by Javiera Martinez

The original Spanish version of this article can be found here.

During the current health crisis, Anglo American has constantly been officially stating, “The most important thing is the health and safety of our workers, our co-workers and the communities around our operations”. But it leaves much to be said about how this can really be put into practice in the territories affected by its mining activities.

Anglo American is one of the largest mining companies in the world, based in London, United Kingdom. In 2019 alone it registered revenues of 29.9 million dollars. In Chile it has mining operations in four different areas: Los Bronces, in the Metropolitan Region; Collahuasi in the Tarapacá Region; and Chagres and El Soldado, both in the Valparaíso Region.

Throughout its years of mining activity in Chile and Latin America, this giant mining company has been involved in various socio-environmental conflicts due to the impact of its activity: degrading the land, endangering the lives of communities, monopolizing water from rivers, catchment areas and glaciers, polluting the ecosystem and threatening the life of all living beings around it. All this has taken place in the context of the mega drought in the country, and the impact has been brutally worsened by the global health crisis. El Melón community, in the commune of Nogales, is an example of this, with the El Soldado Mine as a toxic neighbour.

El Melón community: The impossibility of accessing water and preventing coronavirus

The mega drought in the region is the most serious impact of the mining company’s actions. Anglo American owns water rights to approximately. 400 litres per second. So the company is not only consuming water from the 16 wells it owns, but also supplying itself from underground reserves, capturing the water from the mountains and river basins and affecting the natural flow of the rivers. “The estuaries dried up seven or eight years ago due to the company’s wells, and since 2015 there are families that do not have water in their homes,” says Patricio Dúran, Union Leader at El Melón. At the same time, since April 2019, the community has not been able to have more than 8 litres per second, when about 30 litres per second is what is required to supply the community. As the Poyewn Environmental Group of El Melón explains, only 60% of the inhabitants are connected to the municipal drinking water network, so the rest either have no access to water, or can only access it for a few minutes during the day. 

It is common knowledge, and supported by the World Health Organization, that to prevent coronavirus infection the basic preventative action is to wash your hands with running water of drinking water quality and to be able to disinfect household surfaces, utensils, clothing etc. Currently, the El Melón community’s lives and health are threatened by not having access to running water. The mining company, Anglo American, has monopolized the water for the use of industrial mining processes and they have not been able to take effective measures to return the water to the community, thereby resupplying the water that they themselves have dried up.

On 5 May, the mining company held its Annual General Meeting (AGM), which takes place every year in London, United Kingdom, which is the place where they trade their shares, where they discuss and decide the main lines of company policy. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the AGM was held behind closed doors. However, the company announced it would receive questions online and answer them publicly on their official web page. Thanks to the collaborative work of London Mining Network, which brings together communities affected by mining extractivism and organizations that work for human rights and climate justice, as well as researchers and activists, it was possible to gather and present the socio-environmental demands of the communities affected by the company, including in the area where the El Melón community is located.

Among the themes covered were issues related to water and air pollution, environmental impact mitigation measures, the possibility of the collapse of the El Torito tailings dam, the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cross-cutting issue of the mega drought that the community is facing. For full details see here.

Specifically, regarding the mega drought, the community stated: “In the 2017 sustainability report, Building on solid foundations, delivering a sustainable future, the ‘global sustainability pillars’ are set out, stating that the vision is to operate mines that do not use water from catchment areas where water is scarce. Is the company committed to enforcing this goal in El Melón? In addition, is it possible to return ground and surface water and streams to their natural courses? (“) Is it possible that Angloamerican, not only stops consuming water from the aquifer, but also contributes to its recharge? These questions arise because in 2015, the DGA, the authority that oversees the management of water resources in the country, declared that the aquifer in the Aconcagua river basin was overexploited, as a result of granting water rights from rains and streams that contribute water to the aquifer.”

For this reason, the company replied, “Mega drought is a multi-regional phenomenon that affects the entire country and particularly the central part of Chile and is mainly due to the lack of rainfall. (“) Anglo American is committed to enforcing all of its objectives not only in El Melón, but in all of its operations in Chile and throughout the world.” But to this day and with more than 100 days of Health Disaster Status in Chile, there has been no solution for families and the company is not capable of taking responsibility for the mega drought that El Melón is experiencing.

It is not drought, it is looting: The fight for water, for life

Due to the conditions in El Melón in recent decades, the community has carried out various actions to recover water, such as in November last year, when they had no other option but to take well number 9 from Anglo American, so they could demand the recovery of their water. They maintained this occupation for more than 90 days and carried out demonstrations in parallel with it and with the support of international organizations. The pressure generated led to the establishment of an emergency negotiation round-table between the community, local authorities and the company, but the company’s actions have not improved people’s quality of life, and legal actions have had to be taken to obtain a real and dignified change.

After being unprotected and their lives turned upside down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on April 17, 2020, the community of El Melón, together with the Poyewn Environmental Group, present in the territory, filed a petition for protection in the Court of Appeals of the Valparaíso region against Anglo American, due to the serious damage to the lives and integrity of local families.

In order to support the legal action, a report was required from the Municipality of Nogales that could account for the current state of the municipal drinking water system in the El Melón sector. The report states that “The serious water and climate crisis has seriously affected the drinking water system, as it is very old and in urgent need of complete renovation if it is to provide an effective and efficient service in the medium and long term, because the water requirement for the system to work normally is 92.5 litres per second.”

The report also presents the measures and actions to be carried out in conjunction with the Anglo American SUR SA company in order to better supply the community, stressing that these actions are “voluntary”. It does not attribute the water crisis to the company’s mining operations in the territory.

Despite the fact that the lives of the families are at risk, the Court of Appeals on 7 June rejected the appeal, declaring that,
• The water crisis is not caused by the action of Anglo American’s El Soldado mine.
• The fact that people cannot drink, cook or adopt hygiene measures is a consequence of the damage to the supply water network.
• The required actions do not have to be taken, since they have been “voluntarily adopted” by the company.
And finally, the extraction of water resources by the company is protected by the water rights acquired and registered by the company in the water code.

The situation that the more than 11,000 inhabitants in the El Melón community are experiencing is damaging. The area is being turned into a sacrifice zone for all those who inhabit the territory, and not only due to the pandemic: this situation has gone on for decades, and public institutions have not been able to protect the community because they prioritize the exploitation of resources, through an extractive system, over the health, dignity and life of people.

What the El Melón community is experiencing is just one example of what other communities are experiencing throughout the country due to the impacts of mining and weak or non-existent regulation by the State to protect people’s lives. But organizations campaigning in defence of water and land have generated important awareness and organization work, motivated by the need to survive in infertile territories. That is why they have decided that the mobilization, social struggle and legal action for the right to water will not stop.