No Alto Maipo: Chile’s continued struggle against the mining industry for the right to water.

Emily Humphreys | Chile, Open Min(e)d, Press

No Alto Maipo: Chile’s continued struggle against the mining industry for the right to water.

Emily Humphreys, 13 February 2019

Chile is recognised as the poster-child of neoliberalism, with a strong mandate of privatisation on any capital-rich resource. A clear example of this mandate can be seen in extractivist projects, particularly mining and hydroelectric projects. As Chile’s economy grows, thanks to a global addiction to raw minerals, a sinister struggle  underlies the country’s giant mining industry: water rights. And no, such rights are not found to trickle down from the private mining firms to the nation’s discriminated citizens.

 

The Maipo River Basin

Santiago de Chile, home to 7 million people, is a sprawling metropolitan jungle gripped to the roots of the Andes mountains. The Andes give the city not only a backdrop of formidable beautiful, they are also the source of the country’s most important water source: the Maipo river. The Maipo river basin runs 60km south of Santiago’s metropolitan region, supplying 90% of the city’s urban and residential water as well as 70% of total irrigation water (Baeur, 2016).

The significance of the river basin, also considered Santiago’s ‘green lung’, in providing life to the city and surrounding territories is undeniable, and its place in sustaining future generations translates its existence into a human and environmental right. Nevertheless, the Maipo river basin has become victim to an activity that threatens the supply of water to the citizens of the greater metropolitan region, one whose objective is to provide energy for Chile’s most lucrative industry: mining.

 

Copper: red gold

Copper mining is one of Chile’s most important economic activities, with 29% of global stock found in the country. Chile prides itself in being the number one producer of the red metal, for obvious reasons: Copper, and other precious metals, have made Chile the wealthiest country in Latin America (in economic terms). In short, copper is a resource which has infiltrated into the national fibre of Chile and the result is a heavily politicised and exploitative extractive industry. Mining is championed as the most attractive model for economic development and prosperity in Chile, and indeed, it can be argued that this economic model has given citizens a quality of life much sought after by neighbouring nations. But, this economic and material wealth has come at an alarming social and environmental cost.

 

Alto Maipo: an unnecessary project

50km southeast of Santiago, in the Cajon del Maipo region, the Alto Maipo Hydropower Project (PHAM) has become one of the biggest environmental struggles in the country’s history. The health of the Maipo river basin is under direct threat from two large-scale run of the river (ROR) hydroelectric projects which use the natural flow of a river to generate energy, avoiding the construction of a dam. With well-known tragedies of collapsing Dams, particularly jarring being the recent collapse of Brumadinho tailings dam in Brazil, a decision to avoid constructing a Dam may appear positive. The opposite is true.

Beginning in 2007, the Alto Maipo project has re-routed 100km of the Maipo river, bringing the flow of the river underground into artificial tunnels. The project, 68% complete, threatens environmental and social devastation for the citizens and ecological life of Cajon del Maipo depending on the rivers as a source of water. Further controversy underlying Alto Maipo is its proposed utility. Initially promoted as a public good to generate clean electricity and drive down energy costs, the majority of the generated energy will be supplied to Los Pelambres copper mine, the 5th largest in the world.

The Chilean mining subsidiary of U.S. company AES Gener, owner of Alto Maipo, won funding for the hydroelectric project from international development banks such as The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). The project was proposed as a clean source of energy with minimal environmental impact. This claim contrasts starkly with facts outlined by the Centre for International Environmental Law:

  • Dramatic limitations on water access;
    • 60% reduction in potable water; 70% reduction in irrigation water
  • Significant erosion;
  • Desertification;
  • Impacts on protected areas and tourism;
  • Human rights at risk.

Additionally, recent studies have shown that the construction of Alto Maipo has released heavy metals such as arsenic, lead and manganese into the water table to carcinogenic levels.

 

Coordinadora Ciudadana No Alto Maipo: a civil uprising

The scale of negative impacts is indisputable. The communities facing a future of water scarcity and environmental degradation have mobilised to create the Coordinadora Ciudadana No Alto Maipo, a campaign led by Marcela Mella Ortiz, its compelling and dynamic spokeswoman. No Alto Maipo is a response to a state-backed economic model which clashes relentlessly with citizens fighting to protect human and environmental rights. The dispossession of land is a common thread through the fabric of marginalized Latin America, yet the case of Alto Maipo is not one of geographic displacement; rather it is a displacement from our most indispensable resource: Water.

