Questions were raised at last year’s BHP AGM about the company’s impacts in Chile. But the company’s responses have failed to satisfy its critics.

Commentary by Javiera Martinez

The Atacameño People’s Council raised questions with the BHP company, which operates three mines in northern Chile. The communities of the indigenous peoples of the north have had to resist the impacts of the mining company, impacts that have deepened the effects of the drought suffered by communities and degraded ecosystems.

The main concern of the communities which have the giant BHP as a neighbour is the over-exploitation of the aquifers. The company has tried to repair the damage it has done to the aquifers, but this damage is so severe that it will take 100 to 200 years for them to recover. They do not understand that within 100 years, ecosystems and communities, which depend on water to survive, will not be able to do so, if BHP continues to extract the amount of water it is currently extracting. As well as this, indigenous peoples will continue to be affected, since ancestral, traditional, economic and spiritual practices depend on water.

BHP responded to the communities’ demands for water by denying all responsibility for the mega-drought in the region. The company also attempted to excuse itself by stating that since 2006 it has made efforts to extract water through desalination plants. However, they do not understand that water, whether fresh or saline, is a vital element for the ecosystem in which it is found. According to data from the General Water Directorate of Chile, the region is experiencing a high water shortage. In addition, as Latam-Mining argues, it is projected that the consumption of ocean water in the next 10 years will represent about 43% of the total water consumed today by mining in Chile.

On the one hand, the company boasts of its efforts for the sustainability of the region, commenting on the withdrawal in 2020 of the Environmental Impact Study that it had submitted for the Monturaqui project. According to the company, the cessation of water extraction in the Andean highlands had been brought forward 10 years, as it had originally been planned for the year 2030. But, what can really be inferred from this is that for 15 years the company had been extracting three times more water than authorized in that zone. According to the Superintendency of the Environment, the operation had generated a decrease of more than 25 cm in the water table. As a result, their environmental permit could have been revoked, or a fine imposed, or the closure of the mine ordered. It is thus likely that the company withdrew the Environmental Impact Study because of its possible legal implications. In February of that year, the State Defence Council sued the company for irreparable damage to the Punta Negra salt flat in the region. We therefore find it difficult to trust the good will that BHP has expressed over the sustainability of the region.

On the other hand, the San Isidro de Quipisca Indigenous Agricultural Association filed an appeal for protection against the expansion of BHP’s Cerro Colorado mine. The Supreme Court of Chile ruled in favour of the indigenous group, arguing that the studies presented do not take environmental impacts into account, nor do they consider community resources. Furthermore, the mine’s operations have almost completely dried up the wetlands in the region. As a consequence, operations at Cerro Colorado had to be suspended. However, BHP has continued with its operations in Cerro Colorado, arguing that they are working on the mitigation measures and requirements for the project.

It is clear that the responses issued by BHP regarding the desire to reduce its impacts on the environment, such as reducing the overexploitation of water, are no more than simple statements, and that in reality the company is not taking responsibility for its actions and is deepening water inequity, such as the scarcity in the North of Chile.