By Elif Karakartal, documentary film-maker and Master in Anthropology. Elif witnessed and reported the Caimanes conflict between 2012 and 2016 as an international observer with the Danielle Mitterrand Foundation.
An earlier Spanish version of this article appeared on the Nuestra Republica website at https://nuestrarepublica.org/2020/05/27/caimanes-injusticia-polvo-y-megamineria/.
In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, serious contamination is currently affecting the quality of the air that people are breathing in Caimanes (4th region of Chile), putting the health of its inhabitants at risk. It is not the first time that the mining company operating in the region has generated serious environmental impacts in the valley. This leads us to think over the actions and responses of the actors in a conflict that has taken place over many years.
The mist from the mine
From the beginning of May, a strange mist has been hanging over the community of Caimanes. The inhabitants of the community immediately detected that it was dust emitted by the tailings behind the Mauro dam, eight kilometres above the town. Tailings, the weak link in the mining process, appear under the appearance of a fine powder that contains mercury, arsenic, manganese, and many other heavy metals. The toxic cloud spreads across the valley and deposits its fine particles on the land, houses, and people.
This is yet another episode in the series of human rights abuses committed by Minera Los Pelambres (MLP) in the town of Caimanes. In 2008, the mining company installed, against the will of the vast majority, the third largest tailings dam in the world. After “the stolen waters”, the disappearance of which was held to be the responsibility of MLP by the Chilean Supreme Court on October 21, 2014, and after the danger of the collapse of the dam was recognized by the same court in the same year, now a new drama is affecting the community.
This visible air pollution which, it is assumed, could affect the airways and lungs of the people who live there, is occurring precisely at the time when the national contingency focuses on the Covid-19 pandemic, which also causes respiratory failure.
In Caimanes, for years, most people have refused to consume local drinking water because it was shown that it could be contaminated by heavy metals. They also have to endure living with the risk of the collapse of the gigantic 300-metre-high dam that could end their lives in minutes. Now, even just breathing the air could also be a risk. And this time, the company failed to inform residents about the poisonous mist.
It was the residents themselves who revealed the fact and denounced it. Warned that the toxic cloud incident was becoming known, MLP acknowledged the fact but blamed the wind and the drought. Indeed the lack of water certainly exacerbated dust production and the air currents blew the fine particles from the dam towards the valley. But is it really natural events that are responsible for the environmental accident, rather than the two billion tons of mine tailings stored in the open air? The mining company tried to give a quasi “natural” explanation of a serious contamination event, the origin of which was its own mining production. How is it that a company of this size, belonging to one of the most important economic groups in the country, can show such neglect for human life?
Where the wealth (of some) generates dust and poverty for many
MLP generates a net profit of one hundred million dollars a month and belongs to the Luksic group, which owns one of the 100 largest fortunes in the world, and is part of the Antofagasta Minerals consortium, which is listed on the London stock exchange where this multinational chose its domicile. While in London, in front of the shareholders, the company boasts of its earnings and dividend payouts, in Caimanes the tailings dam has generated poverty, both in terms of environmental and social devastation and because it has also ruined the local economy. The tailings dam has concentrated local water along with the toxic mine wastes, and lack of water below the dam has wiped out the river and its tributaries, and consequently most of the valley ‘s traditional economic activities.
The threat that the dam could collapse and bury the entire valley causes continuous anxiety. MLP’s meddling in the town has caused divisions and hatred. All this has been widely denounced and most of it has been recognized by Chilean courts. Today the company is again facing legal action for risking people’s health and for violating human rights guaranteed by the Chilean Constitution. According to the mining company, the issue is about “natural” events which would be caused by accident. But to what extent is mining actually affecting the lives of human beings and the local environment? To what extent are its impacts ignored? What are the limits of what is considered acceptable?
Blocking roads to access rights?
Residents of Caimanes have blocked the access road to the tailings dam to demand recognition of the damage they are suffering. Blocking the road and thus preventing the access of vehicles to the dam became the only effective non-violent means to demonstrate the gravity of the situation, call the attention of authorities to it and demand that the company take action to prevent further damage. Occupying “public” space to assert the right of human beings to their territory, against the demands of extractive industry, is a way to express opposition and make it visible. It is not the first time that residents in resistance have taken the physical route to claim their rights. From November 25, 2014 to February 8, 2015, the inhabitants of Caimanes occupied the access road to the dam. The Supreme Court had recognized the obligation of MLP to return the free-flowing water runoff to the contamination-free Pupio estuary below the Mauro tailings dam, but the ruling had not been respected by the company. At that time, the people of Caimanes blocked the road to ask that the law be obeyed, that is, that the waters be returned to the estuary.
