messages exhorting Antofagasta Minerals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Antofagasta plc, a mining company trading on the London Stock Exchange, to leave the town alone.

Supporters of the mine, many of whom have received tens of thousands of dollars in community grants from Antofagasta Minerals, have seen their windows shattered. A car was burned and when the mining company bought the locals an ambulance, someone immediately smashed the windows.

Fights against El Mauro dam - named after the submerged ranch of the same name - have been going on for nearly a decade, and though opponents and proponents are no closer to agreement, they all concur on one thing: the construction of the dam has shattered the peace of a rural mountain community.

Sandra Dagnino, a lawyer representing a group of townspeople in a lawsuit against the mining company, said the money has caused "a total rupture of the social fabric. Mothers no longer speak to daughters," she said. "The town has been broken."

"Fights. Pure fights. It divided our town, that's what happened," said Marlene Carvajal, 48, a fourth-generation local, when asked about the legacy of the mine. "They cut off the water," she claimed. "We knew that would happen if they built a dam up by the headwaters."

The dam was built not to hold back a river, but billions of pounds of ground-up rocks and waste from the huge copper mine known as Los Pelambres, which is owned by Antofagasta Minerals. Waste from Los Pelambres is delivered via pipelines that run for dozens of miles through the Andes, delivering crushed rock and slurry to the expanding lake that is designed to keep growing as it absorbs refuse from the copper mine.

Carvajal is among many in town who blame the dam - built across a narrow watering hole high above the town - for the current lack of water. "We used to have pools of fresh water down behind the school. Even when there were seven years of drought, we had the pools."

In response to lack of water - though they deny the dam is responsible and blame the seven-year drought - Antofagasta Minerals has drilled four wells and will soon provide townsfolk with water from the underground aquifer. For now, water is provided by tanker trucks that haul water up from Los Vilos, a coastal city some 30 miles away. "I bring about 60,000 litres a day," said Franklin Martinez as he pumped water into a holding tank on a hill above town. "It used to be two loads a day, now it is four."

"It is a vicious circle with the big companies," said Carvajal. "They take the water and divide the small community. They do this all over the world, it's not just here ... when the mining company leaves, that huge tailings pit will stay and will still contaminate water. It's not dry. It's filled with water and that increases the chance of more water contamination."

A statement provided to the Guardian by the mine's owners say the mine "does not exhibit characteristics that permit it to be defined as toxic", adding that the dam holds a reservoir of non-essential material called a "tailings pit". Environmental activists have a different description - they call it "the biggest toxic waste dump in Latin America" and fear that in heavy rains or a large earthquake the wall of sand could collapse, thus unleashing a sea of sludge that would wash away their town.

The environmentalists cite a March 1965 earthquake in the area that measured 7.4 on the Richter scale and which knocked down a smaller tailings pit that led to the town of Copper being swamped. An estimated 150 people died in that tragedy but fewer than 40 bodies were ever found amid the thick mixture of rocks and water. Antofagasta Minerals response to this accusation is that "El Mauro was designed to be capable of supporting 'the maximum believable earthquake' - above 8.0 on the Richter scale".

Given that Chile long held the spot for the largest earthquake ever recorded, 9.5 on the Richter scale during a 1960 quake, many locals worry that the dam could collapse in the event of a huge quake.

The sheer size of the wall of packed sand is part of what terrifies local residents. The retaining wall, now half built, is scheduled to top out at 810ft - about as long as the Titanic if it were stood on end. This wall will hold back a mixture of water and 1.7tn tonnes of ground up rocks from the mine when completed.

Despite the miniscule concentrations of metals at the mine - in this case one half of 1% - modern industrial mining is executed on such a massive scale that profits from Los Pelambres totalled $2.2bn during 2012, equivalent to $6.1m a day.

Millions of dollars from the mine have also poured into the town of Caimanes. Using local groups as a key element of their corporate social responsibility plan, Antofagasta Minerals has funded dozens of community projects ranging from small shops to worker training programs. "Let's say you want to open a laundry. You can apply for the money, say 9m pesos [US$18,000]. And they will give it to you ... some families had three or four projects like that approved." said Angelo Herrera, a local restaurant administrator, as we drove around town on a makeshift tour. "Even if you never opened the laundry, you had the money. But after that, you were on their side."

Carvajal, who spent years as a community organiser against the mining project, organised bingo nights to raise money for lawyers and even flew to Mexico to lobby against the dam, has now given up. "This town has no future," she said. "We have no water. People are divided. All they [protesters] want is money to leave town, they are not fighting to get their water back but [to get] cash to leave."

Carlos Cortes, a local businessman, disagreed. "Spectacular," he said when asked about the future of Caimanes. "They will pave the road and this will be an alternative route to Santiago [the capital]. But Cortes was clear to add that "we didn't ask for this mine, it was the government [of then president] Ricardo Lagos that made the decision", and it "created so much inequality that it broke the town".

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