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Pisco sours, palm trees and one extraordinary toy: The story of modern mining in Chile

3 November 2023

Pisco sours, palm trees and baby toys are an unlikely trinity, but they tell the story of modern mining in Chile and hold important lessons for the future of our industry everywhere.

It would be foolish to take sides on which of Chilean or Peruvian Pisco sours are better, but there’s a decent chance that if you sip one in Chile, you’re drinking a product of mining.

Thriving agriculture in the Choapa Valley enabled by water support measures from Los Pelambres

Not literally of course, since the white grapes used to make Pisco are grown as vines, but that they were made possible by mining. This is because grapes naturally need water, an increasingly scarce commodity in the Andean mountains of northern Chile.

More so in the Choapa Valley, where farmers are downstream from one of the world’s largest copper mines, Los Pelambres, built and operated by Antofagasta Minerals. Despite being one of the most efficient in the world, the operation needs over 800 litres of water per second to mine and process the red metal, which is critical to the energy transition and used in everything from electric vehicles to wind turbines.

This should be a recipe for a barren and desolate landscape but instead, the Choapa Valley is a lush green oasis stretching from Cuncumén 2,000 meters above sea level down to the port city of Los Vilos.

This is possible because Los Pelambres has taken significant measures to share water with communities, recognising that on both moral and commercial grounds, it is unequivocally the right thing to do.

This begins with minimising water use in operations, such as by spraying mine roads with a special material that helps to reduce the amount of water needed to suppress dust. It also includes partnering with the government to maintain the water infrastructure in the towns and municipalities up and down the valley, including providing ‘Water Brigades’ to fix any leaks or issues.

The biggest contribution, however, is yet to come, as a desalination plant built by Antofagasta Minerals is entering operational use. The plant will initially provide the mine with 400 litres per second of water, and will double this capacity over time.

As a result, the company will stop using surface water from the Choapa river and work with communities and authorities to explore alternative uses for that water, such as community use or nature conservation.

Los Pelambres is far from the only mine in Chile to use seawater; Antofagasta’s other operations at Antucoya and Centinela already meet 100% of their needs from seawater.

And just last week, Teck Resources launched the operational phase of their Quebrada Blanca 2 (QB2) project including the first desalination plant in the Tarapacá region.

This will fully meet the mine’s water needs and allow the company to voluntarily return their water allowance to the Estate of Chile; something that President Boric of Chile called out at the inauguration as an exemplary act of nation building on the part of Teck.

Antofagasta Minerals’ desalination plant.

However, mining’s managing of its impact on nature extends beyond water. For instance, trees are often felled to reach the ore underground.

Antofagasta Minerals’ nursery which grows 300,000 saplings a year.

In addition to rehabilitating those areas post-mining, companies like Teck and Antofagasta have voluntarily committed to restoring and protecting land in orders of magnitude greater than what they disturb.

Antofagasta for instance, rehabilitates or protects 27,000 hectares of natural lands rich in biodiversity, which is 7 times greater than the area disturbed by its mining operations.

This richness of biodiversity includes the Chilean Palm tree, itself one of the most important species in the region and under significant threat.

This is made possible by a dedicated nursery that produces 300,000 saplings a year and where around 200 people work using traditional knowledge and the latest science to foster 66 native species.

While water and trees are visible symbols of mining’s impact, a buried treasure trove, discovered during the excavation works for the QB2 project, really shows the commitment of ICMM members to operating responsibly.

Teck workers unexpectedly and without prior instruction halted work when they suspected that the soil they were moving might contain archaeological remains.

Knowing full well that stopping work would cause weeks if not months of delay with huge cost implications, they nonetheless reported their hunch to Chilean authorities.

They were right, and archaeologists made one of the most significant finds of modern times including 2,500-year-old mummified remains of indigenous communities.

The most stunning discovery was a small llama shaped toy made of copper found in the mouth of an entombed baby.

Perhaps used as a pacifier, the toy is a poignant reminder not only that mining and metals are an inextricable part of human civilisation, but that as miners, we have a particular responsibility to care for our planet’s extraordinary natural and cultural heritage.

While we must acknowledge that mining is by and large mistrusted by society and for understandable reasons, these actions by Antofagasta and Teck are reminders that responsible mining exists and can be the backbone of thriving societies.

Replica of the toy found at the site of Teck’s Quebrada Blanca mine.

Given the huge increase in mining required to supply the materials for the energy transition, our collective task is to make mining with principles the norm for the benefit of people and the planet.  

This blog was updated on 7 November 2023