Seven years on and preparing for new challenges: The development of Somos Choapa
31st August 2021
Somos Choapa - an initiative that contributes to the sustainable development and wellbeing of inhabitants of the Choapa Province, where Antofagasta’s Los Pelambres mine is located – is celebrating its seventh anniversary this August. But rather than rest on their laurels, those involved with this initiative prefer to look at these seven years as a base from which they will be able to address the province’s, and the company’s, future challenges.
The Somos Choapa programme arose from a review by Los Pelambres in 2013 of its interaction with the people affected by its activities in the province. The analysis identified weaknesses in the company’s work to improve local living standards as investments were scattered, unfocused and lacked an overriding methodology. As a result, Los Pelambres established Somos Choapa, with a set of criteria that have since guided the company’s engagement with the authorities and communities in the province’s four municipal districts: Illapel, Canela, Salamanca and Los Vilos. The model places particular emphasis on community participation in decisions, public-private management, collaboration with the state and alliances with expert third-party organisations.
“Somos Choapa’s methodology helped the company to have a more organic conversation with the province, local governments and communities to define common problems and develop a common vision for development,” says Andrés Morán, Public Affairs Manager at Antofagasta Minerals. “Based on this approach, programmes and projects were developed that helped to change the relationship.”
The programme’s model, involving dialogue through town halls, assemblies and forums, was pioneering at the time, but today is the minimum the country asks from institutions, adds Morán. “Somos Choapa has allowed us to develop this skill. Through conversations with social organisations, local governments, and others, we have a way to understand what new challenges are implicit in the province and have formed a base that is allowing us to take on new challenges and look to the future.”
Somos Choapa has two guiding principles: collaboration - with social organisations, local governments and communities - and forming alliances to carry out the decisions made in the dialogue processes. “We are a copper mining company that has territorial challenges that go beyond what the company can handle and so we turn to experts on these issues - NGOs, companies, foundations - that can help us understand the problems and how to solve them,” says Morán, adding “Another dimension in this collaboration is the state. The idea is not to replace the state but to empower each other and take advantage of any synergies.”
In fact, according to Alejandra Medina, Public Affairs Manager at Minera Los Pelambres, one of Somos Choapa’s main strengths is the programme itself and the way it has been implemented, with its focus on collaboration and tripartite participation. “Over these seven years we’ve been able to prove a hypothesis, defining how to develop quality projects by working with experts. There is a high level of appreciation of the programme by its participants and recognition by the province of it as a collective construction, not just a company project,” she notes.
This way of working has not only been applied to Somos Choapa projects, Medina adds, but also to how Antofagasta has used the $12 million in funding the company made available to face Chile’s COVID-19 pandemic needs. As can be imagined, the company received, what she calls, “an avalanche of applications for funding, with each organisation insisting they were the most affected”. Antofagasta worked with the municipalities, provincial health authorities and community representatives to define a COVID plan, the major part of which went towards establishing a regional laboratory to receive and process PCR tests. A number of other proposed projects had to be declined but the decision was a collective one, backed by technical reasoning in prioritising and defining the investments needed to address the health emergency.
This strategy has been recognised by the province’s residents. According to a perception study carried out at the beginning of 2021, fully half of those who were aware of the plan gave it a score of 6 to 7, out of 7, and another 25% gave it a score of 5.
Somos Choapa’s focus areas include water management, economic development, education and culture, and public infrastructure improvements.
One programme that particularly embodies the initiative’s collaboration with outside experts and municipal involvement is how the parties are looking to improve education in the province.
Education: Establishing partnerships to support the future
According to Claudia Sandoval, Executive Director Fundación Minera Los Pelambres, the most traditional way the programme has benefitted students is via scholarships. This benefits them directly and “we are now seeing doctors and nurses coming from this province – with a significant improvement in terms of skill formation - and this is powerful,” she says.
However, on a more macro level, in 2020 Somos Choapa also established a partnership with Educación 2020. This NGO aims to ensure quality, equitable and inclusive education, and to promote innovate classroom changes using the Project-Based Learning (PBL) hybrid education model, which places the students' learning at the core of the design and realisation of a real project linked to their daily lives.
Working with teachers, families and students alike, Educación 2020 is also implementing the “Red de Tutorías” (“Tutoring Networks”) programme, an innovative educational approach that changes the paradigm of classroom relationships and is based on the premise that the teacher is no longer the sole source of knowledge and all students can teach and learn. Teachers prepare their students on topics chosen by the children themselves, and they in turn tutor other classmates, thereby virally spreading the educational process.
In 2020 alone, this programme reached nearly 2,100 students and 176 teachers from 15 primary schools throughout the province. The move is a bet on the future, Medina notes, as the results of this educational programme will probably not be seen for another 5-10 years.
Looking to the future, Medina says Somos Choapa’s future challenges will have to remain true to the programme’s collective participation process, while ensuring that the projects themselves are advancing to the next stage. “We have to take on new, bigger challenges: how to further develop the province’s identity and leverage other economic activities, and how to improve access to meeting spaces for conversation and recreation. A number of the projects are mature and we need to take a look at them to see what we need to change, what we need to do, and that we do not repeat the same projects every year,” she says.
In a broader sense, the scope has now changed for Somos Choapa and the task is now to face a new set of challenges, according to Morán. These challenges are more structural regarding not just community-related issues such as public spaces and the use of natural resources, but also operational issues including dust and the use of roads.
The methodology developed during Somos Choapa’s seven-year history - engaging in dialogue, forming multi-sector partnerships, driving collaboration, and ensuring impactful engagement with the province and state - will no doubt play an important part in defining and meeting these new challenges.