This Sunday, September 4, Chileans go to the polls to vote on whether to adopt what’s widely regarded as one of the most progressive and environmentally ambitious constitutions in the world.
The draft constitution, which would replace the current one ratified under the Pinochet dictatorship, explicitly recognizes the rights inherent to nature and names the protection of water as a key pillar in the fight against the climate crisis. Among other things, it removes the constitutional guarantees that currently prioritize mining over any other economic activity, declares Chile a plurinational state while recognizing the rights of Indigenous Peoples to free, prior, and informed consent, and bans mining in glaciers and other protected areas.
Calls to replace the current neoliberal constitution have grown steadily over the last several years, culminating in an October 2020 referendum in which nearly 80% of Chileans voted to draft a new constitution and then elected a constituent assembly to do it – one made up entirely of members of Chilean civil society. What emerged is a historic proposal that reflects the diverse makeup of the assembly: half of its 155 members are women, 17 are Indigenous, with much representation from groups who have been historically marginalized.
Only Sunday’s vote will tell if this draft constitution gets the green light. But a movement prioritizing water and stronger environmental protections is gaining ground in Chile, which may have broader implications for the vast Canadian mining interests in the country.
A major destination for Canadian mining investment
As of 2019, Chile trailed only behind the United States as the country with the highest number of Canadian mining assets, represented by 53 Canadian companies exploring and exploiting Chile’s mineral wealth. The previous administration of right-wing billionaire Sebastián Piñera forecasted possible mining investments of almost $70 billion in mining projects this decade, with Chile being home to some of the world’s largest reserves of copper and lithium.
The Canadian Ambassador and Trade Commissioner to Chile have been heavily promoting Canadian mining investment in the country, both as part of Chile’s post-COVID-19 economic recovery and as part of Canada’s sourcing of metals for transition technologies under the Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan. Trade Commissioner Gonzalo Muñoz said, “of the minerals that Canada has identified as critical, a large majority can be found in Chile such as copper, cobalt and lithium. [Canada] has, then, a fairly high potential interest in mining properties in Chile and their development.” The Ambassador also recently met with the current Minister of Mining to discuss how Canadian mining companies could contribute to “the development of Canada and Chile, and to the global energy transition in the context of the fight against climate change.”
But much of the momentum that led to the October 2020 referendum – and the 2021 presidential election of left-wing student leader Gabriel Boric – is calling for real solutions to address the climate crisis. Organizations and communities affected by Canadian mining projects in Chile are denouncing how Canadian companies and the embassy have co-opted the environmental discourse of the energy transition to justify the expansion and proliferation of mining. Here’s a look at four cases of Canadian mining projects in Chile and the strong opposition that exists to their projects. Whether or not Chileans vote this Sunday to adopt this new eco-constitution, resistance to these projects will continue.
Vizcachitas’ threats to endemic species and rock glaciers
The Vizachitas project is owned by Vancouver-based Los Andes Copper and is located in the Putaendo Valley, in the Valparaíso region of Chile. The project, currently in its exploration phase, seeks to develop a massive copper mine, whose open pit would sit directly atop the Rocín River – the main source of freshwater for downstream communities.
Putaendo Resiste (Putaendo Resists) is a group organized against the project since 2015 and are concerned about the project’s high water use and potential impact on the region’s ecosystems, including high Andean wetlands and over 100 rock glaciers. Meanwhile, Los Andes Copper heavily promotes the project, saying “copper is a critical element to sustain the global shift to electric vehicles and the new green economy,” and claiming the company will produce “sustainable copper” for this transition.
Alejandro Valdés of Putaendo Resiste says this copper would be mined “at the cost of turning a valley, its community, and its ecosystem into a sacrifice zone.”
Affected communities are concerned about the mine’s impact on endemic flora and fauna and the potential for environmental harm given Putaendo’s proximity to the proposed mine site. Los Andes Copper’s drilling program has already been suspended due to concerns that vibrations were disturbing the food source for the endangered Andean mountain cat. The community of Putaendo and those organized through Putaendo Resiste have so far been successful in delaying the advancement of the project, remaining the only valley in the central zone of Chile without operating mines.
