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Coal mine project in Chilean Patagonia triggers Facebook debate

Wednesday, February 2nd 2011 - 06:30 UTC
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Chile is becoming increasingly dependent on coal burning generators Chile is becoming increasingly dependent on coal burning generators

Mina Invierno, a major coal mine project to be located in Chilean Patagonia, has sparked new controversy in the Magallanes Region. The coal mine will be located on Isla Riesco, Chile’s fourth biggest island, just 80 miles from the region’s capital of Punta Arenas.

In early January, citizens of the Magallanes Region – known historically for their strong social movements– staged seven consecutive days of massive protests and demonstrations over natural gas price hikes proposed by leaders in Santiago.

The protest eviscerated the region’s tourism industry, forced the government to reconsider the gas price hikes planned for the region, and showcased the growing frustration that many regions have with heavy-handed policy decisions made in Santiago.

Now the region may rise up again in protest after local environmental authorities approved earlier this month the Mina Invierno project, proposed by the Angelini and Von Appen Groups, two of Chile’s most powerful business groups.

Their initial proposal envisions a US$500 million investment to set up Mina Invierno. But another four coal mines are also on the drawing board for the island, although they have yet to be officially discussed.

Isla Riesco has an estimated 240 million tons of coal and Chile has a growing dependency on coal-burning generators, notwithstanding worldwide concern that emissions from coal-burning generators are a major contributor to climate change.

The project proposal states it will create over 700 jobs and that it may take as long as 25 years to extract the coal, which could replace as much as 30% of Chile’s current coal imports.

Although the Magallanes citizen assembly (AMC) – which played a key role organizing the gas strikes – has not made an official statement, an independent campaign against the mine has already begun.

Chilean actors and public figures produced a video explaining the harmful consequences of Mina Invierno’s construction, and the damage it could make to the island’s flora and fauna.

The campaign is similar to a 2010 viral video, which formed a crucial part of a campaign to halt a thermoelectric project in Chile’s Punta de Choros. The video and the campaign helped pressure President Sebastián Piñera to intervene and demand the relocation of the plant.

“The pursuit of short-term, cheap (energy) solutions has made Chile mine for coal,” says the viral video posted by the group Alerta Isla Riesco on YouTube.

The public figures discuss the possible serious health effects of coal emissions, including lung cancer, as well as the project’s predicted impact on biodiversity.

The group also expresses their concern with Mina Invierno’s proximity to Alacalufe National Park, which sprawls over 5 million acres and is home to many species of sea creatures and birds, several of them on the brink of extinction.

Only a week after the video was posted, it had over 42,000 views and hundreds of comments. “Alerta Isla Riesco” also extended their campaign to Facebook, and already has over 10,000 supporters.

“It’s like someone goes into your house and sets up an enormous, extremely contaminating company,” said Gregor Stipicic, president of the Austral Environmental Defense Front and a current resident of Isla Riesco.

Stipicic noted that the environmental group met with the AMC last week to get their support, but as of Monday evening no official statement had been released. A counter-campaign has since been launched through YouTube, with a five minute video explaining the project’s benefits for the region. So far, the video has just over 500 views and six comments, all rejecting the construction of Mina Invierno.

Despite initial approval of the project by local authorities, the Magallanes Environmental Evaluation Commission will have the last word on March 14, when the commission will rule on the project’s viability.

By Ignacio Gallegos – Santiago Times

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