Green light for mining project raises red flags for Chile penguin reserve

  • A mining and port project that could threaten penguins and other marine species has been approved near Chile’s Humboldt Archipelago.
  • The approval has sparked widespread criticism from the scientific community, civil society, government officials and politicians, who say it ignores conservation science and prioritizes business interests.
  • Politicians and conservationists from civil society organizations say they will go to court to try to stop the project.

The approval of a mining and port project in Chile has generated a wave of outrage in the country. The Dominga project was rejected in 2017 due to its potential risks to biodiversity. However, in August 2021, the Environmental Assessment Commission for the Coquimbo region, the area where the project would be developed, voted to approve it with 11 votes in favor and only one against.

Scientists, politicians, government officials, conservationists and citizens are now demanding that the Dominga project be stopped. Hundreds of people in Chile have taken to the streets to protest.

The Chilean Society of Marine Sciences has asked the authorities to “stop the project and decide once and for all not to carry it out under any current or future circumstances.”

Officials from the Ministry of Environment and the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service published statements criticizing the commission’s decision, as did the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), the public institution responsible for managing Chile’s protected wild areas. “We have never expressed our support for this project because the information presented does not allow us to ensure its environmental sustainability,” CONAF said in its statement.

Members of the upper and lower houses of parliament have also joined the fray, saying they will pursue legal channels to stop the project. Eve Crowley, country representative of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), called for the area’s protection and “avoiding the irreparable damage that a project like Dominga could have on such an ecosystem of global importance.”

What is at stake?

The planned site for the Dominga iron mine and port is La Higuera, a community that sits on the Pacific coast across from the Humboldt Archipelago, a vitally important marine ecosystem. The Humboldt Channel that runs between the coast and the islands is an important whale corridor and home to Chile’s only bottlenose dolphin colony. Scientists have identified 14 cetacean species that occur in the area, several of them globally threatened. The area is also home to the world’s smallest marine mammal, the marine otter (Lontra felina), an endangered species, as well as 68 fish species, 180 seaweed and invertebrate species, and 122 bird species. In total, up to 560 marine species occur there.

El proyecto Dominga se instalará sobre el área de alimentación de las especies que habitan en las reservas cercanas. 200 científicos enviaron una carta al Presidente Sebastián Piñera explicando la necesidad de proteger dicho espacio. Foto: Oceana – Eduardo Sorensen.
La Higuera seabed. Image by Eduardo Sorensen (Oceana).

The Humboldt Archipelago, considered a priority conservation site, is home to Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, where 80% of the world’s Humboldt penguins (Spheniscus humboldti) live. The species is listed as vulnerable. The archipelago’s islands of Chañaral, Choro and Damas host 90% of the world’s Peruvian diving petrels (Pelecanoides garnotii), a near-threatened species.

The rich marine biodiversity of this area has led coastal communities and regional agencies to call for protecting the entire archipelago. Marine conservationist Carlos Gaymer says the wildlife that occur here tend not to feed on the islands, but rather on the mainland on the other side of the Humboldt Channel — the area where the Dominga mine and port are planned.

Map of the Dominga and Puerto Cruz Grande mining and port project. Image courtesy of Proyecto Dominga.

Gaymer is the Southeast Pacific regional coordinator for the World Commission on Protected Areas-Marine; director of the Millennium Nucleus Center at the Ecology and Sustainable Management of Oceanic Islands (ESMOI) organization; and a researcher at the Catholic University of the North and the Center for Advanced Studies in Arid Zones (CEAZA). He calls it a paradox that, while the Humboldt islands themselves are protected, across the channel “the feeding grounds of the species protected by the reserve are not being protected. Protecting nesting areas is pointless if feeding areas aren’t also protected.” This is evident, for example, in the Humboldt Penguin Conservation Plan, which highlights that “the degradation of feeding grounds is the priority threat in terms of scope, severity and irreversibility.”

The fact that the Dominga project is located in the feeding grounds of the very wildlife meant to be protected by the reserve was one of the reasons why CONAF made Andes Iron, the company in charge of the project, aware of the need to include protected areas within the project’s area of influence. However, the company ignored this recommendation, saying the project would not impact the reserve.

