Chile: Copper bottomed – by Henry Sanderson (Financial Times – April 27, 2015)

Facing higher costs and lower prices, copper producers are being asked to improve their environmental record

Black flags hang from the doors of the one-storey red brick houses in Caimanes, a village that lies in the hills north of Santiago on the course of the Pupio stream. The banners are the most obvious sign of a bitter environmental protest against a nearby dam, which holds waste from a copper mine — one of Chile’s largest — high up in the Andes.

Last November, a group of up to 150 villagers took matters in to their own hands and blocked access to the dam for 75 days, as the mine ground out copper — used in everything from smartphones to wiring on construction sites in China.

The campaigners felt confident: the previous month Chile’s Supreme Court had ruled that the London-listed mining company Antofagasta — majority owned by the Luksics, one of the country’s richest families — should either demolish the dam or come up with a plan to allow water to flow into the town.

“We deserve respect, it should not just be the mining company doing what it wants,” says Juan Olivares, vice-president of the committee for the defence of Caimanes, as he plans the group’s next move in the small green-painted room that serves as its headquarters. On the wall is a Google Map print of the dam, which he claims pollutes the village’s water supply and poses an environmental threat in case of flooding or an earthquake.

“The mine has to give the water back to the community,” he says.

The battle between the people of Caimanes and the owner of Los Pelambres mine, which produces more than 400,000 tonnes a year of copper, has become a symbol of social change in Chile.

The government of President Michelle Bachelet is committed to tackling inequality and as part of that is demanding higher standards from mine owners. But it is happening against a backdrop of slowing growth in China, the world’s biggest copper market. Prices of the metal — which makes up 13 per cent of Chile’s economic output — fell to their lowest levels in five years just as the protesters kept guard outside the town.

The shift in policy in Chile is being driven by a greater focus on the environment, in some cases, at the expense of economic growth.

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