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EDITIONS
Monday, 4 November, 2002, 16:18 GMT
Mining town moves to avoid pollution
Copper mine
Chuquicamata has 20% of all known copper reserves

An entire town in Chile's Atacama desert is being relocated because of pollution from the biggest open-cast mine in the world.

State-owned Chuquicamata possesses 20% of all known copper reserves.

But it throws out such high levels of toxins that, under new environmental laws, people can no longer live there.

But moving the entire mining community to an existing town is bringing its own set of problems.

No alternative

Some 600,000 tonnes of copper ore are blasted each day from Chuquicamata - the world's biggest hole in the ground.

It is over 4km long, as deep as a small mountain is high, and contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the Chilean economy.

But at a price.

The adjacent town of Chuquicamata is now so polluted that it is unsafe for people to live there.


We reduce the production, which is very damaging for Chile, or we move the people from Chuquicamata to Calama

Juan Carlos Diaz, Codelco

Juan Carlos Diaz of state-owned Codelco, which runs the mine, says the firm has spent $600m cutting emissions, but that meeting environmental standards would have made the mine unviable.

"The problem is when the people work and live in the same place," he said.

"To work here we have many implements to avoid contamination of our own workers but we cannot do that with their children.

"So we have an alternative - we reduce the production, which is very damaging for Chile, or we move the people from Chuquicamata to Calama."

New home

So thousands of workers and their families will leave and since mining waste's expensive to transport, the town and its century of history will be buried under a giant slag heap.

"It's very upsetting", says this woman whose children, father and grandfather were all born here.

"But it's progress and will improve our quality of life".

Their new home - the oasis town of Calama - is 17km through the Atacama desert.

It is a lively place, where pollution levels are lower, and Codelco is investing $250m in new houses and better infrastructure.

But many people - including Calama's mayor, Esteban Velasquez Nunez - feel this will only benefit the miners, creating social division in a poor town with scant resources.


We want to see Calama regenerated but through everyone's contribution

Calama's mayor, Esteban Velasquez Nunez

"We want to see Calama regenerated but through everyone's contribution," he said.

"There's concern here that the mining company will come in with a sledgehammer and impose its conditions, its way of doing things on our population, while giving its own employees elitist status."

Mr Nunez said a new hospital, schools and sports facilities are being built in the town exclusively for Codelco workers.

"Of course they'll have their privileges. But if they're too pronounced I fear serious consequences."

Sustainable future

It's a fear echoed by environmentalists, including Claude Marcel of the Terram Foundation, who believes the focus must shift away from short-term solutions and towards investment in a sustainable future for all.

The Chilean desert is dotted with ghost towns, a legacy of the rapid desertion of nitrate mines during the last century.

Mr Marcel feels copper mining towns such as Calama now face the same fate.

"Calama is not a big city, it's 200,000 people," he said.

"This city lives because Chuquicamata is here."

Without serious investment in industries outside mining, Calama could one day, like Chuquicamata, be no more than a memory.

Relocating may improve children's health, but while economic prosperity is solely dependent on the copper mine, their future looks bleak.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
By Victoria Dale-Jones
"Codelco is investing $250m in new houses and better infrastructure"
See also:

01 Aug 02 | Business
18 Jul 02 | Country profiles
27 May 02 | Business
24 Oct 01 | Business
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