As a result of Andes Iron’s position, the project’s environmental assessment found the marine environment baseline to be deficient, as it underestimates the area of influence. The project was rejected in 2017 by both the Coquimbo Environmental Assessment Commission and the Committee of Ministers, as it would put one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the continent at serious risk.

Four years on, the project has now been approved after various legal proceedings, which, according to the Chilean Society of Marine Sciences (SCHCM), indicates that all the warnings issued in various scientific and technical reports have been ignored.

An outraged community

The Coquimbo Environmental Assessment Commission approved the Dominga project on the condition that Andes Iron complies with certain measures to make the project environmentally sustainable. However, according to CONAF, these conditions were not evaluated during the process.

CONAF says this indicates an implicit recognition that the project is not environmentally sustainable, and that the project will irreversibly impact the viability of species and ecosystems under conservation.

Various organizations as well as senators have announced they will file an appeal for protection against the project, requesting that the area be declared a marine protected area.

Endangered marine otters are among the species that live in the protected areas near the project site. Image courtesy of Eduardo Sorensen/Oceana.

Chile’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, has also expressed its rejection of the project through the approval of a draft resolution. Deputy Cristina Girardi said that they were also going to pursue other legal channels as they considered the decision to approve the project unfathomable. “One can speculate that the interests of the owners of these projects are being protected over the environment,” she said.

The National Association of Officials of the Ministry of the Environment (ANFUMMA) said what was now unfolding was “how economic interests are transformed into political decisions that ignore their advisers and technical evaluation teams.” It said this case highlights the weaknesses in Chile’s environmental impact assessment process, which it described as being designed so that projects are approved without really taking into consideration the often irreversible impacts they may cause.

Crowley, the FAO representative in Chile, called the Humboldt Archipelago “one of the world’s most productive ecosystems and a livelihood source for thousands of men and women.” Locals practice artisanal fishing and harvest seaweed and shellfish. The area is also important for whale-watching tourism and traditional seafood cuisine.

Crowley also noted that in 2019, as the chair of the COP25 climate summit, Chile had committed to protect the ocean and strengthen and expand its marine protected areas.

The world’s largest colony of Humboldt penguins is found in Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. Image by Steve Silverman via Flickr.

The Federation of Fishing Supervisors’ Trade Associations of the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service also said the project’s baseline not only underestimates the area of influence by not considering the protected areas, but also “underestimates the artisanal fishing activity developed over decades that provides daily sustenance to more than 600 fishers and their families.”

Thirty percent of the national harvest of Chilean abalone (Concholepas concholepas) comes from the area where the Dominga project would be located. The site is also one of the few where surf clams (Mesodesma donacium), the central ingredient in the popular dish macha, can be found.

Officials from Sernapesca, the fisheries service, say this biodiversity makes the area a national tourist attraction and an international biodiversity hotspot. More than 100,000 people visit the area every year, drawn by the marine fauna, which “has generated countless jobs, strengthening the local economy with a sustainable activity,” officials say.

But they warn this biodiversity will be seriously threatened due to “eventual spills of hydrocarbons, iron, and other contaminants (such as the noise pollution that the port and the ships arriving there will produce).” They also express concern about the risk of whales being hit by the increased ship traffic to the new port, and the changes to the feeding grounds of the Humboldt penguin, seabirds and small cetaceans such as bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncates) and Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus).

Prominent international conservationists and scientists, including Jane Goodall and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, had also spoken out against the project before it was approved.

Approval of the Dominga project came just two days after the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report that warned of “irreversible” changes over the next “centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean” as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Ministry of Environment officials said this “evidence of the climate crisis — alarmingly revealed in the recent IPCC report — has made it more urgent than ever to make decision-making based on scientific research a reality.” They also demanded that the Coquimbo authorities reverse their decision and cancel the authorization of the project.

Banner image: Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus). Image courtesy of the Protected Resouces Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, La Jolla, California.

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Aug. 23, 2021.