Heated debates about Chilean glaciers

Arguments and counter arguments are heating up over the Chile’s Glacier Protection Bill. The bill’s history is chequered and has seen many twists and turns over the past few years and now, according to press reports, lawmakers are set to vote on the bill on October 28.

Last week, the Mining and Energy Commission restarted the debate with politicians there looking at various aspects of the bill. Local media reported that Iván Cheuquelaf the country’s Undersecretary of Mining was keen to find a point of agreement.

In a frank statement, Senator Yasna Provoste said, “We already listened to the academy, the government and Cochilco (Chilean Copper Commission). Let’s not continue procrastinating and vote.”

Chile’s Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt had earlier told Bloomberg, “We are in favour of protecting the environment including water reserves and glaciers, but we have to do it correctly.” (She spoke to Pauta Bloomberg radio show). “We have many scientists and data that show us glacial protection can be done correctly.”

Chile is the world’s top copper producing country and rich in other minerals too. According to government figures it contributes 10 per cent to the GDP of the country.

It is also home to over 80 per cent of South America’s glaciers.

Ice cavern in glacier in the Chile mountains

The Glacier Protection Bill has been delayed several times over the past few years. This academic report by Aberystwyth University, tracks the emergence of the bill in its current form and previous avatars.

“The first draft of the law passed Congress in 2008, only to be vetoed by then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who argued that the law would have an adverse economic effect on the country by obstructing the mining industry.”

For a few years now, the arguments on both sides have been strident – one an ecological one and the other an economic one.

The ecological and cultural arguments are quite straightforward.

The Aberystwyth University report states, “Glaciers provide vital ecosystem services (e.g. water storage and runoff regulation) and their fluctuations represent clear visual indicators of climate change. Glacierised environments also attract tourists, generating millions of dollars in revenue worldwide and represent economic assets benefitting the agriculture and hydropower sectors. Furthermore, glaciers have a powerful symbolic and cultural value; indeed some mountain communities believe that glaciers are the abode of deities.”

In Chile, specifically, observers draw a straight line link between glaciers and mining.

Fundación Glaciares Chilenos is a Chilean organisation that works to educate and protect Chilean Glaciers.

In a report, they pointed out, “The glaciologists Alexander Brenning and Guillermo Azócar, in their studies in the mountain range between Copiapó and Rancagua, calculated that by 2010, mining projects had already impacted 4.5 km2 of rocky glaciers, estimating a loss of about 24,106 m3 of fresh water. A recent study, based on observations of satellite images, showed that a third of the rocky glaciers present in the area in 1955 had been removed by mining activity.”

On the other hand, the economic arguments are also quite clear.

Iván Cheuquelaf, Undersecretary of Mining in Chile, in an opinion column speaks more generally about mining’s contribution to the country. “Mining is a key activity in the development of Chile. It represents almost 10% of the national GDP, 53% of exports and a good part of the State’s social spending is carried out thanks to resources that come from it. In this context, mining does not fail Chile, and today it is this activity that will allow the country to face the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.”

A UNESCO report observes, that mining received 45 per cent of the country’s Foreign Direct Investment during 2009-13. Barrick Gold is a large private company that operates in the country alongside state-owned Codelco, estimated to be one of the world’s largest copper companies.

In a related development, Barrick Gold Corporation recently accepted the Antofagasta Environmental Court’s decision to uphold the closure order and sanctions Chile’s environmental regulator imposed on Compañía Minera Nevada, the Barrick subsidiary that holds the Chilean portion (Pascua) of the Pascua-Lama project. A company press release said, “Construction was suspended that year and Pascua would now be transitioned from care and maintenance to closure in accordance with the Environmental Court’s decision.”

Some press reports estimate that if the bill is passed, thousands of jobs in some of Chile’s big mining companies could be lost. The arguments on both sides will have to be carefully balanced.

(We have translated Spanish to English quotes).

(With inputs from Ramsha Tausalkar)

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