Chile penguins win battle in war against mine

Chile penguins win battle in war against mine

They may be less than a metre tall but they have conquered a Goliath: Chile’s vulnerable Humboldt penguins have thwarted -- for now at least -- a billion-dollar mining project in one of the country’s most-depressed regions.

The rare species is only found on the coasts of Peru and Chile, which has created the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve -- but it’s also an area rich in natural resources which has put the animals on a collision course with mining giant Andes Iron and their big-budget billion project.

Conservationists jumped to their defence when the company unveiled plans to construct a huge open-cast mine and a port near the reserve, 600 km north of Santiago.

The Dominga mine would have produced 12 million tonnes of iron ore a year, making it the biggest of its kind in the country, and 150,000 tonnes of copper. For months it made headlines amid a bitter national debate over economic development and environmental conservation that was fought out on social media and split the socialist government of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

The project was rejected in March by an environmental commission but Andes Iron appealed the ruling. In August, a special cabinet committee which included the energy and mines, health and environment ministers, finally vetoed the project citing of a lack of guarantees for the penguins.

Humboldts have been protected here since 1990, when the reserve was set up to encompass the islands of Dama, Choros and Gaviota, a stunning nature trail beloved of whale, sea-lion and penguin watchers. Rodrigo Flores, vice-president of the fisherman’s union in nearby Punta Choros, a jumping off point for tours of the islands, welcomed the move. “Dominga is an invasive project, for nature and for society,” he said. “It is incompatible with a place considered a hot spot of biodiversity at the global level.”

But that’s not everyone’s view. Joyce Aguirre is one of the project’s staunch defenders in the local community of La Higuera. “Every project has an impact,” she said, arguing that the government had a duty to come down on the side of jobs. “We want to be vigilant and watch what’s going to happen. We are the ones who live here and we would never want to damage the area.”

Conservation NGO Oceana warned of the risks to the ecosystem from the mine, whose port terminal was set to be built 30 km away from Choros island.

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