New mining, same old story…

El Pilpilén Negro N°01 – Marzo 2015

Mining is one of the many industrial activities consisting in the exploitation of natural “resources” through the extraction of raw materials that- in the case of Latin American capitalism (and in any part of the “third world”) – are not manufactured locally, limiting productive activities exclusively to exportation, thus supressing any local economic activity that could be generated through the mineral.

The extraction and processing of minerals is an activity that has prevailed for millennials in America –and probably all across the world- as minerals are a natural substance that our ancestors used for several activities: cultural, religious, artistic, etc. Our historical ancestors indicate that the Atacameños were the first community in our territory that extracted minerals from the rocks in order to obtain red pigments that were used in many different contexts, such as body paint, funerary offerings and art. Metal production was immersed into a lifestyle of high residential mobility characteristic of the coastal areas and was developed to respond to immediate necessities like the loss or fracture of functional tools for agricultural activities. This production was not centralized because it wasn’t serving the production of prestige goods. Instead, it produced useful objects for hunting and fishing. This refutes two common ideas ingrained into official history in regards to human groups extracting metal:

1) That they were complex societies with a growing production control
2) That metallurgical processing was determined primarily by status goods with specific functions for the reproduction and transmission of social class differences.

The metallurgy of coastal societies was developed in undivided societies that held no control or domination over the means of production. Essentially, they only created useful artefacts for their everyday lives. The use of the mineral was therefore a regular and systematic activity in coastal groups, constituted by a society of fishermen, collectors, hunters and miners, immersed in an equal society that prevailed for millennials.

Until they came for the gold. The looting of minerals started with the conquest, colonization and invasion of the Spanish Empire in America. This quick pillaging created an easy way for the old world to enrich itself again, not only through the abundance of gold, but through the incalculable amount of people that were systematically enslaved for the extraction of raw materials.

During the colonization process, the exploitation of riches grew exponentially, influenced by the explosive industrialization of the world through the Industrial Revolution. Thus, the myths of “development and progress” were introduced as the only paradigm for achieving social evolution, hence why new raw materials like steel and silver started being systematically extracted in all the colonized continents.

With the birth of the State of Chile, and after the Independence war perpetrated by a dominant minority that proposed “managing all the wealth” and subjugate the community to serve as a cannon fodder to seize power; mining exportation was consolidated as the main source of enrichment of the State, at the cost  of impoverishing the entire population. Mining exploitation served as a means to pay for the importation of machines and railways by foreign capital for the investment of their businesses, which started to accumulate more bourgeois mining, trade and financial capital. The first railway (Caldera-Copiapó), propelled by Weelwright- an English negotiator- was an initiative of “attention to the necessities of the mining region” once silver was discovered in 1832. With the “Politica del Nuevo Trato” (1955) a reduced tax payment was imposed to businesses looking to increase investments in the mining industry, thus generating the absolute submission and domination of American companies over Chilean copper. In 1971, through left-wing party Popular Unity, an attempt arose to nationalize copper. This initiative ended abruptly with the installation of a new neoliberal model and implementation of the Mining Law, which established property rights on mining through the legal act of “free concession”. This law was elaborated by José Piñera and Hernán Büchi, ultimately transforming mining into private property.

That way, mining sites of copper, gold and other natural resources- like water- became the private property of those who managed it, exempting them from any payments for the value of resources in their fields. This unconstitutional law was a fundamental incentive for big global industries, as through this legislation they managed to obtain not only the usual profits from the capital, but were also able to decide the value of copper and gold, which transformed it into a huge profit. With the return to “democracy”, governments have not only continued applying this dictatorial law of copper –endorsing private property in the mineral deposits-, but have also perfected other legislative mining aspects by adding new incentives that have strengthened the interests of extractivist capitalism.

Nowadays, the global population is more informed and worried about the impact of mega-industry projects on the environment, however these industries present theirselves with misleading friendly marketing strategies to alter public perception. Through this marketing strategy they have managed to ingrain the false idea that they are “working for the integration of the community” and “the social, environmental and touristic development”. How can a mining camp, which would provoke evident destruction, encourage these values? How can this ever be possible?

The main areas of development in the zone, (like olive farming, fishing and extraction of seafood) would be severely affected by the productive process that Dominga proposes: through two open pits they intend to produce approximately 12.000.000 tons of steel and 150.000 tons of copper. That is almost two-thirds of the amount envisioned in Chuquicamatam, where they intend to exploit 95.000 daily tons. The contamination from this process would spread through the air an immeasurable amount of harmful matter for human health, animals and plants.

One of the main “advantages” that the project suggests is that it won’t be necessary to install a new thermoelectric in the zone to supply energy, as the interconnected system (SIC) will provide it.  However in order for the SIC to supply this energy for such a big mega-project they have resorted to barricading rivers and drying valleys to build dams and hydroelectric plants, thus devastating all the natural surroundings and lives of our brothers. It is a vicious circle that sustains a development model of extractivist capitalism based exclusively on the destruction of the environment for the creation of “economy, work and progress”. This economic model only benefits the privileged classes in the urban zones, at the expense of the devastation of rural communities. We already know that if this industrial devastation doesn’t stop, all the inhabitants of the earth will die.

Specifically, the norther area of Chile already represents a critical case, as human life is becoming increasingly hostile due to the lack of water, destruction and devastation. One of the latest examples of this can be seen in Caimanes (town in Chile), where the mining company of Pelambres has dried the valley of Choapa, thus leaving the communities without any water, consequently affecting their health, productive activities and all other aspects of their lifestyle. One of the biggest threats of the mega-project Dominga is the quality and conservation of water, as the minerals that they intend to extract lay beneath an aquifer that provides clean drinkable water to the population of the localities of Los Choro and Punta de Chorors. This point might not seem problematic to technocrats, as they propose implementing a catchment system that would divert the water from the aquifer towards another direction. This is a process that has no guarantees of ever working, it is only a prototype with no history of ever being used that is meant to guide an essential substance for our existence: the blood of the earth.

Let’s not forget that water is already a huge problem and that the droughts are a product of global warning accelerated by industrialization, specifically by mining, agroindustry and any other activities and processes that transform raw materials into products to purchase in our hyper-consumerist society. Mining industries are also currently investing in water desalination plants, which through the extraction of seawater will not only capture water but also any living organisms and kill them in the process, whilst also generating a liquid with a high content of salt and toxic substances that will remain in the sea. Another mega-project of destruction is the Megapuerto, located in Caleta Totoralillo Norte, which would bring big large boats with sonar technology that would render the entire marine area inhabitable for dolphins, wales and any other abundant form of ecosystem in the coast.

The mining exploitation projects represent a devastation of any ecosystem.  As communities of this valley we must be conscious of the territory we live in and defend it, working to obtain clean, fertile surroundings that belong to us.

Translated by Pietro Casati


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