There are numerous socio-environmental conflicts in our country, Chile, whose legislation and application of environmental regulations show obvious shortcomings. On this occasion we are located in the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, located between the Atacama and Coquimbo regions, home to dozens of native species of flora, fauna and fungi of the country, in addition to being one of the three “hope spots” located in Chile. , which, due to their great relevance in the preservation of marine ecosystems, should be places of enormous protection both from human civilization and from what surrounds the Anthropocene (pollution, noise pollution, extractivism, etc…), however, nowadays today this place is seriously threatened by the new mega project “minera dominga”, a mining extraction center that has been in operation for 22 years, threatening both its activities and its waste throughout the area’s marine ecosystem, what is the relevance of areas such as the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve? What consequences would the installation of a mining project of these magnitudes have in an area with a highly sensitive ecosystem?
The Humboldt Penguin National Reserve (RNPH), created in January 1990, is located between the Atacama Region and the Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, and contains the Humboldt Archipelago.
The RNPH is made up of eight islands and has an area of approximately 890 hectares. The main islands are: Isla Damas, Isla Chañaral, Isla Choros and Isla Gaviotas. In this area, a natural event called upwelling occurs, which consists of masses of water that rise from the depths of the sea to the surface. This ascent of deep waters rich in nutrients favors biodiversity and the production of food for local and migratory species.
In terms of biodiversity, the Humboldt Archipelago, and the eight islands that make it up, are home to the world’s largest population of Humboldt penguins, a population of bottlenose dolphins, various species of whales that feed, rest and reproduce in the area. In addition, we find algae forests, sea otters (chungungo), sea lions, killer whales, dolphins and birds such as swallows and the yunco duck.
This extremely important marine ecosystem will be affected by the installation of a mining-port megaproject, Minera Dominga. The project, as defined on its website, will be located 16 km northeast of La Higuera where there will be a desalination plant, two pits, a sterile deposit and a thickened tailings deposit.
The importance of Hope Spots
The term Hope Spot or Place of Hope, is defined by its author Dr. Sylvia Earle, explorer and marine biologist, as “special places that are scientifically recognized as critical for the health of the oceans.” According to the website of Mission Blue, an organization Sylvia founded, these places provide hope for the following reasons:
Habitat of rare, threatened or endemic species.
They possess an abundance or diversity of unusual or representative species, habitats or ecosystems.
The anthropogenic impact is still reversible.
Important natural processes are developed such as: migratory routes or spawning areas.
They have historical, cultural or spiritual value.
They are of economic importance to the community in the area. (Hope spot, s.f.)
There are currently around 85 Hope Spots in the world and the Humboldt Archipelago is one of the three that exist in Chile, recognized as Hope Spot in April 2018. It is essential to protect these places, since they are home to unique ecosystems and contribute to conservation. of the oceans.
Species in the RNPH
The regions of Coquimbo and Atacama have a privileged sea in terms of availability of jobs and food for human consumption. In these two regions we find locos, piure, mussels, limpets, hake, horse mackerel, sole among other fish and shellfish. At the national level, the Humboldt Archipelago is one of the places with the highest biodiversity at the national level (Ministry of Environment, 2014). There are 59 species of vascular plants, among which yellow añañucas, lilies and others stand out. There are also 68 species of terrestrial vertebrates, among the mammals is the chungungo, one-haired wolf, two-haired wolf. Birds are the most abundant and among them are the Humboldt penguin, the Yunco duck, lile duck, guanay, sea elephants, all protected species and in conservation categories. Marine mammals are represented by bottlenose dolphins and the sporadic presence of whales and sperm whales (C.N.F., 2008).
It is estimated that about 80% of the world population of Humboldt penguins nest in the reserve, among other bird species (Ministry of the Environment, 2014; C.N.F, 2008).
