Research carried out by the University of Chile and the Catholic University of the North reveals the close relationship between mine tailings and their location in communes in a situation of multidimensional poverty. The results show the presence of these deposits throughout the national territory and that only 20 communes house 619 of the 757 existing tailings, the vast majority located in the center and north of the country.
Roxana Alvarado, Journalist University of Chile «Mining tailings and socio-territorial inequalities in Chile: an exploratory study». This is the title of the study recently published in the prestigious scientific journal Journal of Maps by the academic of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Chile, Fernando Campos; the thesis student of the Geography career of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism of the same campus, Hernan Pezoa; and the graduate of the University of Chile and current academic at the Universidad Católica del Norte, ivan ojeda.
The investigation specifies that our country, as the world’s leading exporter of copper, officially registers 757 tailings, the third country with the highest number of this type of waste and it is estimated that by 2026, 915,000,000 tons of tailings material must be managed. This figure is equivalent to about 4,919 ships The Globe, the world’s largest cargo ship, which can carry up to 186,000 tons of cargo.
“Our research asks about the geography that mine tailings infrastructures build in the country. Its strength is in offering a integrated and national view regarding the socio-territorial inequalities that are built and the differential affectation of the population close to mining operations. With this work and other publications that we have under evaluation, we seek to support territorial public policies, specifically, the national plan for tailings deposits,” says academic Fernando Campos.
In this line, for researchers it is very relevant to have sufficient evidence on these deposits due to the risks they generate in socio-ecological systems. Even, the study points out, it has been documented that, after being abandoned, the tailings continue to be important sources of heavy metal contamination. At the same time, other national investigations have shown that tailings materials have affected watercourses and soils with chemical contaminationwhich translates into an impact on flora and fauna, in addition to having had an impact on the cardiovascular and respiratory health of the population.
“Our argument states that tailings deposits, as polluting and unsafe infrastructures, do not affect the national territory in the same way. So, Mining in Chile not only concentrates the economic role in favored municipalities, but also concentrates the ‘risks and impacts’ of its activities in disadvantaged municipalities”says the study.
The location of the tailings in Chile
The investigation indicates that 29.4% of the communes concentrate 81.8% of the tailings deposits. That is to say, 20 municipalities host 619 of the 757 tailings. Along the same lines, 5.9% of the municipalities show a very high concentration, these four being Andacollo (122 tailings), Copiapó (87 tailings), Illapel (68 tailings) and La Higuera (45 tailings) the communes that house 42.5% of these polluting deposits in the country (322 of the 757 deposits).
Besides, Of the 68 communes with the presence of tailings deposits in Chile, about 72% have a level of multidimensional poverty higher than the national average. That is, most of the tailings deposits are located in municipalities with high levels of multidimensional poverty. The four municipalities mentioned above, in particular, present multidimensional poverty averages above the national average. “Indeed, it becomes evident that there is inequality in the territorialization of these mining waste infrastructures in Chile” points out the article published in the Journal of Maps.
Regarding the territories, the study allows us to observe that from the Antofagasta Region to the Valparaíso Region there are communes that have high concentrations of tailings. Such are the cases of the communes of Sierra Gorda, Antofagasta, Diego de Almagro, La Serena, Coquimbo and Petorca. On the contrary, municipalities located in mountainous areas of the Valparaíso Region and the Metropolitan Area, as well as in the corridor between the Andes and the Coastal Range in the O’Higgins Region, register a lower concentration of tailings in terms of quantity. A relevant case to highlight are the municipalities of Coyhaique and Chile Chico in Chilean Patagoniawhere abandoned tailings can be found that are the result or a by-product of the area’s mining past.
The Atacama and Coquimbo regions are located in the ‘very high concentration’ category of tailings, in terms of quantity, not size. The Coquimbo Region (389 deposits) and the municipality of Copiapó in the Atacama Region (88 deposits) function as an axis where most of the tailings are located, decreasing their presence to the north and south.
A closer look at the Coquimbo Region shows that all its municipalities have at least one tailings deposit. Similarly, 13 communes in the region are above the multidimensional poverty average, and at least 11 of them house 3 or more tailings deposits. However, the communes with ‘very high concentration’ in this region are: Andacollo, La Higuera and Illapel, and each of them reflects the existence of mining in the transversal valleys of the region, historically characterized by the development of agriculture and livestock. The cases of low concentration of tailings in the Maule and Aysén regions are traces of a historical mining activity that is no longer active, but shows ongoing prospecting for its reactivation.
The socio-territorial link between multidimensional poverty and the location of the tailings deposits in Chile, which the study explores, accounts for the inequality in the location of these infrastructures. That is to say, tailings deposits represent a danger that does not equally affect the 346 communes of the country, but are located only in 68, where most of them are positioned above the national average of multidimensional poverty.