The world is seeing the unfortunate social and economic effects of the spread of COVID-19: to date it accounts for more than 250,000 deaths and a global economic recession of around 3% (according to the estimate of the International Monetary Fund – IMF), the worst since the economic crisis of 1929. However, even in this context, mining and hydrocarbon operations in many Latin American countries have sustained their activities and even, in some cases, increased them, following the decision of the governments in turn to declare them essential and/or strategic activities. This, among other things, reveals the extractivist essence of the region and warns of a possible deepening of the model in the different post-crisis scenarios, as social and environmental standards may be relaxed in view of an economic revival.
Nationally, the mining guild has publicly positioned the sector as a “strategic” activity, presenting some normality in its operation and even showing growth figures during the first quarter of the year. Thus, despite the annual economic contraction of the 4.5% projected for the country (by the IMF) and the sharp fall in the economy in March as a result of COVID, which is expressed in a 3.5% decrease in the Monthly Economic Activity Index (Imacec, compared to the month of the previous year), mining activity grew by 0.8%[i] and the mining production index (IPmin) showed a year-on-year increase of 2.3% for the same month. These indicators unfortunately show us that our country’s mining profile does not escape the regional extractivist character and, moreover, shows its deepening in times of pandemic.
This mining landscape has undoubtedly been accompanied by a strong corporate social marketing strategy and old “conciliation” practices used by the sector, those seeking validation and licensing to operate in territories that have a historic absence from the State – in the delivery of basic goods and services – and which, in turn, are strongly affected by the health crisis. Thus, the group of companies that make up the Mining Council was not exenated from the donation carried out by the Confederation of Production and Trade (CPC), contributing $17 billion pesos to the emergency fund created by the business sector to deal with the effects of the pandemic.
This extractive “benevolence” although today expressed in this large economic contribution and in the different initiatives developed by each of the mining companies in the places where they are located (delivery of hygiene and disinfection inputs, rapid tests of arrest of the coronavirus, basket of food, among others), is due to a sectoral policy of co-optation and clientelism of long standing. In fact, the Comptroller General of the Republic recently, by an opinion, called as “inappropriate” the consultation carried out by the Minister of Mining, Baldo Prokurica, on the relevance of the donations that may be received by Municipalities and Regional Governments by individuals who have an interest in the environmental impact assessment of projects, since these contributions involve possible conflicts of interest between donors and recipients of the contribution.
As can be seen, the mining industry has spared no resources or instances that allow it to position itself as a “socially responsible” activity and thereby streamline its investment plan in the territories. Indeed, during these months several projects have progressed in approving their environmental assessment, which, despite the current scenario of health crises, have presented resistance on the part of communities. Such is the case of the vizcachitas mining company and the community of Putaendo, which are disputed over the eventual impacts of the project on the water availability of the Rocín River.
Similarly, communities located near mining activities have criticized them not stopping their operations, considering the potential risk of contagion they present to their local workers and villagers. The Atacameños Peoples Council, for example, was mobilized to demand a health barrier to the entrance of the commune San Pedro de Atacama, since copper and lithiferous companies operating in the vicinity of the Salar de Atacama have not paralyzed their work, representing a potential source of contagion for the large number of older adults who make up the community and who, in turn, are part of the living heritage of the Likanantay people.
It is clear that the mining discourse has positioned itself on the government’s economic agenda, making the socio-environmental problems and externalities that derive from it. However, the first problems of the model begin to emerge from the volatility that commodity prices (oil, copper, gold, among others), which in our country is expressed in a fall in copper prices that leaves at least half of the domestic mining production trading at losses, affecting tax revenues at at least US$ 5 billion less revenue, according to estimates made by the Directorate of Budgets (DIPRES).
In this sense, in times of pandemic it is vital to rethink our development strategies and rethink our conception of well-being. Since Fundación Terram, we call not to fall into false solutions that reproduce the historical extractivist practices that have deepened inequality and the destruction of nature in our country, instead, we propose that it is necessary to establish a country dialogue that allows us to project and move towards a new ecosocial pact, to lay the foundations for a new paradigm of development with equality and climate relevance, which, in turn, presents a great environmental momentum with patterns of carbon-free production and consumption, strengthening local and regional economies – as ECLAC has pointed out – with a productive structure that promotes innovation and development of knowledge-intensive activities and, finally, a framework of public policies that channel universal access to basic goods and services. Only in this way will we move towards genuine well-being for the country, its territories and the people and ecosystems that make up it.
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