In a Victory for 26,000 Penguins, Locals and Activists Defeat Giant Mining Project
By Allison Guy
Rosa Rojas has some unusual neighbors. Sometimes, when she looks past her front yard to the sea, she spots a blue whale passing by.
Rojas owns a cluster of guest cabins in Punta de Choros, a quiet, 450-person settlement seven hours north of Santiago. If not for the sea, Punta de Choros wouldn't exist. The scrubby, moon-gray desert surrounding the town doesn't offer much to sustain human life. But the ocean here is as generous as the land is dry. Shellfish beds churn out valuable clams and abalone. Whales and penguins lure in tourists.
"We have so many things to protect," Rojas said. "It's not just the sea, it's not just the land. It's the water, the flowers, the wetlands, the birds."
For years, Rojas, Oceana and other allies have battled to keep heavy industry from steamrolling Punta de Choros and nearby fishing villages. In 2013, the area faced its biggest challenge yet. Mining company Andes Iron unveiled a $2.5 billion plan to transform the landscape with vast mines, a desalinization plant and commercial port. It was the fight of a lifetime—and it's not over yet.
A fisherman searches for razor clams near Punta de Choros.Oceana / Claudio Almarza
The Last Cleanest Coast
All of Chile's coastline once teemed with wildlife and seafood. Now, Punta de Choros is an anomaly. Aside from a few small mines, La Higuera, the municipality that contains Punta de Choros, has escaped the industrial overgrowth that bedevils other parts of the country.
The waters are unspoiled because big business has left them untouched, said Josue Ramos, a third-generation fisherman and the president of the La Higuera Fisherman's Cooperative. Like many residents in Punta de Choros, he hand-harvests bushels of abalone and razor clams from the town's cold waters.
Shellfish from this area are worth a lot because the ocean is so clean. "Export companies fight over the product we harvest and sell it outside of the country," Ramos said. "In this area there isn't contamination like in other areas in Chile."
Though most folks in La Higuera fish, tourism is gaining importance. Since 1998, annual visitors have jumped from 900 to 60,000. It's easy to see why. The area is one of 37 global hotspots for biodiversity, home to rare desert and ocean life. Strong currents drive nutrient-rich water to the surface, nourishing fish, giant kelp, otters and 80 percent of the world's Humboldt penguins.
When rains come, as they did this August, the wind-scoured islands of the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve erupt with pink flowers and green leaves, said filmmaker Cristóbal Díaz de Valdés. "It becomes magical."
Ten years ago, a tide of contamination threatened to wash over the penguin islands and the rest of Punta de Choros. Everything that makes this place unique—the whales, the abalone, the people—was in danger of disappearing.
The desert landscape of Punta de Choros. The penguin islands are visible on the horizon. Oceana / Claudio Almarza
When Andes Iron submitted its proposal in 2013, it was not the first time that industry had eyed the mineral-rich region. Starting in 2007, three coal-fired power plants were slated for construction in La Higuera, until the president of Chile relocated them in 2010 following a vocal campaign.
Andes Iron's "Dominga" project was notable for the scale of its disruption. Two open-pit iron and copper mines would punch holes in the face of the desert. An industrial port and desalinization plant would rise above the area's unspoiled coves. Other big changes would tag along: highways, cargo ships, droves of outside workers. "In Chile, once you have one project," said Liesbeth van der Meer, the head of Oceana in Chile, "there are usually many other projects associated with it."
The locals who had campaigned against the coal plants were aghast. The visual clutter of ships and 2-kilometer jetties would spoil the views that tourists travel to appreciate. And their concerns weren't just aesthetic. Díaz de Valdés, who has campaigned to protect La Higuera since 2007, said that the ship traffic, noise and pollution would drive away whales and hurt penguins. No wildlife, no tourists.
La Higuera's famous shellfish were at risk too. The brine pumped into the ocean from the desalinization plant might kill sensitive abalone and razor clam larvae, Díaz de Valdés said. And Ramos was concerned that the mercury and cyanide used to process ore in the mines could seep into drinking water and filter into the ocean. "For us, as fishermen, it's an accursed project," he said. "It would kill the entire marine ecosystem."
Andes Iron promised jobs and income. But people in La Higuera said they only needed to look to northern Chile to know their future. There, local people are still poor, and poorly educated, despite a glut of mines and industrial projects, Rojas explained. "Companies everywhere are the same," she said. "They give money to some people, they give presents, they offer many things. And when they get what they want, they forget all about what they said."
Locals say they only have to look elsewhere in Chile to know that heavy industry doesn't bring good jobs. Oceana / Claudio Almarza
Split Down the Middle
It took Andes Iron another three years to evaluate the project's environmental impact. Oceana—which had campaigned against the coal plants in 2010 and had been pushing to permanently protect La Higuera since then—examined the environmental impact report and saw something strange.
