Industry knocks on the door in remote Chile
An environmental debate intensifies over a proposed Canadian factory.
By Tim Vandenack | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
COIHAIQUE, CHILE - The best thing about Aisén, the vast expanse
of wilderness in southern Chile, says Mirium Chible who owns a
restaurant here, is its untouched nature. "The water is clean," she says. "You can drink from the rivers."
Aisén sits at the northern end of Patagonia deep in southern Chile. It is one of Chile's most undeveloped and least inhabited regions.
But with the Canadian mining and metals company Noranda considering a $2.75
billion aluminum-smelter project – the most expensive
project proposal in Chilean history – industrialization in the pristine zone stands to greatly advance.
Chile is among the most politically stable of Latin American nations and
has a long history of openness to foreign investment. The foreign
inflows – led by the United States, Spain, and Canada – helped Chile's economy boom through the 1990s and become one of the best in
But now, environmental observers are warning that the zeal for outside
capital, if unchecked, will lead to the depletion of Chile's natural
resources. The Noranda proposal, given its size and proposed location in the wilds of Aisén, stands to be a defining moment in how the
nation balances foreign investment with environmental concerns.
"Countries like ours are growing at the cost of their natural resources,"
says Manuel Contrera, an ecological-sciences professor at
Santiago's University of Chile. "It's the same in all Latin America."
That doesn't mean Noranda's plans should be rejected, says Mr. Contrera.
But he says the emphasis on industry and economic
development over the environment – the hallmark of Chile's last three administrations, including that of current President Ricardo Lagos –
needs to be rethought and environmental regulations beefed up.
The debate over the project, dubbed Alumysa, is already intense. Noranda
officials, labor unions, and many business leaders say the
project will bring money, higher wages, and jobs to the isolated zone, without undue environmental harm.
Fishing is the main industry in Aisén, a region cut by fjords, canals,
and rivers that feed into the Pacific. But labor leaders say the fisheries
industry pays low wages. Local residents in other professions agree. "We want all industries, without question, because that will bring
better-quality work and better salaries," says Mauricio Muñoz, a labor leader and machine operator at a logging company here.
But ecologists question Noranda's claims that the project will have minimal
environmental impact. They say it could open the zone, prized
by fly fishermen and backpackers, to unfettered development. They also say the plans underscore the need to protect areas still outside
industry's grasp. "This is the last part of Chile that hasn't been tamed," says Ms. Chible.
Noranda, which already has a large presence in Chile's northern copper
mines, has been mulling Alumysa for more than 10 years. Plans
call for construction of an aluminum smelter capable of producing 440,000 tons of aluminum a year outside Puerto Chacabuco, a small port
40 miles west of here. Dams for three hydroelectric facilities would be built on two lakes and a river. These would generate enough
electricity to power the facility.
Robert Biehl, the Chilean businessman heading up Alumysa, says aluminum
production technology has advanced to the point that
smelters operate in Canada's wilds and among Norway's fjords without causing harm. He says emissions would fall within Chilean and
World Bank norms.
Still, opponents warn that Alumysa's approval would open the doors to more
industry. "If Alumysa comes, there will be no impediment to a
cement factory, to other manufacturers," says Carlos Perez, an electrician and project opponent in Coihaique. Environmentalists tout
alternative forms of development like tourism and organic farming.
Oscar Muñoz, planning director for a local municipality, says the
area's immense size will reduce any environmental impact. "There are still
going to be vast, untouched areas," he says. He also says the roads built to access the dams and hydroelectric facilities will ease access
to untouched areas, boosting tourism.
But for observers such as University of Chile ecology professor Italo Serey,
the issue isn't so much whether the company enters Chile, but
rather, the conditions under which it would do so.
He praised the 1995 legislation that required, for the first time, that
industrial projects face review by Chile's National Environmental
Commission before implementation. Serey says the government needs to focus on environmentally friendly development. "If we don't, we'll
have more environmental problems that will result in more [cleanup] costs for the public."