Chile | The New Constitution Must Recognize Chileans’ Rights to Copper, Lithium, and Water

Let’s mobilize around this campaign!
The social mobilizations that began on October 18th, 2019, demonstrated Chilean peoples’ anger with the lack of social rights, the high cost of living, and the environmental crisis. While most of us live in poverty or debt, a handful of multimillionaires amass enormous fortunes, which pass from generation to generation to their descendants.
Chile is not a poor country. The Chilean territory has a huge variety of natural resources, which are transformed by human labor into goods and sold on the market, generating enormous wealth. This generated wealth, however, is not used to solve the problems of the people, but rather is accumulated in the hands of a few Chilean and foreign families. Furthermore, the irrational exploitation of the nation’s resources contributes to increasing environmental destruction.
Copper has been the main mineral wealth of the country for the last century. Salvador Allende called this mineral “the salary of Chile”. Today, around 50% of Chilean exports are copper. We are the world’s largest producer with the biggest reserves. This mineral is one of the most important natural resources for the global economy, crucial in construction, the energy and vehicle industries, electric and electronic equipment, home apparel, and a lot more.
Over the last couple of decades, big multinational corporations and a few Chilean families have literally looted the country. The most conservative numbers estimate that these actors ransack more than 12 billion dollars per year (this is not counting the “normal” profits of large-scale mining) [1]. With the money from copper, we could solve a series of social problems, such as housing, health, and education. Instead, these riches end up in the pockets of big US, Canadian, Japanese, or Chilean businessmen. Today, more than 75% of our copper is in the hands of private companies, most of them foreign, such as BHP Billiton, AngloAmerican, Glencore, FreePort, and Antofagasta Minerals (Luksic group).
Chile also has an abundance of lithium. Alongside Bolivia and Argentina, we own the biggest reserves in the world. According to international specialists, lithium will become the new “white gold” of the future since it is used in the production of many new technologies, especially batteries for electric cars. Chile’s lithium is being handed away as a gift. The first to benefit was Julio Ponce-Lerou, Pinochet’s former son-in-law, who became the owner of SQM (Soquimich) during the dictatorship and today is a lithium magnate, sharing its exploitation with Chinese giant Tianqi. The United States also grabs its share from the lithium trade with corporations like Albermale.
A central subject of the New Constitution should be the recovery of copper, lithium, and other mineral goods. During the last decades, multinational corporations and big Chilean businessmen have waged an enormous disinformation campaign. Therefore, most of our people are unaware of the scale of this pillaging, which has been consciously erased from public debate. This is also reflected within the programs of the presidential candidates, who do not propose the recovery of these goods, an essential condition to solve the problems of the people that inhabit this territory. The question of recovering sovereignty over our national resources should be at the center of every political and economic debate.
That is why we want to start a campaign for the nationalization, without reparations, of the big copper and lithium mining companies. Why do we propose it be without reparations? Because these companies have already stolen rivers of money over the last decades exploiting natural goods that belong to all the inhabitants of Chile.
 
Water and the ecological problem
The capitalist exploitation of copper and lithium is extremely damaging for workers in these sectors, for the communities, and for the environment. The first to suffer the consequences of this exploitation are workers, who have long working hours, contract occupational diseases (the most common among copper miners being silicosis), and bringing these diseases to their homes, contaminating their families. The communities near large mining projects are also harmed by the dust particles and the contamination and destruction of rivers and ground waters, leaving many communities without water access. And lastly, nature suffers enormous damages with large-scale capitalist mining: the destruction of basins, glaciers, and entire ecosystems.
Any nationalization project of mineral resources, therefore, must be accompanied by a serious debate on how to extract. Irrational capitalist exploitation must be halted, and measures must be put in place to lessen and repair social and environmental damage. One of the fundamental fights will be the annulment of all Water Usage Rights, which today are in the hands of big businessmen. Water usage must be managed by an organized population.
It is also essential that we begin to discuss the need to change the country’s productive matrix so we become less dependent on the exportation of minerals and primary products and instead invest in the development of new ways to harness energy, science, technology, food production and all industrialized sectors of the country. While reorganizing production, we must always prioritize lessening environmental impact and making possible ecological recovery.
 