Andes Iron said nothing about how a sudden onslaught of cargo ships would affect the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve—a significant oversight. Under Chilean law, if an industrial project is found to have omitted key information from its impact report, the government is required to reject it right off the bat.
To confirm its suspicions, the Oceana team approached an environmental evaluation expert to review the impact statement. He was dismayed by Andes Iron's work. "He said this is incomplete, this is a very bad project, there's not enough scientific information," van der Meer said.
In October 2016, Oceana published an 80-page report detailing reasons why the Dominga project should be rejected—not only because it overlooked the effects of ship traffic, but because of inadequate mitigation measures and other legal flaws.
Oceana presented the report to the senate and parliament, who concurred with its findings. Despite this, the Environmental Evaluation Service of Coquimbo, the region where La Higuera is located, recommended the project for approval to a commission of regional officials. After their vote, the officials were split down the middle, leaving the governor of Coquimbo to decide.
Many assumed that the governor, Claudio Ibáñez, would side with mining interests. Mining, after all, is a major economic force in Coquimbo. But Ibáñez had visited Punta de Choros before, van der Meer said. He didn't want to be responsible for destroying the penguin's nesting islands, one of the oldest marine reserves in Chile. On March 9, the governor cast the deciding vote—against Andes Iron.
In August, the project headed for a final vote with a committee of national ministers, and was again rejected. "It was a huge shock," van der Meer said. "Mining is the motor of our economy. We have never before rejected a project, mining or otherwise, on environmental principles."
South American marine otters, an endangered species, thrive in La Higuera. Oceana / Eduardo Sorenson
Other surprises followed. President Michelle Bachelet publicly supported the national ministers' decision. "Chile needs development to go hand-in-hand with care for the environment," she said, in an August speech. "It is my promise to the future." Angered by what they saw as an anti-economy stance, the finance and economy ministers resigned just days after.
Andes Iron appealed the final rejection. The project is now headed to Chile's environmental court. The fight continues. But it's clear that the campaign to protect La Higuera has changed Chile's national conversation. Politicians are being forced to consider the consequences of unchecked development. And corporations are now aware that Chile's civil society has the power to galvanize thousands.
The day the national ministers rejected Dominga was a rare time for celebration. Oceana organized an impromptu thank-you march in La Serena, the capital of Coquimbo. Since the vote happened months earlier than anticipated, van der Meer expected a low turnout. To her surprise, more than 900 fisherman and other supporters arrived, some after traveling for hours. "They love what they have, they understand what they have," van der Meer said. "It was a very happy moment."
Development, Not Destruction
Though Andes Iron may never drill in La Higuera, it left its mark in other ways. "They divided families, groups, social unity," Rojas said. "Our work now is to reestablish families and friendships." One way to do this, she said, is by making sure that everyone can earn a decent living.
Rojas, along with Ramos, Díaz de Valdés and van der Meer, have high hopes for eco-tourism. "We need to make clear that we are pushing for sustainable growth," van der Meer said. "It's not just about penguins and whales. It's about the community."
And then there are those pristine shellfish plots. Unlike the mines, which had a working life of just 26 years, the abalone and clams will produce as long as fishermen can protect them, van der Meer said. "We can't dismiss that they are doing something that is going to last forever."
There are still big challenges on the horizon. Even if the environmental court terminates the Dominga project, there's no guarantee that another mining company won't arrive next year with blueprints and promises.
To prepare for this, Oceana is working with scientists and local advocates to put the brakes on big industry, permanently. They're currently campaigning to get La Higuera declared a mixed-use protected area, one that would allow sustainable fishing and responsible tourism while shutting out mines and mega-ports.
The change can't come soon enough. "We can't keep fighting all our lives," Rojas said. "We need to protect this forever."
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Billions worth of valuable metals such as gold, silver and copper were dumped or burned last year as electronic waste produced globally jumped to a record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilogram per person, a UN report showed on Thursday.
Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
Europe Leads the Way<p>While most of the e-waste was generated in Asia (24.9 Mt) in 2019, Europe led the charts on a per person basis with 16.2 kg per capita, the report said.</p><p>But the continent also recorded the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/the-eu-declares-war-on-e-waste/a-51108790" target="_blank">highest documented formal e-waste collection and recycling</a> rate at 42.5%, still below its target of 65%. Europe was well ahead of the others on this front. Asia ranked second with 11.7%.</p><p>The authors said while more that 70% of the world's population was covered by some form of e-waste policy or laws, not much was being done toward implementation and enforcement of the regulations to encourage the take-up of a collection and recycling infrastructure due to lack of investment and political motivation.</p><p>"You have to think about new economic systems," said Kühr.</p><p>One approach could be that consumers no longer buy the products, but only the service they offer. The device would remain the property of the maker, who would then have an interest in offering his customers the best service and the necessary equipment. The maker would also be interested in designing his products in such a way that they are easier to repair and easier to recycle, Kühr said.</p>
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