According to the latest Management Plan carried out by CONAF: “In the Reserve, endemic species correspond to 13.2% of the total, of which 88.9% are reptiles (8 species) and 11% are birds. All the species of reptiles present on the islands are endemic to Chile, especially to the North Zone, for which their conservation is fundamental, since being reproductively isolated from the continent, evolution could lead them to a greater differentiation with respect to it. , being able to form new subspecies or species typical of the islands. Only 2.9% of the species in the Reserve are introduced (2 species of mammals) with all the rest being native, non-endemic (83.8%).” (CNF, 2008).
The movement of water in the upwelling occurs from the bottom towards the sea. This flow favors the rise of nutrients that fertilize coastal and oceanic areas and allow the growth of larger organisms, which are the sustenance of fisheries (Chile es Mar).
In the sea in front of the commune of La Higuera, an oceanographic phenomenon called upwelling occurs, in which masses of cold and nutrient-rich waters rise from the depths of the ocean to the surface, favoring the production of food for species that inhabit temporary or permanently the area.
The basis of aquatic ecosystems is phytoplankton, microorganisms responsible for carrying out photosynthesis, therefore, they are producers of oxygen and organic matter. They produce about 50% of the oxygen present in the atmosphere, in addition to being the primary source of food for marine species (Cavicchioli et.al., 2019). In the reserve, we find varieties of plankton, krill, as well as huiro algae forests, which provide shelter and food to other species, such as fish and crustaceans.
In the RNPH there are various species such as: Humboldt penguins, the Yunco Duck, the Piquero, various species of terns, sea otters, sea lions. In addition, we find blue whales and fin whales that come to feed in this area in the summer period (from November to March), where they can be seen more frequently. It is important to note that according to IUCB (2020) and the Ministry of the Environment (2014), both the fin whale and the blue whale are species that are in danger.
Thanks to the Humboldt Current, this area is characterized by having a large concentration of Krill, crustaceans and plankton, which is why other species of cetaceans also come to feed.
On the other hand, there are very interesting bird species, such as the Yunco. This bird spends most of its life in the sea, is capable of diving up to 80 meters to look for small fish such as sardines and anchovies, and only comes close to the mainland to nest on Choros Island. The Yunco’s conservation status went from vulnerable to endangered according to the IUCN (BirdLife International, 2020).
According to the official National Geographic site, the blue whale is the largest known animal that has ever populated the Earth. This whale can reach 30 meters in length and weigh up to 180 tons. In some cases, their tongue can weigh as much as an elephant and their heart as much as a car.
The blue whale reaches these inordinate dimensions on a diet consisting almost exclusively of a tiny shrimp-like animal, the krill. An adult blue whale consumes about 3.5 tons of krill a day (National Geographic, s.f) There are also rock fish, such as the pejeperro, which is already extinct in Arica and Parinacota, or the mocking sunfish.
Dominga Mining-Port Project, what is it and what do you want to do?
Minera Dominga is a project that aims to extract and export iron and copper from the area near Punta de Choros, 16 km northeast of the La Higuera commune. It will have two open pits, a south pit and a north pit, a desalination plant, a sterile deposit and a thickened tailings deposit.
In the area there are about 2 billion tons of minerals underground, including iron and copper. The plant will be connected to a shipping terminal on the coast, through 3 underground pipelines of 26 km that will carry water and iron. The terminal will be located in northern Totoralillo, where the iron will be collected, filtered and shipped to ships.
The project plans to operate for about 27 years and also seeks to provide jobs in the area, as well as 5 liters of water per second to the community of La Higuera (currently with water scarcity), desalinating seawater and obtaining two products, water drinking water and brine (sea water with high concentrations of salt), which would be returned to the Pacific Ocean. It is estimated that the amount of brine extracted daily would be equivalent to about seven fields of the National Stadium.
Points for and points against
The project would provide jobs for the people of La Higuera during the construction process of the plant and later during the extraction of the minerals. This could mean a positive difference economically for the people who live in this region and generate the development of this area. However, this would last for the duration of the project, that is, approximately 27 years.
Desalinated water would be delivered to the commune of La Higuera, where there is currently a shortage of this primary good.
