MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Aymaras Vow Mining Co. Will Restore Wetland

Published by MAC on 2007-07-04

Aymaras Vow Mining Co. Will Restore Wetland

By Daniela Estrada, Special to IPS

4th July 2007

PICA - The Aymara community of Cancosa on the Chilean Altiplano region of Tarapacá, bordering Bolivia, will spare no effort in its struggle to rehabilitate a wetland dried out by the Cerro Colorado Mining Company (CMCC), an affiliate of the Anglo-Australian BHP Billiton company.

Antonio Mamani, a Cancosa leader, utters an involuntary groan at the sight of the wetlands and "bofedales" of the Lagunillas river basin, where he swam as a boy and, until recently, grazed his llamas and alpacas. "Bofedales" are highland marshes, typical wetland ecosystems of the Andean highlands. In 2005, the government Directorate General of Water (DGA) concluded that this ecosystem had been dried out by underground water extraction by the CMCC copper mine.

Members of the community of Cancosa, in the municipality of Pica, 170 kilometres east of the port of Iquique, say they hold property titles to this vast territory. Their claim was confirmed to IPS by Bob Brkovic, a lawyer for the government National Corporation for Indigenous Development (CONADI) in Tarapacá. The wetlands and bofedales, which are fed by surface and underground waters, have been legally protected since 1992. They supply pasture and water for vicuñas, guanacos, llamas and alpacas that are the main livelihood of many Aymara, Quechua and Atacameño indigenous communities.

Cancosa was a community of more than 80 families, comprising some 350 people, but now no more than 10 people remain in the village on the Andes, 3,962 metres above sea level.

Another 20 indigenous people visit the place regularly to look after their livestock and their fields of quínoa, a food crop. Among them is Antonio Mamani, who was national sub-director of CONADI from 1994 to 2000, and now works in Iquique as the executive secretary of the Tarapacá Association of Rural Municipalities.

All the rest have gone to urban areas in search of jobs and education for their children. But in spite of having separated physically, the community maintains strong links in order to defend part of their land, to which they hope to return.

Relations with CMCC began in the 1980s, when it belonged to the Canadian company Río Algom. Water rights in Chile were privatised in 1981, and CMCC applied for the right to use 300 litres per second from the aquifer under the Lagunillas basin, belonging to Cancosa.

According to Mamani, CMCC approached the Aymaras with an offer of "mutual aid": the company would be the community's benefactor, and in return the community rented land at Huantija to the company in 1991 for a period of 30 years.

The rent agreed was 6,000 dollars a year, to be paid quarterly, which would amount to 180,000 dollars over the whole period. The Aymaras use this money for various development projects and cultural activities.

The community agreed to the CMCC carrying out "exploration aimed at finding underground water" and sinking the wells needed to bring it to the surface. The only restriction was that no such work could be carried out on the watersheds and in the enormous Huantija lake next to the bofedal. CMCC, which produces 116,000 tons a year of copper cathodes from ore extracted from an open pit mine, began operations in 1994. The water taken from three wells which tap the Lagunillas aquifer is transported by an aqueduct to the mine in the neighbouring municipality of Pozo Almonte, 76 kilometres away.

In 2000, CMCC was bought by the Australian firm BHP, which then merged with Billiton, a British company, in 2003. And in 2002, the community noticed that the water level of the lake had fallen, and that the five freshwater watersheds and the bofedal had dried up. "We felt tricked," Mamani exclaimed.

The DGA found in February 2005 that "clear environmental damage had been done to almost the whole of the Lagunillas bofedal."

"The ecosystem's plant species have died off in large sectors of the bofedal, and in others their condition extremely poor," a DGA report says.

"The state of degradation" was such that "self-recuperation or natural recuperation is no longer possible," said the DGA, and added that "there is sufficient evidence to demonstrate that the drying out of the wetland is due to underground water extraction carried out by CMCC in the basin," because the level of the acquifer has fallen by eight metres. CMCC says it is pumping out 125 litres of water per second, and denies responsibility for the condition of the wetland. A source within the company told IPS that it is due to floods caused by high rainfall in 2001, "a natural event which combined with an effect of the pumping, which mainly affected the natural flow of the watersheds."

