COQUIMBO – After a history of rejection and controversy, the Dominga Mining Project was approved by the Environmental Commission of Coquimbo in August. The project’s close proximity to the ecologically diverse Humboldt Archipelago has raised concerns among scientists and environmentalists. Unique wildlife, including the Humboldt penguin, could face adverse effects from the development.
The Dominga Mining Project, developed by Chilean company Andes Iron, involves the creation of two open pit mines to source iron and copper in the town of La Higuera. Supporting infrastructure includes a desalination plant and a mega-port for large-scale exportation.
The environmental impacts of this development originally led the Environmental Commission of Coquimbo and the Committee of Ministers of the Environmental Assessment Service to reject the proposal in 2017. However, an appeal made this past May resulted in the reevaluation and subsequent approval made in August. Many environmental groups and politicians spoke out against the decision.
The decision comes amid two years of promising initiatives towards environmental protections in Chile. The slew of progressive candidates elected to the constitutional assembly also indicates that environmental action will have a central place in the new constitution.
In April 2020, the Chilean government released an updated national climate plan under the Paris Climate Agreement, committing to carbon neutrality by 2050. Though more ambitious than previous plans, the update was criticized for not addressing the highly industrialized, polluted areas of Chile known as sacrifice zones.
The eight islands of the Humboldt Archipelago are home to more than 560 marine species, making it an area of global conservation interest. In 2018, international non-profit Mission Blue declared the area a Hope Spot, in acknowledgement of the area’s ecological importance and urgent need for protection.
This diversity is a result of the Humboldt Current, a flow of cold, nutrient-rich water from Antarctica. Within the current, species such as phytoplankton, krill, and anchovies can thrive as a consistent food supply for larger animals. Whales, sea otters, and Chile’s only resident colony of bottlenose dolphins are among the animals spotted here.
The archipelago is also notable for the Humboldt Penguin Reserve, three islands that contain 80 percent of the world’s Humboldt Penguin population. The penguins have drawn ecotourism to the area in recent years.
Wildlife under threat
Despite this natural biodiversity, wildlife is already facing adversity in the archipelago. Of the bird and mammal species, 50 percent are classified as vulnerable or endangered. A warming climate is heating up the Humboldt Current, depleting nutrients from the waters and impacting food supply.
Experts worry the Dominga Mining development could exacerbate these threats. Mining runoff pollution from other projects is already impacting the Humboldt Current ecosystem. Additionally, the planned development of a seaport would likely drive even more waste into the area from passing ships. This contamination can lead to the degradation of the habitats and breeding grounds for animals such as the Humboldt Penguin.
Noise pollution from shipping activity can also impact the movement of migratory species such as whales, which rely on echolocation to communicate and navigate. Noise and disruption from shipping traffic can also increase psychological stress in animals, leading to premature deaths.
Though the project has been regionally approved, Chile’s Supreme Court will need to weigh in with its approval before construction can begin. Five appeals regarding the project approval await decisions. Meanwhile, environmental organizations, such as Alianza Humboldt, will continue to speak out against the development.
Olivia Wolford recently received a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Maryland. She is passionate about issues related to conservation and climate justice.