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A Grassroots Organization Stops Exploratory Drilling in Chile

In the heart of the dusty Huasco Valley, in the Atacama Region of northern Chile, sits the town of Alto de Carmen, which has just over four thousand inhabitants. A rural community in the foothills of the Andes, it is far from the capital city of Santiago, the epicenter of Chilean politics. Yet on February 19, 2024, it was the site of a major victory over a Canadian mining company. 

Local activists from the community organization Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto, successfully confronted Barrick Gold, a mining corporation with assets valued at $45.81 billion USD and operations on five continents. This organization rallied under the slogan “los glaciares y las lagunas no se tocan” (“don’t touch the glaciers and lakes”), referencing the sources of the river, the Rio del Transito, vital to life in this arid region, that flows through the town and that might be diverted to supply the mining project. Making use of open letters, citizen forums, public statements and demonstrations, these activists put pressure on Chile’s Environmental Evaluation Service (SEA) to cancel its evaluation of a project that would have allowed Barrick, along with its Chilean partner Antofagasta Minerals, to drill eighty exploratory shafts in their valley. Adding to the urgency of the activists’ mission is the looming specter of Barrick’s plans to continue expanding: the mining giant has stated that it is looking “to double its copper production by 2031.”

Activists from the Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto in front of the Tribunal Ambiental in Santiago.
Activists from the Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto in front of the Tribunal Ambiental in Santiago. (Courtesy of Asamblea Guasco Alto/Facebook)

Speaking in January on behalf of the whole municipality of Alto de Carmen, the mayor Cristian Olivares, noted that the preliminary work of Barrick had already impacted “Indigenous communities, transhumant herders and small farmers,” in addition to causing air pollution. Ultimately, the SEA canceled the project, citing inadequate information—information that Barrick should have provided but did not—about the impacts of the proposed project on local flora and fauna.

This was not the first time the Canadian giant found itself in trouble for the environmental impacts of its operations in Chile. Barrick was behind the controversial Pascua Lama gold and copper mining project, about 100 kilometers southeast of Alto del Carmen, which was partially shut down by Chilean environmental regulators in 2017 and shuttered definitively in 2020 after the company had exhausted its appeals. The company was also ordered to pay a fine of roughly $6.72 million USD because  the Pascua Lama project damaged nearby glaciers and contaminated local groundwater.  

Such negative impacts of mining in mountainous regions are widely recognized. As glacial geologist Julie Brigham-Grette at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in an interview with GlacierHub, “Glacial systems, including high alpine glaciers and ice beneath rock glaciers are critical sources of water to the livelihoods and agriculture in the valleys below. Mining in these catchments usually results in contaminated water and can accelerate glacier retreat.”

In the wake of the SEA’s decision to cancel its evaluation of Barrick’s new project in the Huasco Valley, activists released a statement calling the agency’s decision “an important precedent,” noting that the project would “destroy the water sources of this historically agricultural valley.” 

Geographer Fernanda Rojas of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso agreed. “It definitely sets a precedent for other types of activism, but it’s important to note that this [environmental evaluation] procedure doesn’t always work,” she told GlacierHub. “Authorities often go to Indigenous territories and explain things, but they don’t make an effort to explain them clearly or really listen to the communities.”  

Still, local, landscape-based activism remains critical as a source of pressure on government agencies like the SEA to carefully review what information they lack when it comes to evaluating the environmental impacts of extractivist projects. “In many cases, no one else cares about these issues and because they’re connected to these landscapes they can speak for them,” Rojas said. “They may support the new constitution or not, but at the end of the day they are going to respond to what’s happening to them.” 

The constitution to which Rojas referred was proposed in the wake of a referendum following widespread unrest throughout the country in October 2019. At that time, millions of citizens took to the streets to protest neoliberalism, social inequality, environmental degradation, and the regressive constitution implemented in 1980 during the right-wing military government of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Voters overwhelmingly approved drafting a new constitution in October 2020. This constitution contained articles banning mining on glaciers, which continue to shrink at an alarming rate, and protecting watersheds and aquifers. But in September 2022, they rejected the progressive constitution that had been developed by a constitutional assembly of citizens. Its defeat was a blow to activists who supported the environmental legislation it contained and who, in many cases, have been working to enact protections for Chile’s glaciers since 2005.

But even as Chile faces numerous climate challenges and new environmental legislation appears stalled, across northern Chile, environmental activist groups like the Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto are part of a larger movement defending water and water access. Moreover, their tactics—advancing legal challenges and putting pressure on state regulatory agencies—have proven effective. 

Environmental activists and Indigenous rights groups recently joined with the State Defense Council (CDE) to force the mining company Minera Escondida to compensate local communities for precious groundwater extracted from around the Salar de Punta Negra to support lithium mining. Elsewhere, activists stopped the construction of the Tranca Dam, which would have harmed local wildlife and deprived communities of water access. And as lithium extraction creeps southward from the Antofagasta Region to the Atacama Region—the region that is home to the Huasco Valley—Indigenous activists from the Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos (OPSAL) remain determined to stop it

Local opposition to lithium extraction will be increasingly important when it comes to protecting Chile’s fragile ecosystems. Lithium extraction requires evaporating vast quantities of groundwater from beneath some of Chile’s most arid environments. While large-scale mining has reshaped northern Chile for two centuries, lithium is being billed as the resource of the future by an unusual pairing of mining companies and climate-change activists in the global north pushing for an energy transition away from fossil fuels.

Copper still accounts for nearly 10% of Chile’s GDP, but lithium is critical for making the batteries that power electric vehicles and Chile is the second largest producer of lithium in the world. Chile’s president Gabriel Boric announced that Chile’s lithium deposits would be nationalized in April 2023 and some politicians have called for a moratorium on bids to expand production, but nonetheless lithium extraction appears likely to increase.

In this context, putting pressure on state agencies to look more closely at the potential damage mineral extraction can do to both local communities and the ecosystems on which they depend represents an important tactic for activists concerned about the future of Chile’s glaciers, watersheds and aquifers. And as new environmental legislation remains uncertain, local groups like the Asamblea por el Agua del Guasco Alto that seek to defend glaciers and other water sources represent an increasingly powerful force to restrain destructive mining in this important region.

Eric H. Thomas is an environmental anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since 2015, he has worked extensively in the Aysén Region in southern Chile, where his research focuses on the relationship between the aquaculture industry and coastal communities.

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