Since 2007, Los Andes Copper, a Canadian company based in Vancouver, has operated the Vizcachitas mining project through its Chilean subsidiary "Vizcachitas Holding.” Since 2010, it has owned 100% of the project.
Located 120 kilometres north of Santiago, Chile in the Putaendo Valley mountain range, the project plans to extract copper, molybdenum, and silver through an open-pit mine for 45 years. The proposed project is along the Rocín River, the main tributary of the Putaendo River, which feeds into the Aconcagua River. Putaendo is the last transversal valley in Chile free from large-scale mining. According to the company, the project is currently in the Prefeasibility Study and Environmental Impact Study stage . However, as Violeta Rabi of the Putaendo Resiste group told us, "In practice this is not true. They are now in the mineral exploration stage, which will continue for four years with the drilling of 350 holes.”
Company and project details
The company has been officially fined in recent years for failing to conduct a proper environmental impact assessment, failing to comply with municipal permits to operate, and for causing environmental harm — mostly related to its activities diverting rivers and using water without the appropriate rights.
In 2008, the Environmental Assessment Review board denied Los Andes Copper’s Environmental Impact Assessment for this project. Nevertheless, the company continued to drill illegally, gathering more than 86 samples over the span of almost 10 years. Community members and those who live in Putaendo state, “there was never any communication with the community that the company was carrying out exploration work" .
Responding to the need to resist “the unbridled resource extraction of their communal lands” by the Canadian company, the community of Putaendo organized in 2015 “an unprecedentedly-large mobilization to prevent Andes Coppers and anyone else taking over their lands.
Between 2015 and 2016, the community of Putaendo, Putaendo Resiste and the Junta de Vigilancia del Río filed five complaints against the company for causing environmental damage to the high mountain range and for not having an Environmental Qualification Resolution . In 2016, the Bureau of Water Management (Dirección General de Aguas in Spanish -- DGA) issued sanctions against the company for operating in the Rocín riverbed . In 2017, the Superintendency of the Environment again sanctioned the Canadian company for operating without the proper environmental authorization, for having affected native flora and fauna, and for having diverted water sources . As a result, the company was forced to file an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
In 2019, the DGA fined the company $59 million Chilean pesos for once again, having diverted the Rocín River, and for unauthorized consumption of its waters . In spite of this appalling and systematic record of environmental infractions, the project's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was approved in April 2019 , thereby negating the formally-requested opportunity for citizen participation.
Drilling project unanimously approved. Reduced spaces for civic participation. Massive mobilization.
In May 2019, Vizcachitas Holding submitted a new project to the Environmental Assessment Service (SEA) to drill 350 holes in 124 platforms in the region of Las Tejas over the course of four years. In April 2020, the Environmental Evaluation Commission of the Valparaíso Region approved the project in the first round without any citizen participation . Anticipating the social and environmental impacts of drilling, the community of Putaendo took to the streets despite COVID-19 restrictions to demonstrate their opposition to the project. A large contingent of military and special forces were present, causing great concern among the demonstrators and revealing the power behind Canadian interests in extractive development in Chile.
Thanks to massive mobilizations and legal strategies, the Supreme Court ordered the project to be stopped in September of that same year . The court ordered the government to uphold the right to civic participation for the 2000-plus people who had their rights so far denied. Nevertheless, in April 2021, the Environmental Evaluation Service unanimously approved the project . Rabi of Putaendo Resiste points out that the project was approved “within the context of a pandemic and [in spite of the] complaints registered by several public institutions against the environmental impact assessment.” In light of these irregularities, the community has filed several appeals. One of them is an appeal to the executive director of the SEA, denouncing the stamp of approval given to the project by the Valparaíso Environmental Evaluation Commission. In the complaints in this appeal, thirty community members and the Agrupación Putaendo Resiste say: “the process for civic participation was not held to a high standard, and did not ensure meaningful participation, it excluded key actors in the area, and was carried out in the middle of a pandemic....The project’s approval, presented as an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), is arbitrary and presents several deficiencies regarding... the water source for its operation; the EIS omits from its baseline study a large number of plant and animal species, which were recognized in the report commissioned by the Municipality from Simbiosis Consulting. The company arbitrarily minimizes the Area of Influence of the project...".
“Sustainable” and "green" copper for the energy transition?
The World Bank estimates that over the next 30 years, it will be necessary to extract 3 billion tons of minerals and metals to drive the global energy transition process (a transition from fossil to renewable energies). This would be "necessary" to avoid a temperature increase above 2°C . This energy transition is key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and, as a result, in the fight against climate change. However, an energy transition that does not fundamentally shift the lifestyles of the Global North would require an expansion of resource extraction and an intensification of mining metals such as copper (essential for the decarbonization process). These metals are needed in high quantities for the production of solar panels, wind turbines and, especially, electric cars .
In this sense, Los Andes Copper sees the energy transition not as an opportunity to actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions but as a financial opportunity. In fact, Vizcachitas is touted as "Chile's next major copper mine" . The main message is that "copper is a critical element to sustain the global shift to electric vehicles and the new green economy". Los Andes Copper goes further and claims that Vizcachitas will produce "sustainable copper ... for the green transition" . However, the "sustainable copper" promoted by Los Andes Copper would be mined, as Alejando Valdés of Putaendo Resiste states, "at the cost of turning a valley, its community and its ecosystem into a sacrifice zone."
