Chile: Struggling for the right to decide

By Oxfam

Chile is often described as mining's great "success story." It's a country that has used its massive copper reserves to reduce poverty and promote economic development. And yet even in Chile, where mining is credited with doing so much good, Chilean mining companies continue to violate the basic rights of local communities.

In the arid north of the country, where the government has prioritized copper mining, farmers and copper mines struggle to co-exist. Both need water, but the major copper mines, with support from the government and plenty of capital, are buying up the water rights. Farmers, many poor and without powerful friends in the government, are seeing their rivers and streams dry up—or worse, become so polluted they can't use the water.

In 2004, the 2,000 residents of Caimanes, a remote town in Chile's IV Region, faced an additional challenge: a massive tailings dam Pelambres Mining Company built on their doorstep. The dam, which collects waste rock from dissolved copper, would allow the Las Pelambres mine to continue operating for an additional 28 years. And the new tailings dam, when full, will hold 1.7 billion tons of waste.

Despite this huge new source of pollution to their water sources, local people had few outlets to defend their rights. Chile has no provisions in its laws on mining that require any citizen participation in approving or authorizing any expansion of existing mining operations.

But farmers in Caimanes and several other villages continued to voice their concerns that the dam would destroy an entire valley and cut off their supply of water. They said that acid will drain out of the dam, polluting what water that remains, and endangering the one stream that provides their town with water. Tailings dams are also usually a source of dust particles containing heavy metals—these can blow into town and poison people and their animals.

Caimanes is in the poorest region of Chile. Farmers there are concerned about their ability to continue to earn a living, but are also aware that a major earthquake could collapse the dam. This has happened before: In 1965 an earthquake spilled 10 million cubic meters (350 million cubic feet) of mine waste out of a similar holding area and killed 200 people.

Community response

In 2004 community members in Caimanes began working with the Environmental Oversight Office (the Fiscalía del Medio Ambiente or FIMA, a Chilean NGO). They gathered signatures on petitions and filed them in legal courts and requested an injunction to halt construction of the tailings dam. In 2005 the Caimanes community group representing farmers in the area alleged that the permit process for the dam had not been followed properly and that there were archeological sites that were being damaged in the construction. In 2007 a local court in the nearby city of Los Vilos ordered that the mine company halt construction of the tailings dam.

Government and company response

The Las Pelambres mine company appealed the 2007 court order, and the decision put responsibility on a government water commission. This commission had already approved a permit for the construction of the tailings dam, with limited participation from local farmers, so it allowed construction to continue. In 2008 the Chile's supreme court ruled that the right to water for the farmers affected by the tailings dam was being violated, and awarded each of the farmers $40,000. In December 2008 the company announced that it had finished the tailings dam.

Oxfam involvement

Oxfam America provided grant funding for FIMA to help the citizens of Caimanes to defend their rights in court, and raise awareness about their situation among people in Chile. FIMA advocated for a hearing at the Latin American Water Tribunal in 2007, which issued a statement calling for the dam construction to be stopped and the citizens compensated. FIMA has also published reports about the situation in Caimanes and prompted considerable coverage of this case in the international media.

Although the citizens of Caimanes did win compensation and a favorable judgment in court, they did not succeed in blocking the dam construction. "Unfortunately for the people, there are no winners," says a report published by FIMA, The Battle for Water in the Pupío Valley. "This compensation will not make up for the destruction of the quality of life in the valley." FIMA says in the report that the people achieved a "legal and economic victory, but a social and environmental defeat."

Nevertheless, the case sets an important precedent and provides an example to the global mining industry of how responsible companies should not operate.