The controversy and societal backlash against Alto Maipo has remained present since its inception in 2007. Described by Mella Ortiz as an ‘unviable project from the very beginning’, the cost of the project now far exceeds initial investments ($600 million – $3 billion), reflecting the poor development plans of AES Gener. In 2017, Antofagasta, Chile’s largest mining company, removed its 40% share in Alto Maipo due to continuous budget increases. Further controversy surrounding the project stems from the numerous irregularities in the environmental impact assessments of the site. This rings resounding environmental alarm bells, coupled with bells of corruption and political playhouse tactics.

For more than 10 years, strings of sanctions and legal proceedings have followed AES Gener. Construction works have been suspended through judicial order, as the project expanded beyond the area outlined within the environmental impact assessment results.

Currently, the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), an independent accountability mechanism which reviews private finance provided by the World Bank Group, is carrying out investigations into complaints that the environmental and social impacts of the hydroelectric project will cause irreversible damage to the health of communities and ecosystems along the Maipo river basin, including negative impacts on the Chilean economy.

 

The struggle for water rights: a familiar story

Civil society unrest surrounding water rights is an all-too-familiar story in Chile, the Mauro tailings dam of Caimanes being an emblematic case. The Caimanes case has grown into a 20 year struggle, one marked by displacements, criminalisation of leading activists and strategic divisions within the community orchestrated by Antofagasta mining company. This struggle has been described as a contention in a territory that “lacks political opportunities and resources”, a description which echoes the Alto Maipo case.

The Caimanes community has suffered from severe water loss as a direct result of the tailings dam, one built specifically to collect toxic waste from Los Pelambres copper mine. Understandably, the citizens of Cajon del Maipo and Santiago de Chile do not want to face similar levels of exploitation.  

With aspirations by AES Gener to complete Alto Maipo by 2020, communities living along the construction lines are already suffering the impacts of such intensive extractivism. The project has been described as a ‘sickness’ and one that has drawn deep divisions between small communities.

Chile is a country with one the highest potentials for renewable energy production, so why are the government and private entities continuing along a path of such callous exploitation? Mankind’s addiction to mineral resources is on a course of acceleration, with OECD figures stating that consumption of global minerals is set to double by 2060. As such, the efforts of civil society groups like No Alto Maipo play a vital role in sustaining future livelihoods in Chile, but multilateral agreements and policies must be forged between civil society, government and private entities to achieve a sustainable future.

Despite the sanctions, suspensions and thousand-fold civil unrest, works have once again commenced on the project, with the 2020 completion goal in sight. Nevertheless, the work of No Alto Maipo and thousands of Chilean citizens is not over. To keep up-to-date with the activities of No Alto Maipo visit their website, Facebook and Twitter. Spokeswoman Marcela Mella Otriz will visit Belguim for the Open Min(e)d festival 10-17 March 2019. A full overview of her lectures and workshops in Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and Leuven can be viewed here.

Neo-extractivism and repression of social protest in Bolivia

Lore Raport | Bolivia, Bolivia, Bolivia, Open Min(e)d, Open Min(e)d, Open Min(e)d, Press, Press, Press

Neo-extractivism and repression of social protest in Bolivia

Bolivian Altiplano

We are looking out over a gigantic dry salt pan. Boats are lying upside-down on the cracks in the salty soil. In the surrounding villages, fishermen unable to do their regular jobs are forced to cultivate quinoa or raise animals in an environment that’s far from ideal for these pursuits. The Uru Murato are not used to agriculture, but when Lake Poopó dried up they lost not only their livelihood, but above all a foundation of their identity. A significant part of the population left in search for a new life in the city or even abroad, searching for a new job sometimes hundreds of kilometres away from their original homes.

 

The Bolivian government identifies “climate change” as the main culprit, blaming CO2-emitting industrial nations and neighbouring countries that waste water. The accusations are not unfounded, but ignore a significant part of reality. Walking upstream along the Desaguadero, the stream that takes (or took) the water from Lake Titicaca to Lakes Uru Uru and Poopó, you inevitably encounter another element that contributed to the drying up of the latter: mining, with some 350 sites of various types and sizes scattered about the area around the river. There are a number of small and larger cooperative mines, as well as some large-scale projects owned by multinationals or the state. All have an irreversible impact on the area and its residents.