In March 2005, the DGA recommended that the Tarapacá Regional Environmental Commission (COREMA) initiate proceedings against CMCC for failing to fulfil its environmental obligations. The mining company had promised to keep a close watch on the behaviour of the basin and to immediately report any unforeseen impact in order to take remedial action.

It was not until February 2006, nearly a year later, that COREMA determined to impose the maximum fine (40 million pesos, or about 80,000 dollars) on CMCC, and forward the case files to the Council for the Defence of the State (CDE) to sue for reparation action to be taken to remedy the environmental damage.

After a year of appeals by CMCC, in May 2007 COREMA -- which is made up of local authorities, residents' representatives and technical expert bodies -- decided unanimously to uphold the fine but, in a split vote, not to forward the case to the CDE.

The mayor (a national government representative) of Tarapacá and president of COREMA, Antonella Sciaraffia, told IPS that the decision not to require the CDE to intervene was taken because the "expert bodies" had delivered a "positive" evaluation of the mitigation plan initiated by CMCC in the area a year ago, although paradoxically the experts voted in favour of continuing legal action.

"The main (result of the plan) is that vegetation has recovered in over 60 percent of the affected part of the bofedal, as well as an increase in (plant) cover," the company told IPS. "We are also testing assisted plant propagation, and we will consider relocating the well closest to the bofedal to a point further away," the spokesperson said.

But the director of the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA) in Tarapacá, Sandra Peña, told IPS that the bofedal was divided into a number of sectors, and only in one of these has there been any recovery. Furthermore, Peña cast doubt on the effectiveness of what she called a "closed circle," because mitigating the harm done involves artificially irrigating the watersheds with water that the company is pumping out of the same acquifer that was originally affected. "I am not as optimistic as the company is," she said.

In addition, this plan has not yet been approved by COREMA, a process which may take a couple of months. It is COREMA that must determine whether the wetland can be rehabilitated, how, and within what timescale, she said.

Also, if the project becomes official, the company must sign a legal document committing itself to continue to carry out recovery action in the area after its mining operations end in 2016, Peña said. The company says that its plan is for the short, medium and long term, and will continue beyond the closing of its copper mining activities.

Dissatisfied by the slowness of official procedures, the community of Canosa, which has had legal status as such since 1995 under the 1993 Indigenous Law, has presented two legal actions against CMCC. The first is for indemnisation for environmental damages, for 40 million dollars, presented on Apr. 25, 2006, and the second is for remedying the environmental damage, presented Apr. 18, 2007.

In both actions, progress has been paralysed by delaying tactics used by the company, Rodrigo Muñoz, a lawyer representing the Aymaras, told IPS. Both actions could take up to nine years to obtain a definitive verdict.

But Muñoz and Brkovic believe that the community will ultimately prevail in these suits, because of the solid evidence in the DGA reports, the jurisprudence that has been established in recent years in favour of indigenous peoples, and the strong commitment of the community, which includes several professional people.

Nancy Yáñez, co-director of the Observatory of Indigenous Peoples' Rights, which is supporting five other communities in the north of the country with similar problems, told IPS that the Cancosa case "is emblematic, because it's a showcase of how mining companies operate on the Altiplano."

Lucio Cuenca, head of the Latin American Observatory of Environmental Conflicts (OLCA), told IPS that "mining cannot be carried out just anywhere. It's time to set limits," because every day there are more mines being established on the high Andes mountain chain, close to glaciers or the sources of rivers.

CONADE said that the relationship between mining companies and indigenous communities has been "negative," in spite of the resources that the companies deliver, because they have led to conflicts between those groups who receive benefits and those who don't, creating a kind of "hierarchy."

Cancosa is not against reaching an agreement with the mining company to rehabilitate the bofedal, but this depends on the company's goodwill to invest the necessary resources. They want to talk directly to the owners of BHP Billiton to explain their case, and they are not ruling out resorting to international courts.

"We are going to fight to the bitter end to defend our rights, because we think they have done enormous damage. They have harmed a cultural heritage site, which can't be used as a tourist attraction any more. Our parents have gone away with the sorrow of having naively handed over our wealth," said Fidel Challapa, the president of the community.

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