Copper, ICT and Human Rights abuses in Chile

Copper, ICT and human rights abuses in Chile

Elif K, Seb S, Seb O.

Brazil’s decision to withdraw their bid to host the 2019 UNFCCC COP-25 was a worrying but expected blow, if you consider the far-right’s systematic denial of climate change. The hate-filled threats towards environmental activists and indigenous populations living in the Amazonian forest, echoed by Bolsonaro on the day of his inauguration, and the ensuing policies, are a stark confirmation of this concerted position.  

But given the imperative threat posed by those quite willing to sacrifice entire populations, and earth-sustaining territories like the Amazon - how should we understand Chile’s announcement to co-host the next Conference of the Peoples?  

In our ground-breaking new report: Copper, ICT and HR abuses in Chile, we analyse the impacts of one of the so-called commodities of the future, copper. Detailing how a Chilean company, Antofagasta PLC, has become one of the world’s leading copper producers, the report illustrates the extreme vulnerability faced by small communities who try to stand up to giant mining companies that are seemingly able to violate human rights without fear of reprisal.

Fundamentally, It raises important questions about the role that governments, organizations and social movements should play in the context of the impending climate crisis, the transition to renewable energies and the inevitability of the so-called ‘4th industrial revolution’.

The Conflict: Life in the shadow of El Mauro

Situated in north-central Chile, Minera Los Pelambres (MLP), a subsidiary of Antofagasta, stores its fine toxic wastes (tailings) in water contained by the El Mauro dam; the largest tailings dam in Latin America, which sits just 10km from the community of Caimanes. This frontline community’s decades-old struggle has become a symbol of resistance in the continent.

Living in the shadow of a 300-metre-high toxic-waste dam containing over 2 billion tons of tailings, in an area with regular seismic activity, means living in constant danger of your life. That’s how the Supreme Court of Chile judged the situation of Caimanes in 2014, ordering the company to implement an emergency and protection plan in case of collapse. A judicial order that was never adhered to.

Less than one year after, on November 4, 2015, Brazil would suffer first-hand the catastrophic impact of such a collapse, when the Samarco tailings dam burst, killing 19 people, destroying 600km of river basin, affecting 1 million inhabitants and causing Brazil’s worst ever environmental disaster.

Samarco is one hundred times smaller than El Mauro.

The unaccountable power of corporations

The tremendous amounts of political and economic power amassed by corporations transforms rights into transactional bargaining chips, exchanged at will for economic support – desperately needed by local authorities.

One of the most serious aspects of this distortion is enshrined in the strategy of "mutual benefits", which ends up excluding the quality of human rights, and runs the risk of being imposed as mandatory in the communities to the extent that the government – and company – decide.

When power is challenged, the complexity and cost of presenting a case before the courts places the company at a distinct advantage above communities. Even when cases are presented and won, the rulings of Chile’s top judicial bodies aren’t executed, while the immediate and long-lasting impacts remain intact.

On the two occasions that the construction of the dam could have been stopped, well-documented cases of co-optation of the community lawyers by MPL, led to the abandonment of the court orders.

A justice transition in the era of technology

Chile – which hosts the world’s largest copper and lithium reserves – will no doubt play a central role in the attempt to mitigate the impacts of a toxic 150-year-old dependency on oil, gas and coal. A transition to 100% renewable energies requires large quantities of these minerals for everything from electric vehicles to wind-power technology.

At the heart of the fossil-fuel addiction powering the industrial revolution was the colonial dynamic of extracting large quantities of resources – overwhelmingly from South to North. Not surprisingly, the Chilean neo-liberal model of extractivism is based on key policies adopted during Pinochet’s criminal dictatorship guaranteeing the rights of mining corporations.

No less daunting, the so-called 4th industrial revolution of high tech, bid data and artificial intelligence, will see industries like ICT boom as they have been, while communities and workers suffer the outsourced impacts of unregulated supply chains, from the mines to the factory floor.

Pressure from the international community has led to some ICT companies opening-up their supply chains, and the adoption of some regulations in the US and Europe, which make it mandatory to meet international responsible sourcing standards.

Yet, these standards fall far-short from tackling the human rights abuses occurring on the ground. Most of the standards apply only to ‘conflict’ minerals like the 3TGs (Tungsten, Tantalum, Tin and Gold). Perhaps more tellingly, it was virtually impossible to find out exactly where the copper extracted at the mine is going to, or how much of it ends up in the ICT products we use every day.

Workers’ rights and the myth of job-creation

Mining can also have significant impacts on the rights and lives of workers, especially when it comes to health and safety. In fact, it has been demonstrated that the risks of accidents and fatalities, increase when the price of copper is high. In 2007, when copper averaged a record $3.24 per lb, 40 miners died in accidents. In 2008, when copper was at $2.88 per lb, the death toll hit 43.

Between 2007 and 2017, Antofagasta Minerals had 18 fatalities across their operations. Most of the workers who lost their lives where from Minera Los Pelambres: 8 died, 7 of these were subcontractors, and this is a real concern.

The promises of job generation and employment tend to be one of the most frequently used arguments to justify the promotion of large-scale mining. However, all the empirical evidence shows that its impact on the generation of local jobs is practically insignificant. In Chile, in 2015, less than 3% of the total workforce was employed (directly or indirectly) by the mining industry.  

How then, can we reconcile the impending need to avert the climate crisis and a future driven by hi-tech, without falling into a new violent colonial era marked by a demand for minerals?

The planetary emergency rising from centuries of capitalist extractivism requires a deep transformation not just of our energy systems but of how we produce, consume and organise our lives. The solutions cannot come from the corporate actors who have created the crisis in the first place.

The Right to Say NO: Faced with a power that manages to silence and tacitly corrupt almost every level, who can effectively support affected communities? Currently, one of the strategies being championed by communities and organisations like the Observatory for Environmental Conflicts in Chile (OLCA). These are grounded in the multiple ways that communities are asserting their democratic right to say NO to a type of model that will result in destruction and irreversible damage.

Justice transitions are already taking place in the communities resisting mining. It is these local initiatives that hold the foundations to building the necessary counter power needed to challenge the systemic crises facing our world today.

Human rights are not negotiable. The heart of the global mining industry beats in the City of London, where most of the world’s biggest mining companies are incorporated. Though licensed in the UK, they are not held accountable by the UK government and instead enjoy political and financial support.

The unaccountable power of corporations and the lack of access to justice for affected peoples means companies continue to operate with almost complete impunity. Companies should be transparent about their supply chain as they have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations. That is why we urgently need binding legislation that can guarantee the rights of communities, workers and the environment, while holding corporate power to account.

It is necessary support this process which promises to restore values ​​of respect for rights which have been lost, jeopardizing the confidence of citizens in their institutions, and ushering a culture of impunity that needs to be redressed.

You can read the full report here


War on Want

Sebastian Muñoz


    This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of the Make ICT Fair Project and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union.