by Javiera Martinez
BHP has two major mines in Chile, the Escondida mine and Pampa Norte. Pampa Norte consists of two wholly owned operations: Spence and Cerro Colorado. Both mines are in the Atacama Desert and both have severely depleted local water resources at a time when Chile is experiencing a megadrought. The Cerro Colorado Mining Company produces high purity copper cathodes and is located 4.5 kilometres from the Sabaya area in the Quipisca gorge, the place of residence of the communities of the indigenous association. The mine is located in the Pozo Almonte commune, 95 kilometres to the east of Iquique, in the Tarapacá Region.
The Cerro Colorado mine was found to extract almost three times as much water as it was authorised to. This has resulted in damage to lakes and wetlands that cannot easily be reversed, while many people whose livelihoods depend on the land have been forced to move to urban areas (1). BHP has had to face several judicial processes in Chile due to its irresponsible actions. Indigenous communities and organizations have organized to stop the negative impacts that the mining giant generates in their territories. In 2019, the Environmental Qualification Resolution, RCA, of the “Cerro Colorado Operational Continuity” project was partially annulled, which was subsequently ratified by the Supreme Court. Last week a precautionary measure was ratified and prohibits the Cerro Colorado Mining Company from continuing to extract water from the Lagunillas aquifer
According to the report presented by the Court, “there is a need to prevent the adverse effects of the extraction of groundwater maintained by the mining company on the Lagunillas aquifer from continuing to manifest and worsen.” They add that the only action that “for now” allows achieving the protection of the lake and wetlands is the paralysis of the extraction of water(2). Luis Jara, who filed the lawsuit against BHP, emphasized that “The environmental damage is a consequence of the illegal and culpable actions of the company” and “The water withdrawals have been carried out by the company despite the fact that they do not have the rights to use the water.”
From October 1, BHP will not be able to extract more water from the aquifer, which is great news for all the communities and ecosystems that are facing the mega drought in their territories.