Chile Saves Rare Humboldt Penguins by Nixing a Huge Mining Project

Fagjun | Published 2017-08-24 01:11

A victory for Chile's Humboldt penguins [Photo by Adam Kumiszcza]



It's a rare win for a rare species. The Chilean government has rejected billion-dollar plans to build a mine Chile's northern Coquimbo region. Should the project push through, it would have a considerable impact on the environment, Chile's beloved Humboldt penguins, as well as other endangered species.


The Chilean mining company Andes Iron had a $2.5 billion-dollar plan to extract 12 million tonnes of iron ore and 150,000 tonnes of copper each year. A mining project of this size will inevitably be quite hard on the environment, especially since Andes Iron planned on building a port in the area as well in order to ship the ore.


Andes Iron plans on appealing the decision. Chile's Ministers' Committee, however, rejected the proposal in the first place due to the lack of sufficient environmental guarantees. “(There are) deficiencies in basic information and insufficiencies in mitigation, compensation, and reparation measures, meaning we believe that the eventual impacts have not been properly taken care of,” says environment Minister Marcelo Mena.


A Vulnerable Species

The geographical distribution of Humboldt penguins [Image by Ngr800]



The proposed project site is close to the Humboldt Penguin Reserve, a vital breeding site for the rare penguin species. Humboldt penguins are found only on the Chilean and Peruvian coast, already making them rare in the first place. However, the species is also classified in the IUCN Red List as vulnerable. According to the IUCN, the species's overall population has experienced a “rapid decline in numbers”.


Humboldt penguins create nests by burrowing holes in guano. However, guano harvest has deprived the penguins of their natural habitat. The loss of habitat is tough on any species, and often contributes to population loss and even extinction. Reports say that Humboldt penguins used to number in the hundreds of thousands, until people began exploiting guano in the mid-19th century. After the El Niño event of 1982-1983, there were only 5,000 to 6,000 Humboldt penguins left. Scientists are unsure how many individuals there are today.


If the mining project pushed through, it would have spelled even more trouble for the penguins and their habitat. A project that size would have surely caused disturbances for the penguins, which can spell disaster for the species. While the issue is entangled in Chile's politics, this resolution will hopefully stick.


Politics and the Humboldt Penguin

A flock of Humboldt penguins [Photo by AFP]



Former Chilean president and now-presidential candidate Sebastian Pinera supports the project. However, he allegedly once had business ties to the project, making his support for it as a politician suspect. Current Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, meanwhile, is said to own property near the supposed project site, which people say played a role in the difficulties Andes Iron faced when it applied for permits.


Unfortunately, many environmental issues aren't just environmental. They can have political dimensions as well. A particular environmental issue can go one way or the other depending on who's in charge as well as the political climate of the country. Luckily for the Humboldt penguin, there has been a surge of environmentalism in Chile in recent times. Hopefully, the ruling will not only stick, but set a precedent as well.

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