The alteration of the marine environment would affect communities that extract resources from the sea. For example, the Los Choros community, which has been fishing sustainably for years, would see the quality and quantity of fish and shellfish they extract affected.
Local tourism for whale watching, dolphins, penguins and marine fauna in general, would also be reduced. The acoustic, marine and visual intervention that would be generated in this Hope Spot would impact the sighting of species and their survival.
Probability of losing the feeding grounds of marine species, such as the Blue Whale or the Fin Whale, which are in danger of extinction.
The two mining pits affect the habitat of terrestrial animals, which could alter the natural behavior of animals, including the culpeo fox.
Risks of spillage or filtration of substances or minerals producing contamination or stranding, which may directly affect the species.
The Humboldt archipelago is irreplaceable, that is, under legal concepts for the installation of a project, this ecosystem is not transferable to another place, its characteristics are irreproducible. (Law 19,300).
Impact on local fauna
In April 2016, the feasibility study for Minera Dominga was completed and it is currently in the process of obtaining environmental permits to operate. However, its environmental impact study contains worrying information that is indicated below.
It is mentioned in the study, collisions of cetaceans with boats and numerous cases of sightings of cetaceans and marine species that see their natural behavior hindered by the frequent passage of boats and the noise they generate in the environment. Ship-cetacean collisions occur primarily with large, high-speed ships. Collisions generally occur in coastal areas with a high concentration of cetaceans, for example, where they feed or reproduce (Laist, 2001).
Chungungos or sea otters depend on the rocky ecosystem, their mating occurs between December and January and their diet consists mainly of invertebrates, including crustaceans (shrimps and crabs) and molluscs, as well as vertebrates (fish) and occasionally birds and small mammals ( Ministry of Environment). (c) Maexico, Bee Pollinating Almond Tree
On the other hand, the Humboldt penguin is in a vulnerable conservation status, that is, it faces a high risk of extinction. 80% of the Humboldt penguin population nests in this area, which means that the preservation of their habitat is critical for their conservation.
mutilated tail (top photo) and cuts on the back (bottom) presumably by a boat propeller. Photos: Brittaney Bearson and Fernando Félix/ FEMM archive. (Felix, 2007)
According to the Environmental Impact Study carried out by the mining company, there would be alterations in the nesting process of the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), due to the maritime operation, for which they plan to take measures to move their nests to northern Totoralillo. The destruction of habitats as a result of coastal development also affects its population, since the breeding areas are reduced and, in addition, the presence of humans in the places where it nests increases its heart rate, causing them to abandon the nests and thus their eggs. or chicks (De la Puente et al. 2013).
In the case of flying bird species, there are risks of collision and electrocution with power lines, as well as an increase in sound pressure level due to the use of machinery and equipment in Totoralillo (boarding terminal). In this study, there are numerous possible damages to the environment, and not only to the ocean, but also to terrestrial ecosystems, for which the measure of mobilizing plant and animal species to other areas similar to where they currently live would be applied. (Environmental impact study)
Humpback whales with a mutilated tail lobe (top photo) and cuts to the back (bottom photo) presumably from a boat propeller. Photos: Brittaney Bearson and Fernando Félix/ FEMM archive.
Humboldt penguin, in North Totoralillo Islet. (Cesar Villarroel, 2019)
The Humboldt Penguin National Reserve (RNPH) was created in 1990 with the aim of protecting penguins and other species, understanding that this area has important hydrobiological resources for its conservation. Therefore, the protection of this place is paramount if the aim is to conserve the species that depend in one way or another on it.
The community of Los Choros and especially its fishermen, make responsible use of this area to extract its resources sustainably, it is a practice that they have inherited from their ancestors and have helped enormously in the preservation of this fragile place that has already been treated. to intervene before with the Central Barrancones.
The Hope Spots are unique places, where you can see a unique biodiversity and reflect the cultural heritage associated with the area. The Humboldt Archipelago has unrepeatable characteristics, in addition to being the sustenance both for the people of the region and for the species that inhabit it.