By Suzannah Evans
The Choros-Damas and Isla Chañaral marine reserves, located near Punta de Choros on the northern coast of Chile, are characterized by a rocky shore that is a nesting habitat for 80 percent of the world’s endangered Humboldt penguins. The reserves are also home to blue whales, dolphins and an enormous population of Chilean abalone, one of the country’s most important seafood species.
This is one of Chile’s best places for watching marine wildlife – tranquil, beautiful and abundant. But it became the center of a very human drama late this summer, when thousands of Chileans banded together in multiple cities to protest the construction of a 540 megawatt coal-fired power plant near the marine reserves.
The power plant, owned by Suez Energy, threatened to wreck the Punta de Choros area. Located close to the reserves, it would have used more than 20 million gallons of sea water every hour, causing the death of larvae, plankton and other marine species. Oil spills from ships carrying coal to the plants would seep to the reserves in just a couple of hours, and the local currents would retain pollution within the area.
Mercury emissions from the plants would contaminate Chilean abalone, damaging a fishery critical to the region’s economic health. But the most immediate damage could come from the anti-fouling chemicals the plant would dump into the ocean every day, along with thousands of gallons of hot water that would irrevocably damage a rich marine ecosystem almost without parallel in the world.
The Oceana Board of Directors visited Punta de Choros in September 2009, kicking off Oceana’s campaign against the construction of a series of proposed power plants in the vicinity of Punta de Choros. Less than a year later, conservationists were stunned when the Regional Environmental Committee voted to approve the power plant closest to Punta de Choros.
Oceana and its allies called upon Chileans to show their opposition to the project through the press and social networks like Twitter. People took to the streets. Thousands marched in numerous cities across the country, toting signs and chanting in peaceful opposition to the power plant.
As a result of that citizen movement, on August 26, President Sebastián Piñera announced that he had forged an agreement with Suez Energy to relocate the proposed power plant. “As President, I am happy to be able to preserve a natural sanctuary, which I have seen with my own eyes,” he told a national paper.
“This decision mends an error that would have caused irreversible damage to an extremely rich ecosystem, as well as to the livelihoods of local communities who depend on its natural resources. We must feel very proud of this achievement, which resulted from the massive and peaceful demonstrations in favor of a major environmental and social cause,” said Alex Muñoz, vice president for Oceana’s South American office.
Despite this important victory, Oceana’s campaign is not over, according to Muñoz. “Let’s not forget that another coal-fired power plant project is being proposed for La Higuera, close to Punta de Choros, in addition to 10 more on a national level,” he said.
“This is the perfect time to prompt a debate on domestic energy policies for the future and to take solid steps towards renewable energy sources. Chile has unbeatable natural conditions for the development of renewable energies.”
Oceana teamed up with the local community near Punta de Choros to prevent the construction of the coal-fired power plant. In July 2010, Oceana proposed creating a Marine and Coastal Protected Area of Multiple Uses in the area next to Punta de Choros. Oceana conducted three underwater scientific expeditions in the proposed site in order to provide information on the biodiversity of the area. The scientific findings demonstrated the risks of the proposed power plant’s construction.
Oceana also recruited popular Chilean actress Leonor Varela, who filmed a public service announcement on the rocks of Punta de Choros, asking President Sebastián Piñera to keep his campaign promise to protect the marine reserves. Varela became an outspoken advocate for the reserves and used her Twitter account to gather support as rallies began to take place.
Alex Muñoz, Oceana’s vice president for Chile, became one of the foremost voices calling for the protection of Punta de Choros. After the decision to move the power plant was announced, Muñoz became the first environmentalist ever to appear on Chile’s “Tolerancia Cero,” a national TV interview program on par with the U.S.’s “Meet The Press.”