QB2’s multiple environmental impacts
The Quebrada Blanca open-pit copper-molybdenum mine began operations in 1994 and was acquired by Vancouver’s Teck Resources in 2007. The mine is located in the Tarapacá region of Chile, at 4400 metres above sea level. Construction of an underground expansion of the mine, Quebrada Blanca Phase 2 (QB2), began in 2019.
Earlier this year, Chile’s environmental regulator (SMA) filed eight charges against Teck Resources for failing “to comply with measures to avoid impacts on vegetation and animals.” This is the third consecutive year the company has faced such fines. In 2019, the SMA fined Teck $1.2 million for violations “related to the handling of mining waste and internal environmental controls at the mine.” Teck also received the largest environmental fine ever issued under the Canadian Fisheries Act for pollution at its coal mine in Elk Valley, British Columbia.
Despite these serious and systematic environmental failures, the Canadian ambassador to Chile tweeted that “Teck represents the future of mining: a more sustainable mining industry that generates employment and plays an essential role in economic recovery,” and promoted a visit he made to the site.
Lithium mining in the Maricunga salt flats
Vancouver’s Blanco Bearing Lithium Corp holds an 18% ownership interest in the Proyecto Blanco project located in the Maricunga salt flat in southern Chile. The salt flat and its waters are connected to the Santa Rosa Lagoon, which in turn feeds a complex lagoon system including meadows and wetlands – a vital ecosystem for vulnerable flora and fauna. This area includes Nevado Tres Cruces National Park, a Ramsar Site, and the Negro Francisco Lagoon. As detailed in a recent report about Canadian lithium investments in Chile by OPSAL and MiningWatch, these important sites for ecological conservation have already been affected by Canadian mining activity.
Colla Indigenous communities have denounced that in contravention of ILO Convention 169, they have been excluded from the project’s environmental consultation process and their traditional and symbolic use of the salt flat waters have been disregarded, such as raising livestock and harvesting plants.
The interest of Canadian companies in exploring for and potentially exploiting lithium in Chile is subject to a great deal of speculation and uncertainty. Yet the socio-environmental impacts of these projects are already felt in the exploration phase – especially when the projects are located in sensitive environments such as the Andean salt flats inhabited by Indigenous communities, and where historical mining activities have already caused cumulative harm and worsened the impacts of climate change.
Pascua Lama and its impact on glaciers
Originally set to be one of South America’s largest mining projects, the controversial binational Pascua Lama gold/silver/copper project was shut down by Chile’s environmental regulator in 2018 for damaging native flora and fauna, failing to monitor melting rates of nearby glaciers, and for dumping acidic waters into a local river. This ruling was ratified in 2022 by the Supreme Court after the mine’s owner, Barrick Gold, appealed the decision.
The mine is located in the high mountains of the Huasco Valley in the Atacama region, sitting on the border between Chile and Argentina. As Chilean environmental organization Glaciares Chilenos says, “during its exploration phase between 1981 and 2000, [Pascua Lama] caused an irreversible loss of 62% of the Toro 1 glacier and 71% of the Toro 2 glacier in the upper basin of the Huasco River.” The environmental regulator’s forced shutdown of the mine is in response to the demands of local communities, who have been speaking out against the socio-environmental harm caused by this project for over two decades. In 2020, MiningWatch Canada spoke with Constanza San Juan who told us: “This is a struggle that has lasted for over 20 years against this mega-project, and we saw what was going to happen from the beginning. We have faced terrible impacts to our glaciers, which give life to our rivers, which brought serious health impacts for our neighbours and our children. But it also provoked a terrible division among our people, provoking conflict between those of us defending life and those who were incited by the company.”
A commitment to the environment through a new constitution?
Regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s vote, a fundamental shift is taking place in Chile. The gaze of this proposed eco-constitution rests firmly on the climate crisis and is responding to demands by mining-affected communities decades in the making: mining in glaciers and other ecologically sensitive areas is not acceptable.
Attempts by Canadian companies and the Canadian embassy to promote mining without the free, prior, and informed consent of affected communities goes against the rights of Indigenous peoples and the spirit of this proposed constitution. Export Development Canada and the Canadian diplomatic mission in Chile must stop all support to mining companies found guilty of environmental infractions and whose projects are rejected by affected communities.