Antofagasta creates $6m COVID-19 fund for communities

May 2020

Antofagasta plc has set up a $6 million fund to help communities near its operations in Chile to address the impacts of coronavirus (COVID-19).

The fund, aimed at communities in Choapa Province and the Antofagasta Region, is focused on three key areas: health and hygiene, the local economy and community resilience. It envisages providing support during the actual health emergency, when the country is recovering from the crisis and, subsequently, when life returns to “normal”, or a steady state.

“We launched this fund to support our surrounding communities,” explains Antofagasta’s CEO, Iván Arriagada. “This fund, in addition to existing social investment plans, has been used to buy medical supplies and equipment for healthcare workers to fight COVID-19, to create facilities for people to stay if they need to be quarantined, and to sterilise public spaces and create safe areas for neighbouring communities”, he says.

René Aguilar, Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability for Antofagasta, adds that “later on, we also hope that this fund will help the economic and social recovery of our neighbours, according to how they define their most urgent needs”.

The company’s implementation strategy is based on the tried and tested engagement process used by its flagship Somos Choapa (We are Choapa) community relations programme which involves working at grassroots level with local mayors, community leaders and other authorities as well as through alliances with local groups and NGOs.

It is a bottom-up process in which the requirements and proposals are raised by the people on the ground and organised and processed by Antofagasta, which also comes up with its own proposals. The strategy seeks to have a combination of local legitimacy, effectiveness and technical judgement provided by experts, such as the local health authorities.

“Our initial actions were focused on protecting the health of our workers and local communities from any infections,” says Alejandra Medina, manager of public affairs for Los Pelambres copper mine in Choapa Province. For example, the company has reduced the number of employees and contractors working at its operations and suspended construction of its Los Pelambres Expansion Project. Now, according to Medina, the company is working with the local health authorities and mayors to tackle the wider regional impacts of the pandemic.

The first priority wais to provide healthcare workers with the tools to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 in the areas of influence around Antofagasta’s operations. This includes Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits and alcohol-based hand sanitiser as well as the ability to test people for COVID-19 at the Illapel hospital in Choapa Province, the La Serena regional hospital and the Antofagasta Oncology Centre.

The latter initiative is helping to speed up the reception of test results as, although Chile’s testing programme is higher than other Latin American countries, official testing laboratories are often far away from the country’s remoter communities and are also dealing with high demand.

Antofagasta is also supporting Fundación Manos que Ayudan (Hands that Help), an NGO that provides free health care in Antofagasta Region, to give medical help to people who cannot leave their homes because they are in quarantine or fear becoming infected with COVID-19. Since the programme began on 11 May, the NGO has attended 300 people at home and on online. 

In addition, the company is working with the Association of Traders and Companies of Salamanca (ACESA), with whom it has a collaboration agreement to disinfect public spaces in Salamanca municipal district, and has provided quaternary ammonium, a disinfectant, to other districts for the same purpose.

Economic measures

In parallel, Antofagasta is adjusting its existing local business development and job creation programmes in order to help those enterprises and people most impacted by the pandemic. 

It is looking closely at government measures to tackle the economic consequences of the virus to ensure that it is complementing, not replacing, government policy. 

In the town of Sierra Gorda in Antofagasta Region, local enterprises led by women are making masks to Health Ministry standards to supply local people and workers at the company’s Centinela copper mine, located nearby. This has helped offset the loss of other income as a result of the pandemic, says Norma Nieves, a seamstress.

Together with other companies in the energy and mining sector, Antofagasta is also part of the Economic Reactivation Support Programme led by the government’s Economic Development Agency (CORFO). The initiative involves co-funding training, consultancy and investment in goods and working capital for entrepreneurs in María Elena, a town close to Antucoya mine. 

In Choapa Province, it is drawing up plans to inject working capital into affected companies such as those involved in its Los Pelambres Expansion Project, which has been put on hold due to COVID-19.  The strategy envisages designing new programmes to boost regional development that will draw on the $6 million fund.

Strengthening communities

The community initiatives have a longer-term outlook and are based on discussions with neighbourhood associations on how community life may have changed when the pandemic is over. The view is that Chile will get through COVID-19 but things will be different.

Community leaders are requesting help in the soft skills area such as psychological support, reuniting family members, parted by quarantines and travel restrictions between regions, and rebuilding the community’s social fabric.

In the shorter term, Antofagasta is seeking to support distance learning. Together with local education authorities, it is launching a training programme on using an online education platform for more than 1,300 teachers near its operations in the north to contribute to the education and training of young people. "We hope that with this transitional online education plan, teachers will be able to teach their classes and maintain social and emotional links with their students," explains Aníbal Chamorro, manager of public affairs for Antofagasta Minerals’ operations in the north.

Working with experts in each of its focus areas is a crucial part of the strategy. Technical, specialist input ensures decisions are grounded in reality, fit for purpose and able to be adapted as circumstances change. This includes the company’s strategic allies, such as Educación 2020 and Junto al Barrio (Together with the Neighbourhood Foundation), with which it is working to redesign its existing programmes in an integrated manner.

The strategy is being prepared and rolled out mainly through virtual meetings as, although the Chilean government has not ordered a total lockdown to combat the disease, people are working from home where possible. It is a reflection of the times and also of the social distancing measures that may be needed for the foreseeable future.

Antofagasta’s contribution has been welcomed by local mayors. “In times of emergency, neighbours are there to lean on each other. Los Pelambres is one of our neighbours and I appreciate their disposition,” says Denis Cortés, the mayor of Illapel municipal district. Likewise, Karen Rojo, the mayor of Antofagasta, close to the company’s Antucoya, Centinela and Zaldívar operations further north, also expressed her appreciation. “These actions show that the copper companies located in our region understand the real sense of shared value," she says.

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