In its eagerness to promote itself as a green company, Los Andes Copper announced in May 2021 its creation of the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Committee and an appointment of a non-executive director with "extensive ESG experience" to chair the ESG Board Committee. The Covid-19 pandemic has led many investors to seek investments in “sustainable” projects aligned with ESG principles. Like other mining companies around the world, Los Andes Copper has realized the opportunity for financial gain this represents and has started incorporating these mechanisms into its operations to present an environmentally- and governance-friendly face to attract greater investment in its activities .
While some see ESG factors as potentially useful tools for social justice and combating climate change , others, such as the US Securities and Exchange Commission (the regulator of Wall Street) is concerned that ESG factors are misleading investors: "In many cases they cynically call themselves 'green', without presenting perceptible changes within their operations or in their strategies. Their purpose is simply marketing" . This seems to be the case with Los Andes Copper and Vizcachitas.
Chile's copper and lithium can "help solve global warming" .
Using similar language to the company, the Chilean government also frames copper as a necessary metal for the energy transition — particularly as it relates to electromobility — and as a financial opportunity. During the world's largest mining convention held by the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) every year in Toronto, Canada, Chile's Minister of Mines and Mining presented Chile with the following messages: "we are and will be a mining country,” “we are the world's leading copper producer,” “electromobility in Chile is our culture,” and “in Chile, we work for sustainable mining.” The PDAC convention "is a place where mining companies from around the world converge to make deals and ensure they can continue operating in ways that prioritize profit no matter the other costs" their operations generate for communities, such as environmental, social, and/or human rights costs .
Likewise, the Chilean Senate has been holding a series of webinars on "green mining" in Chile where the president of the senate committee on “Challenges of the Future” has stated that Chilean copper can help humanity and solve the climate crisis: "Chile, by having copper and lithium, can help solve one of the most dramatic problems that humanity has, which is global warming.” He also added: "I would transform copper or the meaning of copper, from not only a good business opportunity for Chile or for some in Chile, I would transform it into a gigantic opportunity to help the planet’s transition to renewable energy, because millions of devices will need copper. Chile could provide energy for all mankind" .
What threatens the project?
Los Andes Copper and the government of Chile promote copper and Vizcachitas as a project that will contribute to the manufacturing of electric cars and allow for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, while providing future economic gains for its investors. Yet this project threatens everything it claims to protect such as the rivers and the ecosystems that depend on them. And, paradoxically, instead of fighting climate change, it will worsen it by putting at risk the glaciers near the project. As stated by the Chilean Glaciers Foundation, "Putaendo does not have white glaciers, but it does have more than 120 rock glaciers that feed the Rocín River” .
As captured by the local communities in a video produced by them "Did you know that Putaendo is under threat?", the project threatens glaciers, high Andean wetlands and endemic flora and fauna: "pumas, condors, Andean cats and guanacos ...at least 21 species of plants"  and around 100 rock glaciers, which are at risk of being impacted.
The rock glaciers in Chile play an important role in containing the spread of the desert. These reserves are even more strategic considering climate change projections for the area and the fact that this territory has been in a period of historic drought for over 60 years. The communities directly affected —the commune of Putaendo and the city of San Felipe — are concerned given the limited average rainfall per year. Any disturbance in the area negatively affects their access to water, "having devastating consequences for local agriculture, livestock, and the rich natural and human heritage" .
Putaendo is a community of farmers and ranchers. Mandarins, grapes, walnuts, and avocados are grown there. Thanks to its extensive natural, cultural, and historical heritage, Putaendo is an ecotourism destination  with more than 1,300 petroglyphs, Inca trails and pucarás, as well as the longest-running carnival in Chile .
"Putaendo Sin Mineras" (Putaendo says no to Mining).
Due to its human, natural and agricultural wealth, the community of Putaendo and the group Putaendo Resiste have been fighting for a decade now to remain the only valley in the Central Zone without the presence of large mining companies . As an alternative to the extractivism proposed by the mining company, the communities propose an Andean park in the mountain range.
The organization has achieved important successes and they note the need to celebrate what has been won against the mining company since 2015. Some of the successes  they highlight are:
- "Complaints filed in 2016 have prevented Andes Copper from continuing to operate and drill from 2017 to the present. We forced them to spend millions of pesos in legal and consulting fees.”
- "The knowledge and environmental awareness of our people has grown, so too has the love for our land and heritage.”
- "There are many young people, adults, workers, professionals, women and artists who are part of this resistance and they bring with them their love for life.”
The communities have also mobilized through letters: in 2019, Putaendo Resiste sent an open letter addressed to all Canadians denouncing Los Andes Copper and asking them to help Putaendo Resiste in its efforts to get the Canadian mining company out of its territory. "Open Letter to the Canadian public: the Canadian company ‘Los Andes Copper ltda.’ destroys, kills, exterminates, lies and bribes in Putaendo, Chile" .
In 2021, they launched a video "Artistas de Chile por un #PutaendoSinMineras" in which renowned artists from Chile stood in solidarity with Putaendo and its resistance. The video shared information with the rest of Chile and the entire continent about the project's potential devastating impacts on ecosystems and populations .
As Putaendo Resiste states in a petition on Change.org that to date, has collected over 40,000 signatures in support of their cause: "Without water everything else loses its value. We do not want to be the next sacrifice zone, we want a Putaendo without mining companies" .