 

A persistent extractivist growth model

Mining is deeply interwoven with Bolivian politics and society, which explains the complexity of current conflicts in the sector. Metals were mined even before the Spanish colonists used them to fill their treasury. The appeal of the rich Bolivian soil to foreign investors has only grown since then. Despite regained control over its own natural resources through independence in 1825, nationalisations in the mining sector in the 1950s and the “proceso de cambio” (process of change) of current president Evo Morales, the Bolivian population experiences little structural difference. National development and sovereignty strategies remain, contradictorily enough, consistently based on the extraction and export of primary raw materials as one of the main pillars. Additionally, the new mining law of 2014, which replaced the one of 1997, appears to have been directed by mining cooperatives and (international) private companies, and continues the privatisation trend of the 1980s and 1990s.

 

Back to Oruro

With favourable tax regimes and limited restrictions, Bolivia then opened its gates wide to multinational companies that remain present to this day. The Bolivian state’s share in these companies often evolved from small to even smaller. One product of this is Kori Kollo, an open-pit gold mine on the banks of the Desaguadero river that extracts the precious metal using cyanide. The mine is no longer active (the huge crater was filled with water from the river) and the largest shareholder, Newmont, sold its shares back in 2009. However, the mine’s negative consequences for the environment and the population continue to be felt, not least because of its significant contribution to the drying up of Lake Poopó.

State mine Huanuni, located in the river basin of the same Desaguadero river, is not doing much better. Ore waste is being discharged directly into the river, causing acidification and high concentrations of heavy metals in the river and groundwater.  Surrounding land is flooded with sediment and marked by sand deposits, making agriculture and animal husbandry virtually impossible.

These are only two (larger ones) of the countless mining sites that populate and pollute the Bolivian Altiplano. Control – by both tax authorities and environmental experts – is minimal, a framework and measures to protect the environment are virtually absent, and people continue to wait (with some disbelief) for the promised prosperity that the revenues from the sector would provide.

 

Social protest, attempts at cracking it and paper answers

Local residents have been experiencing the impact of mining activities in the area for decades. The population is increasingly aware of this and insists on its right to be heard, and questions central government decisions, in this case on private capital and the use of land and water. The 80 communities from the river basin and around Lakes Uru Uru and Poopó, which in 2006 united in CORIDUP – Coordinadora and Defensa de la Cuenca del Río Desaguadero, los lagos Uru Uru y Poopó, fought the government and multinationals for fair compensation and measures against further pollution, and to prevent further human rights violations.

They are assisted in this by CEPA, an NGO based in the nearby city of Oruro, which provides information flow and technical assistance, and raises visibility and lobbying to the regional, national and even international level.

A confrontation that is inevitably accompanied by intimidation. This conflict, which primarily relates to directly perceptible consequences of human interventions in the natural environment, is more broadly about democracy, about whose rights and voice count most in political-economic decision-making, and about various possible development models and their impact. In this discussion, unanimity within the various parties is a pipe dream, and polarisation is the central government’s preferred strategy to suppress protest. (Sounds familiar?)

The population’s unrelenting struggle has resulted in some responses though, albeit mostly on paper. Since 2002 Lakes Poopó and Uru Uru are Ramsar sites, internationally protected wetlands. From 2009 to 2012 an inadequate audit was carried out to measure the impact of the Kori Kollo mine. The area around the Desaguadero river basin was declared a disaster area in 2009, with a step-by-step plan to build a waste collection basin and a new processing plant to drastically reduce waste discharge from the Huanuni mine. Ten years on, neither basin nor plant are operative yet. Meanwhile, the Desaguadero river remains the ore waste bin.

The struggle of indigenous students against large-scale mining industries in the Philippines – the case of ALCADEV

Nóra Katona | Philippines, Open Min(e)d, Open Min(e)d, Press, Philippines, Press

The struggle of indigenous students against large-scale mining industries in the Philippines - the case of ALCADEV

Nóra Katona, 18 February 2019

On Mindanao, the biggest southern island of the Philippines, there is a school that fills an important void in the region. ALCADEV (Alternative Learning Center for Agricultural and Livelihood Development) provides secondary education to the indigenous people in the region – the Lumads – relevant to their culture and needs. The school offers education mostly in the field of sustainable  agriculture, integrated in an alternative learning system. They focus on interactive ways of education. A way of learning that provides the students not only with theoretical but also with practical knowledge about subjects like Maths, History, English and scientific and sustainable agriculture. A way of learning which aims to prepare the students for their future position as leaders of their community. One of the most important skills the students acquire during the learning process is, therefore, the responsibility for the livelihood of their community.

