In the north of Chile, three rocky islands home to 26,000 Humboldt penguins draw tens of thousands of tourists each year — an economic boon to the nearby fishing town of Punta de Choros. But the waters around the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve attract more than two-legged visitors. Lured by the vast clouds of plankton that flourish in the cold, nutrient-rich water, giants like this fin whale stop by for a snack during their annual migrations.
Here, the cerulean ocean supports scores of other rare species, including South American marine otters, orcas and Peruvian diving petrels. On land, llama-like guanacos and Andean foxes scamper across a cactus-dotted landscape. Life flourishes in this region, despite its perch at the edge of the Atacama — the driest desert on earth.
But this biodiversity hotspot is under threat. Mining company Andes Iron wants to dig two open-pit copper and iron mines near Punta de Choros, and construct a desalination plant and port complex to serve the mines. Locals and scientists worry that pollution from the mines could poison the area’s pristine shellfish beds — which many fishers here rely on for a living — and that the stresses of heavy ship traffic will drive away penguins, whales and other wildlife.
In 2017, it looked like the people of Punta de Choros might win their years-long fight to protect their land and ocean. After an Oceana report exposed serious legal errors in Andes Iron’s proposal, a committee of regional officials rejected the project, followed by a committee of national ministers. The rejection even won the support of then-president Michelle Bachelet. “Chile needs development to go hand-in-hand with care for the environment,” she said in August.
These victories are now in jeopardy. After Andes Iron appealed the national ministers’ decision, a regional environmental court reversed its earlier ruling, and on April 27 the court sent the port-mining project back to the committee of regional officials to be approved or rejected once more.
This is a worrying development for Punta de Choros and its allies. The regional ministers are all new, appointed by the government of conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera, who took the presidency on March 11. The committee may be less likely to make decisions perceived as anti-business, said Christian Arroyo, Oceana’s press manager in Chile.
Oceana is working to appeal the environmental court’s ruling in the Supreme Court, in an attempt to keep the committee from deciding the fate of Punta de Choros’ residents, big and small.