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The OECD recently criticised Chile's government for expanding its industrial operations, while allow

Published by MAC on 2005-07-11

The OECD recently criticised Chile's government for expanding its industrial operations, while allowing environmental regulation to lag behind. Meanwhile opposition to Barrick's Pascua Lama project grows.

Chile's Environmentalists Wake Up, Go For The Gold

July 11, 2005

Story by Fiona Ortiz, Reuters

Santiago, Chile - Thousands of environmentalists marched in 14 Chilean cities on Saturday to celebrate the growing clout of their movement after two victories against major industries.

Notice on MarchEnvironmentalist helped shut down the Valdivia wood pulp plant, a unit of the country's biggest industrial conglomerate Copec, which was blamed for polluting a wetlands and killing hundreds of black-necked swans.

Now they are targeting Canada's Barrick Gold. The government recently asked the company to redesign its Pascua Lama gold mine project after activists opposed its plans to move parts of two glaciers.

"We're waking up. We were asleep. All of Chile was woken up by the swans and now the Pascua Lama project," said Norma Tapia, 52, an activist with the leftist political coalition Together We Can, as she marched in the capital.

Business leaders say the South American nation has made strides in environmental protection as its biggest industries -- mining, forestry and salmon farming -- must meet stringent standards in Europe and other places they export to.

But they also say that citizens are forcing them to be more vigilant by putting more pressure on the government's regulatory agency, the National Environmental Commission.

"There is pressure on everyone, on the government, on companies. All the private businesses are worried because they see a danger that a more difficult environmental situation is developing," Javier Hurtado, head of the environmental commission at the influential business group the Production and Commerce Confederation, told Reuters on Friday.

The Luxury to be Concerned

Chile has cut its poverty rate to 18 percent, one of the lowest in the region, and the economy is growing at a brisk rate of about 6 percent a year, meaning people can afford to worry about pollution.

"Environmental awareness grows when people's basic necessities are relatively satisfied and they can worry about quality of life issues," said Manuel Baquedano, president of the Institute of Political Ecology environmental group.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development think tank said this year that Chile's economy has expanded so fast that its environmental rules were lagging. It recommended Chile strengthen regulations and enforce them more efficiently.

Owners of the Valdivia pulp plant are seeking a waste water treatment solution that would allow them to reopen. Barrick plans to respond by Sept. 1 to the request for a Pascua Lama redesign.

Barrick spokesman Vince Borg criticized activists for lumping together a polluting wood pulp plant and a mine that has not yet been built.

But he said Barrick has learned from the Valdivia fiasco. The company recently signed a water treatment protocol with farmers downstream from the planned mine.

"That speaks to our willingness to adopt mitigating measures. ... We think we've turned the tide," Borg told Reuters by telephone on Friday.

Carmen Gloria Araya, environmental coordinator for the National Mining Society industry group, said miners are getting better at working with communities.

"The mining sector has matured a lot. People are thinking realistically, but they would like to go further in protecting the environment," Araya said.

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