A coal mining venture being considered for Chile's Region X Isla Guafo, off the southwest coast of Chiloé, is raising alarm bells among area scientists, indigenous groups and local fishermen who fear the endeavour could cause irreparable harm to the uninhabited island's diverse and abundant wildlife.
A Santiago-based company called South World Consulting is currently prospecting on Guafo, which is thought to contain a fair share of high-quality coal. According to the daily La Nación, the company – run by former Endesa executives Rodrigo Danús and Paul Fontaine – has already obtained mining rights to 40% of the island. South World Consulting told the Patagonia Times it is still "in the process" of getting those rights. "It's not a project yet. This is just prospecting," said Danús. "The idea is that there may be coal there, but for now it's not clear how much, or what the quality is like." If it does eventually mount a project, South World – an energy consulting firm – is likely to sell the coal for use in Chilean thermoelectric plants. Indeed, demand for coal is high at the moment due a recent spurt in construction of coal-burning electricity plants. A study released earlier this month by Santiago's economic think tank Liberty and Development reported that universal coal-burning energy projects receive government approval 34% faster than projects focused on other sources of energy. Energy companies are aware of this. Just two weeks ago Brazilian energy group MPX Energía filed an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) for a massive 2.4 GW coal-fired energy plant to be located 80 kilometres south of Region III's Copiapó. The coal craze has Chilean environmentalists up in arms. How, Chile's environmental leaders ask, can the country be embracing such a dirty and outdated fuel source at a time when countries like Spain, Germany and the United States are beginning to make serious strides with wind, solar and other clean renewables? On a more local level, people are worried about what coal mining would do to Isla Guafo itself. Located eight hours by boat from the southern Chiloé town of Quellón, the isolated island – home to a Navy lighthouse and not much else – is largely untouched. As such it currently supports a veritable abundance of native flora and fauna. Scientists from the Universidad Austral (UACH) have studied the largely untouched island in recent years and determined it hosts at least 30 species of marine birds. Guafo boasts the world's largest colony of Sooty Shearwaters plus some 1,700 Magellan Penguin nests. It also boasts numerous species of sea mammal, including the South American Fur Seal. The island, in fact, is home to Chile's most important Fur Seal breeding ground outside of far southern Region XII, according to UACH's Héctor Pavés. "The impact in terms of deforestation and port construction is going to be dramatic, especially for the marine mammal reproductive colonies," said Dr. Pavés. "There are 3,000 South American Fur Seals in the area. They're incredibly sensitive to the presence of humans and to sea traffic. On top of that, this is an area where a lot of Blue Whales pass through." Probably no one in Chile is more aware of that than Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete of Valdivia's Blue Whale Center (Centro Ballena Azul). Hucke-Gaete is currently working on having the ocean area around Guafo made into a protected zone, particularly because of its importance as a transit point for Blue and other whale species. "It would be a serious mistake if Guafo were turned into a mining zone," he said. "It would threaten one of the remaining bastions in Chile of marine and land biodiversity." Area scientists aren't alone in their concern over the island's fate. A Chiloé-based indigenous group called the Williche Federation is also opposing South World's plans, saying that Guafo – originally indigenous territory – should be protected from industrial encroachment. "We think that the government, if it's truly democratic, should respect ILO Convention 169 and ask us if we agree or not," said Sergio Cuyul, the federation's head. "If they did ask our opinion, we'll say first, that the island has historically been a refuge for both indigenous and non-indigenous local fishermen. It also contains important cultural artifacts that are unique and important". "Finally, we don't agree they should extract this natural resource, because we are deeply convinced that the government must make an effort to use renewable energy sources, not coal," he added. By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)