They say it was the country’s first village to taste freedom. Nestled beside the Andes mountains in a rich, fertile valley in Chile’s central region, Putaendo was the first place revolutionary leader Bernardo O’Higgins and his army passed through on their path to liberate Chile from Spanish rule more than 200 years ago.

But not everyone in the village feels free today. For seven years now, residents have been fighting the development of a major copper mine in the valley that they say would irreversibly damage the environment and their community.

Last year, Vancouver’s Los Andes Copper—one of 40 Canadian mining companies now operating in Chile—was given the green light to perforate hundreds of drill holes in the Putaendo mountain range. Thirty members of the community joined local activist group Putaendo Resiste in filing a judicial appeal to fight the project. 

“We will not be a sacrifice zone. It’s not only about the availability of water, but also the potential contamination, the destruction of our mountains, the destruction of the environment, the destruction of flora and fauna that only exists in this area,” Alejandro Valdés from Putaendo Resiste told The Breach by phone.

But Valdés is hopeful. Rarely does a country get a chance to rewrite the very fabric of its national values, and rarer still is the environment a priority. 

Over the last year, 155 Chileans—elected in a process that ensured gender parity and the inclusion of Indigenous people—have been working to draft a new constitution. Once the draft is finished and passed with a two-thirds majority, Chileans will vote on the new constitution. It’s expected there will be a focus on ensuring Indigenous rights, protection of the environment and access to water. 

The new magna carta is the result of protests against inequality that began in October, 2019, and exploded into months of nationwide uprisings. Eventually, rightwing president Sebastian Pinera gave in to protestor demands and agreed to replace the Pinochet-era constitution currently in place. 

December 2021 marked another turning point for Chile. Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old leftist and former student protest leader, won a contested presidential election. His campaign promised to expand the social safety net, push for tighter environmental legislation and raise mining taxes. 

“Destroying the world is destroying ourselves. We do not want more ‘sacrifice zones,’ we do not want projects that destroy our country, that destroy communities,” Boric said in his victory speech, specifically pointing to the Dominga mining project, which has been a point of conflict for years, as its environmental impact studies were rejected by Chilean authorities on multiple occasions. 

“Chile is totally open to foreign extraction, there are no public tools to say ‘no, you can’t do this project,’”  said Violeta Rabi, a sociologist who is also part of Putaendo Resiste. “But this is what we can change with the new constitution.”

Rabi is deeply concerned about the potential consequences of a mine in her town. “I know that if the mine in Putaendo is installed, it’ll be the end of the valley. There isn’t the possibility of life in this area with the mine there,” she said. “It’s that extreme.”

Rocín River basin. Photo by: Patricio Novoa Quezada

The new copper boom

The proposed mine is called Vizcachitas—named after viscachas, a rodent native to the area—and is fully owned by Canadian company Los Andes Copper. The company describes Vizcachitas as one of the largest advanced copper deposits in the Americas, containing 13 billion pounds of copper equivalent.

Copper is in increasingly high demand as we move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, which has led to a new mining boom. The World Bank estimates that over the next three decades more than three billion tonnes of metals and minerals must be mined in order to power the energy transition. 

Copper supplies—used for wind farms, solar panels and electric vehicles—need to increase by as much as six percent annually to meet the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement. Lithium, a key component in batteries, is also essential in the move towards decarbonisation. 

As the world’s top producer of copper and the second-largest producer of lithium in the world, Chile is a central node in this transition. And Canadian mining companies are already lining up to make a profit.

“As of now, Canada is pushing mining for the energy transition,” said Viviana Herrera of Mining Watch Canada. Ottawa launched its Canadian Minerals and Metals Plan (CMMP) in 2019, setting out ambitious targets to catalyze mining for the energy transition in Canada. But as Herrera points out, “even though the CMMP is focused on Canada, it’s trying to push for mining in other countries.”

Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources Jonathan Wilkinson has made it clear that Canada sees climate change as an economic opportunity, including for mining companies. “Canada has the resources and the expertise to lead the world in producing, processing and growing value chains for critical minerals,” Wilkinson said earlier this month.

“We’re witnessing an elite political and economic alliance to promote mining as a solution to climate change,” said Thea Riofrancos, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Providence College. 

Riofrancos has conducted extensive research on lithium mining in Chile. “I’m skeptical of that narrative because while it is true that the energy transition involves technologies and infrastructures that are produced with minerals, that doesn’t mean that mining is a solution to climate change.”

Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile seen from space.

An enduring crisis of extractivism

A constellation of mining installations dot Chile’s largest salt flat, which covers 750,000 acres. As brine is pumped to the surface it evaporates, producing a lithium concentrate that, from above, appears as crystal turquoise on the world’s driest desert. 

Ramon Balcázar lives in the northern desert town San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, home to most of the world’s lithium supplies. He’s the coordinator of Observatorio Plurinacional de Salares Andinos (OPSAL), which monitors Andean salt flats. 

“Extractivism isn’t only the extraction of minerals, but it’s the whole system. It’s directly connected to economic growth with global capitalism: the energy transition, its corporate network,” said Balcázar. “That for me is a problem because we are reproducing the same system that provoked the climate crisis, which is not only a climate crisis, it is a systemic crisis.”

