SANTIAGO, Jan 17 (Reuters) – Chile’s leading environmental lawyers, who have helped stall around $30 billion in mining and energy projects, say the battle is only just beginning – and copper investments are poised to come under increasing fire this year.
In a significant shift for business-friendly Chile, empowered social groups are successfully suing massive projects over threats to glaciers, health, indigenous rights and biodiversity.
Power projects have so far fared the worse, but Santiago-based lawyers Alvaro Toro and Lorenzo Soto say many communities are now turning up the heat on mining in the world’s top copper producer.
“This year is going to be very conflictive,” Alvaro Toro, a lawyer with environmental NGO OLCA, told Reuters in his tiny office, just a block from the headquarters of world No.1 copper miner, Codelco.
“Projects are increasingly being set up in fragile places. People’s opposition is completely rational,” he said on Friday.
Toro’s OLCA has successfully led legal cases against a number of high profile projects, including Brazilian businessman Eike Batista’s now nixed $5 billion Castilla coal power plant.
Like many of its Latin American peers, resource-dependent Chile is struggling to strike a balance between copper-led economic growth and environmental protection.
At stake is a third of the world’s red metal, which avid consumer China is gobbling up as it builds infrastructure for its urbanizing population.
But with copper making up 15 percent of Chile’s gross domestic product and mining forecast to rake in $100 billion in investment over the next decade or so, conflicts are set to increase.
“The questioning of big mining is just getting started,” said Lorenzo Soto, an independent lawyer, who led the case against global miner Barrick’s controversial $8.5 billion Pascua-Lama project.
The environmental regulator suspended the gold mine last year because pre-stripping began before protective infrastructure was finished, threatening local water supply.
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