For workers’ and peoples’ control
When we talk about nationalizing copper or lithium, we must ask ourselves: do we want these goods to be exploited by Codelco, the state-owned mining company, like they are today? Our definitive answer is: NO!
Codelco functions like you would expect a capitalist company to function. It determines its rhythm of production according to the world market, without caring for the environmental and social damage that large-scale mining provokes. Furthermore, Codelco is managed like a private company. The directors and managers and owners take turns working in the private and public sectors. The company’s managerial positions are shared among the big bourgeoisie and its parties, the same ones who have administered the Chilean state for the last 20 years – the former Concertación and the right. The current Codelco president, Juan Benavides Feliú, is a wealthy private-sector businessman who has been in companies like Falabella and AFP Habitat, among others. The resources produced by the company end up in the hands of a corrupt State which does not have as its priority the financing of social needs. Thus, we see the State subsidizing large companies in different sectors while thousands of workers die waiting for public hospital beds.
Additionally, Codelco has been used to finance the Armed Forces through the Copper Reserves Law. These resources were used to buy weapons and supply the uncontrolled corruption of high officers, giving birth to cases such as the “milicogate”[2]. Codelco deposits are almost entirely given over to private companies, the enormous contractors [3]. We’re not talking about small and medium companies, we’re talking about corporations like Acciona, which belongs to one of Spain’s richest families. Large companies such as Geovita, Zublin, Pizarotti, Maz Errázuriz, and others generate enormous profits for its shareholders while they keep contract workers without labor rights and under constant anti-union persecution. Codelco is not only an accomplice in this; it defends and reproduces this model.
That is why we say it is not enough to nationalize copper again and hand it over to Codelco. We must completely change the logic of the state company. It is necessary to reestablish Codelco under the control of workers with the participation of all communities affected by large-scale mining. We must do the same to the other companies that exploit mineral goods, such as SQM or Albermale. This would allow us to recover the main wealth-producing companies of the country from the hands of the big businessmen and their political parties.
Workers’ and popular control is not utopia. In the 70’s, Chileans took over the most important textile factory in the country, Yarur, and reconfigured production to prioritize the needs of the people instead of exporting luxury goods. The conditions of its workers improved qualitatively (wages, shorter hours, benefits for families, etc). Furthermore, the company started to produce a series of machines and tools that it previously had to import at enormous costs.
We have no doubt that Codelco and other mines could be administered by a Workers’ and Peoples’ Council of Mining, which would replace the current Mining Council attended by big bosses that pillage the country.
The workers’ and peoples’ control of certain companies must be but a step towards strengthening a social movement which culminates in true workers’ and peoples’ control, where the workers control the State and manage the main companies of the country (power companies, ports, banks, etc.), putting all that wealth in the service of the entire population and planning the economy to end irrational capitalist logic. In so doing, we could establish different international relations, relations based on solidarity and fraternity, on fair exchange, and not on the submission of our country to big corporations and capitalist powers.
 
For a Popular Constituent Initiative
We are proposing this campaign today, gathering signatures for a Popular Constituent Initiative to present it to the Constitutional Convention. We need to gather 15,000 signatures in four regions of Chile for this proposal to be discussed at the Convention. We believe it is possible to gather many more and generate an ample social movement for these demands.
 
The 6 points of the Popular Initiative for a Constituent Norm must be:
1-Ending all concessions of copper and lithium for large private mining corporations; keeping the exploration and utilization of small and medium private mining while prioritizing the maintenance of ecosystems and ensuring communities do not experience contamination;
2-Nationalizing the large copper and lithium mining corporations without paying indemnities. Keeping in the New Constitution these mineral goods as the property of the peoples that inhabit these territories;
3 – Ending subcontracting by mining companies and ensuring that all workers have the same rights;
4 – Creating a Workers’ and Peoples’ Council for Mining, which will have as its function the managing of these companies and their resources. This Council will be composed of representatives of mining workers, from the communities affected by mining, and from working-class organizations (unions, territorial assemblies, professional associations, etc.);
5 – Annulment of all Water Usage Rights. In the case of mining, water must be managed rationally, prioritizing the maintenance of ecosystems and human usage;
6 – Creating five-year plans for the wealth generated by large-scale mining that prioritizes investment in healthcare, housing, education, and environmental recovery. These plans must be approved by the whole of the population through Binding Polls;
We invite all workers, social organizations, unions, feminist groups, environmentalists, and the youth to join this campaign. Let us recover copper and lithium to finance the social rights we need! Let us recover copper and lithium to end the irrational exploitation of these natural goods and end the destruction of nature and the ecosystems!
 
Undersigned by:
MIT – International Workers’ Movement (IWL-FI)
María Rivera Iribarren – Constituent Deputy and national leader of the MIT
Edward Gallardo – Leader of the National Intercompany Mining Union (SIM) and of the Miner’s Voice Bulletin
Lara Heredia – Treasurer of the Upcom Workers’ Union
Diego Esteban Guerra González – President of the Gualapack Chile Spa Company Union
Marcela Olivares – President of the Judicial Assistance Corporation Workers’ Association
 
Notes:
[1] Department of Economy of the University of Chile (uchile.cl)
[2] “Milicogate” is a case of corruption in Chile, specifically of fraud and Copper Reserved Law public funds embezzlement, which were committed by members of the Chilean Army. The case was uncovered by newspaper The Clinic in 2015, on a series of articles signed by journalist Mauricio Weibel. [translator’s note]
[3] A person or company that has a contract with the State or with someone else to supply goods or execute construction. [translator’s note]
[translated by Miki Sayoko]
 
 

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