A regional environmental evaluation commission in Chile on Wednesday approved a controversial mining project close to a national reserve that is home to a vulnerable species of penguin, despite protests from activists.
The project was previously rejected in 2017 under the government of socialist ex-president Michelle Bachelet for environmental reasons. But a year later, under the new government of right-wing billionaire President Sebastián Piñera, a court ordered a new environmental impact study.
The project, proposed by Chilean mining company Andes Iron, requires a US$2.5-billion dollar investment for the construction of open-air mines and a port.
The commission in Coquimbo, a city 450 kilometres (280 miles) to the north of Santiago and where the project is situated, approved the impact study by 11 votes to one. It now goes to the council of ministers, where it would need final approval.
Opposition legislator Marcelo Díaz hit out at the "acceleration of a process to get it tied up before the end of this government," with elections due in November.
One of Andes Iron's owners is allegedly a close friend of Piñera.
The Oceana NGO says the project threatens "one of the most important marine ecosystems in the world, known throughout the national and international scientific community as a hotspot of biodiversity that must be protected."
The mines and port would be built close to the national reserve where 80 percent of the world's Humboldt penguins live. The reserve was created in 1990 around three islands between the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo in order to protect a unique ecosystem that includes the penguins, which live only in Chile and Peru.
BHP strikes deal with union over copper strike
Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP on Tuesday reached a deal with the workers' union at the world's biggest copper mine, in Chile, which could prevent them going on strike, the company said in a statement.
Workers at the Escondida mine had announced 10 days ago their intention to strike after insisting their demands for a one-off bonus to recognise their work during the coronavirus pandemic had not been met.
In a statement, BHP said negotiations with the workers union had ended, "resulting in the final content of the collective contract and closing conditions."
The 10-day negotiation period was extended by two days until Thursday with the union's members due to vote on whether to accept the agreement.
In 2017, Escondida workers staged a 44-day strike – the longest ever in the Chilean mining industry – that lost BHP US$740 million and provoked a 1.3 percent fall in the country's GDP.
Escondida workers have demanded a one-off bonus to recognise their work during the Covid-19 pandemic – the equivalent of one percent of the dividends the company's shareholders made. They are also asking for a career development plan and education benefits for their children.
Chilean media claimed they had rejected a bonus worth around US$23,000 each.
In April, the price of copper reached a 10-year high of over US$10,000 per ton, and the Escondida mine has projected revenues of more than US$10 billion for this year.
Chile is the world's largest copper producer with 5.6 million tons a year that makes up 28 percent of global output, much of which is sold to China, the world's biggest consumer.
Mining makes up 10 to 15 percent of Chile's GDP and half of its exports.