The occupation lasted 75 days. In long weeks of occupation, there were many times when police force officials themselves could not answer the question, is the road public or private? Nobody managed to resolve the matter. Is a road that now only leads to the mining area still “public”? And if it is private, how legitimate is it for the police to be employed to protect private property? Isn’t the public force supposedly responsible for looking after the public good? In the eyes of the law, is an illegal occupation of a road a greater threat to the public good than a threat to the life and common good of a community?
At that time, despite the fact that the residents who blocked the road were calling for a Supreme Court ruling to be respected along with the public good of the country, the roadblock was evicted by order of the State and the right to the common good violated by the public police force.
On 25 May, 2020, the police again ordered the eviction of a peaceful roadblock – a roadblock that was organised to draw attention to an extremely serious threat to people’s health.
Dialogue as (im) possible answer?
In May 2020, a few days after the report of the presence of toxic dust flying over Caimanes, MLP proposed a dialogue with the community to solve the contamination problem. A dialogue? The Caimanes Defence Committee is sceptical. What “dialogue” can there be if what is needed is an actual solution to end toxic dust?
This is not the first time that MLP has offered “dialogue”. In 2015, after being sentenced to return the waters to the valley, the company also offered a dialogue. That “dialogue”, supervised by the Chile Transparente institution, aimed to define jointly between the mining company and the community, how to return water to the community as well as protect it from the danger of the dam. It was presented with a “democratic” face and was supposed to take all those affected into consideration and involve reciprocal listening to seek solutions acceptable to the community. This democratic effort also responded to the launch of new ways of resolving community conflicts proposed by the public-private institution “Valor Minero”, through the search for “a common interest.”
The discourse about “virtuous mining” and “inclusive mining” even suggested that the tailings dam was a “common good”, that is, something that could be good for everyone and in which everyone could somehow participate and also jointly assume the risks. In reality, the limits of inclusion and dialogue quickly became visible when it was realized that the only intentions of MLP were to continue its exponential extraction, expand its production and fill the toxic waste dam with even more toxic waste, despite all the destructive impacts that it would have on the community and the valley.
In 2015 and 2016, the “dialogue” strategy allowed the mining company to conclude a private agreement with some residents, ignoring its obligation to comply with the law and the judgements of the courts. It all ended with the delivery of 28 million pesos to families who agreed to sign an agreement proposed by the mining company and excluding its opponents, while the ex-lawyers of the Ossas y Cia company received an astronomical sum of money from the mining company and then disappeared. MLP had managed to force a conciliation through the delivery of money to some, using the prestigious supervision of the NGO Chile Transparente, which organized and watched over the good conduct of the meetings.
In my capacity as an international observer of the Danielle Mitterrand Foundation, I needed to participate in the round-tables in 2015 only as an observer, constantly reporting on the many irregularities in the “dialogue” process. The Danielle Mitterrand Foundation, from its role as watchdog of the human right to water, never endorsed the extrajudicial process that was carried out in 2016.
At that time, the Chilean law courts accepted an “agreement” between some in exchange for a large sum of money and the dialogue allowed this transaction to be given a legal character, though it cut off the judicial route without solving the underlying problems. Four years later, the solution to the problems that had caused the complaint was nowhere to be seen: there is no water or security in Caimanes.
Now, in May 2020, the word “dialogue” in the company’s mouth sounds bad to the ears of the Committee for the Defence of Caimanes. The Committee is asking MLP to assume its responsibilities and to provide real solutions to the pollution problem.
But up to this time, after 23 days of dust contamination, MLP still seems unwilling to accept the gravity of the problem:
- They have tried to moisten the tailings dam with water from a helicopter to prevent residue from flying. We can easily understand that this is just a temporary solution.
- They affirm that the dust is not toxic because, according to their own experts, the toxic content of the dust does not exceed Chilean standards; but as in the case of water quality, residents do not trust the MLP affirmation, and want independent expertise. The Committee for the Defence of Caimanes supported a meeting with the Superintendency of Environmental Stewardship and asked them to fulfil their responsibilities.
- MLP is always trying to be friendly and offer to finance projects for residents, but this policy of offering projects in the name of corporate social responsibility cannot be promoted as a process to silence claims. The Committee for the Defence of Caimanes does not agree to negotiate away their safety and health. In fact, until they have a guarantee that their lives are not in danger, they are asking for a halt to the operation of the tailings dam.
This is why, through their lawyer Esteban Vílchez, and jointly with local MP Daniel Núñez, they have filed a protection appeal before the Court of Santiago so that people are protected against the serious dust contamination from the Mauro tailings dam. The legal action requests “three independent technical reports that account for the origin of the phenomenon, the content of the dust, its degree of toxicity or danger to life, human health and the environment, and the measures that MLP should take to prevent repetition of the phenomenon”. The appeal asks that filling of the tailings dam be suspended until the reports are available and the security measures suggested by the experts in the independent reports are carried out.
It is hoped that human health, the natural environment and the common good will at last be respected.