“[The mining industry] is reframing itself as a climate change savior, as what’s going to provide the critical materials needed for the energy transition,” said Balcázar. “They’re trying to distance themselves from resource extraction and all the social and environmental implications.” 

“We live in global capitalism, so when we go to these resource frontiers, that extraction is used to produce commodities that are consumed elsewhere,” said Riofrancos. “You have to take a closer look at how the energy transition is being designed and implemented, who benefits and who loses.”

The losers, activists say, are those whose lives, lands, and homes are on the mining frontier.

“It’s a tension that isn’t very visible in the global discourse, but it’s important, because to maintain the comfort of industrialized countries with more copper, more lithium, it creates environmental and social conflicts that happen in places like Putaendo,” said activist Violeta Rabi.

“The truth is that this energy transition isn’t going to reach us. It’s greenwashing,” she said via phone from her home in Chile’s central region.  “We need more than this to save us from the ecological crisis.”

Locals protest against large-scale mining in Putaendo. Photo courtesy of Putaendo Resiste.

Strategic minerals, powerful interests

Copper has long been a political bellwether in Chile.

Under socialist president Salvador Allende, copper was nationalized as part of an effort to put Chile’s natural resources to work for the betterment of workers and common people. During Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship, mining profits disappeared into the coffers of foreign companies while the military disappeared, tortured and murdered dissidents by the thousands.

Boric’s recent victory has again put international mining companies and their powerful representatives on edge. Mining stocks fell after Boric’s election win; one of the largest lithium mining companies slumped 10 percent.  According to the International Trade Administration, the mining sector’s contribution to Chile’s GDP last year was 11 percent, representing half of the country’s total exports. Export data compiled by Veritrade shows that from January to November of last year, Chile exported over $800 million of copper to Canada (the second largest export from Chile to Canada over the same period was farmed salmon, valued at just under $60 million).

After coming to power in 1970, Allende nationalized the copper industry, including two leading US owned copper companies. After he was removed from office in a coup d’état in 1973, the military dictatorship of Pinochet cemented Chile’s extractivist policies during its repressive 17-year rule.

Pinochet’s regime wrote Chile’s current constitution in 1980, denationalizing copper and allowing water to be bought and sold on the market. It also put in place economic policies to open up the country’s resources to foreign investment. During this period, copper miners were central in organizing strikes and protests against the military regime. 

Canada’s mining companies have been active in Chile since the early 1990s, and the two countries cemented their relationship through the 1997 Chile-Canada Free Trade Agreement. A massive infusion of Canadian capital into Chile’s mining sector followed. According to MiningWatch Canada, there are currently over 40 Canadian mining companies overseeing more than 100 mines and projects in Chile. 

Los Andes Copper, the junior mining company involved in the exploration phase of the mining project, has been developing Vizcachitas since 2007. But the community didn’t find out until 2015. When they did, locals immediately began to mobilize. Eventually, they filed a judicial appeal with Chile’s Environmental Assessment Service (SEA) against the Valparaiso Regional Environmental Committee’s approval of the drilling, citing irregularities in the Environmental Impact Statement and an inadequate public consultation process. The first hearing is scheduled for the end of this month.

Tensions came to a head late last year when Putaendo’s anti-mining mayor Mauricio Quiroz claimed lawyers representing Vizcachitas filed a complaint against him for “perversion of justice,” accusing him of trying to interfere in the mining project. 

“Those who know me know that I don’t have a particular animosity against any company. However, I have been clear that I oppose large-scale mining projects in the Rocín River basin and in the Putaendo mountain range, because they will destroy nature and negatively impact our communities,” he told Chilean newspaper El Mostrador in December.

Quiroz has long opposed the mine. In early February he filed an appeal with the SEA to reverse a decision that prevents the municipality from becoming involved in environmental matters.

The CEO of Los Andes Copper claims protection of the environment and safety are top priorities for the company. “In all our activities, including drilling, we operate within the strict standards of our detailed permits. We protect the environment and we strive to maximize the value of the project for all stakeholders, including communities, government and shareholders,” CEO R. Michael Jones told The Breach via email.

But for locals, promises aren’t enough. “The conflict in Putaendo is this: we have a situation of extreme drought in our valley. And in this scenario they started developing the mining project, and the huge problem is that its ground zero is located in the center of the Rocin river, which means it’s a huge threat to the availability of water for the valley,” said Valdes of Putaendo Resiste. 

Valdes says that by exerting political pressure, working with NGOs such as MiningWatch, and legal actions, they’ve held out against the Vizcachitas mine for five years. Locals like Valdes and Rabi are gearing up to keep fighting, even as Chile’s new President promises change.

“It’s going to be difficult for the government because there are a lot of expectations. Boric has been very emphatic on installing ideals of looking after the environment, looking after women, looking after young people. So I hope this will be concrete in actual politics,” said Rabi. “I think the most important will be to support the constitutional process, which would recognize the rights of nature, for example.” 

“I think it’s a historic moment and, yes, I have a lot of hope.”

With files from Dawn Marie Paley.

A note from our editorial team
The Breach's coverage reaches hundreds of thousands of readers and viewers—no paywall, no ads. That's because our sustaining members contribute an hour of their wages per month to help us create independent, bold, transformative journalism. Join us today!