ALCADEV is not the only school in Mindanao which fights with its alternative learning methods against illiteracy and innumeracy of the indigenous youth. There are more than 146 similar alternative schools and programmes across the different regions in Mindanao. The operation of these schools is essential for students coming from the poverty-stricken mountain communities of the Caraga region who cannot afford going to other schools because of transport and living expenses.

There is, however, a serious threat for Lumad schools. The Caraga region is situated in the northeast, a largely mountainous section of Mindanao highly abundant in minerals, which makes it an attractive area for exploitation by foreign mining industries. The region has the 4th largest copper, 3rd gold and the 5th largest nickel deposits in the world. Besides, Caraga also has one of the largest coal reserves in the country, which is targeted by foreign extractivist companies. As a result of the privatized electricity in the country, foreign businesses have been encouraged to invest in the energy industry. They became even more active in the field of coal extraction and have started up hydropower projects at the rivers and lakes of Caraga.

Although the region’s mining resources had already been exploited in the pre-Hispanic period, the scale of resource extraction has never been as large and destructive as it is today. During the boom of neoliberal politics in the 1990’s, the Philippine government accepted the Mining Act in 1995. By this law the government clearly attempted to boost the economy by direct investments from foreign companies. Under the Mining Act, twenty-five percent of the country’s land area became potential mining territory, which mainly overlapped with the area where indigenous people live.

By the end of 2017, 23 of the country’s 48 large operating metallic mines were in Caraga. Despite the promises of economic development, Caraga remained one of the poorest regions of the Philippines. Mining activity could clearly not provide long-term jobs for the locals. Most workers in the mining industry are employed by contractual basis, usually for a maximum of 7 months.

Apart from the unsustainable employment factor, mining entails other serious environmental and social consequences. This situation in Caraga is very similar to the one other mining regions in different continents face. Landslides and flash floods are becoming a daily occurrence in many parts of the region as more and more of its lands are destroyed. Furthermore, the contamination of potable water sources, poisoning of the air, water and soil, siltation of the coastline and natural waterways, the degradation of nearby fishing grounds, the destruction of habitats and the decrease in biodiversity all belong to the unavoidable environmental impact of extractivism.

Moreover, the intense extractivist activities and its governmental support are responsible for a high level of human rights violations in Caraga. Since 2005, the Lumad people and schools are targeted not only by mining but at the same time by massive militarization. The government continuously deploys military and paramilitary forces in the area and works together with private forces in order to ease the entry of foreign businesses. On top of that, current president Rodrigo Duterte tries to eliminate opposition to these government programs through the National Internal Security Plan (the Oplan Kapayapaan). It targets Lumad leaders, members of progressive organisations and environmental advocates who are fighting against large-scale mining. According to the counter-insurgency campaign of the government, these progressive organisations and alternative schools, such as ALCADEV, are part of the New People’s Army – the armed wing of the Philippine communist party – and are indoctrinating the children in socialism. Therefore, they are seen as enemies of the nation.

Furthermore, Mindanao is under Martial Law (direct military control of civilian functions of government) since 2017. This situation gives the government the opportunity to use instruments like trumped-up charges and extrajudicial killings in their campaign against indigenous leaders. Only since Duterte came to power in 2016, there have been 30 extrajudicial killings related to mining. Also schools find themselves under permanent threat of bombing attacks and every year entire communities and schools have to be evacuated. This December and January there were also two bombings and food blockades in the region resulting in the evacuation of 300 individuals. Apart from the obvious inconvenience of the recurring evacuations, the students and teachers of the schools need to face the difficulty to rebuild the whole infrastructure (including crops and livestock) everytime they go back to their settlements.

Because the Lumads keep going back to their ancestral land, they keep resisting the large-scale mining industry. Schools like ALCADEV and non-profit organizations like the TRIFPSS Inc. (Tribal Filipino Program of Surigao del Sur) are essential in this struggle: they empower and support the indigenous communities. Enhancing the self-determination of indigenous communities could be, namely, an alternative for development in Caraga. Starting up different food security programmes by local communities shows also that there is another way for development, apart from large-scale mining. The question remains, however, whether the government will be willing to change its politics and protect the ancestral lands of the Lumads from foreign investors and from the increasing environmental disasters.

During the Open Min(e)d Academic Speakers Tour in March, CATAPA welcomes two speakers from the Philippines who can tell more about the perspective of the Lumads in this mining case.  Maricres, who has been working for years at ALCADEV, and Norma, who represents the TRIFPSS as the Executive Directress of the organization.