The State Defense Council and local authorities signed an agreement to safeguard a site of over 2,500 hectares where ancient marine fossil have been found, such as fish, crocodiles, shark teeth -including those of the huge megalodon-, extinct penguins and birds like the Pelagornis chilensis.
Its protection was materialized thanks to the cooperation of locals, the regional government, academic and scientific representatives, the State Defense Council, the National Monument Council and the municipality of Caldera.
The President of the State Defense Council, Juan Peribonio, visited the site today and said that the conservation of the site is a dream came true for Atacama’s population. The goal is to stop the destruction of fossil deposits by extractive mining operations and to promote the scientific research so as to transform the area in an educational, cultural and economic development center.
The agreement signed up in January by the State of Chile and Compañía Minera de Fosfatos Naturales (natural phosphates mining company), judicially approved in August 2020, protects a 2,500-hectares site and includes a set of actions to repair the damage the mining activity caused to the paleontological heritage. PhD David Rubilar, head of the Paleontology Unit of the Natural History Museum, said that everything which is aimed to protect the patrimony is good news; “Although I haven’t read the agreement, being the State Defense Council involved, I imagine it’s positive.”
The mitigation actions include a compensation fine of US$1 million to be given to the Chilean Treasury and resources to support the creation and operation of the Research and Advancement Corporation for Atacama’s Paleontology and Natural History (CIAHN Atacama), a non-profit private organization aimed at the protection, conservation, research, promotion and value addition to the regional heritage.
There’s a place called “Los Dedos” that was really destroyed by huaqueros (unauthorized diggers) and mining activities. From scientific point of view, the site is intervened; although the park comprises a virgin area. I remember I went to the park in the 90s and there were a lot of fossils, but also a lot of people taking them out”, PhD Rubilar said.
The great dream was to find a megalodon tooth, but “in doing it, they destroyed scientific material many times. This is what I call the tooth fever, like the gold fever”, he explained. This agreement is really important since Bahía Inglesa and Cerro Ballena host marine vertebrate fossil deposits of immeasurable value due to their diversity and conservation quality, so they me be a benchmark for paleontology around the world.
Important marine vertebrate remains of 8 million years have been found in this geologic formation, such as crocodiles, giant birds, cetacean and sharks, among others; which is a valuable paleontological patrimony within the southern hemisphere, considered as a world-class scientific research and development site.
As well, the work plan excludes any mining activity inside a 2,516-hectare area to preserve the wealthiest sector of the deposit; also, the sued companies must provide US$ 250,000 annually to fund research and to add value to the assets and new findings as the project progresses.
Besides, the mining activities on nearby properties will be monitored by experts on paleontology so as to assure the impact on heritage is the tiniest possible.
Remains of fish, marine crocodiles, penguins and birds
In his visit, Mr. Peribonio said “this fulfills the purpose of the State of getting an effective remedy to the environmental damage, warranting that the compensation fine is properly invested for the benefit of the regional community.”
He also said that it is necessary to keep the path and effort made by people and public, private and civil entities during the past years which now allow carrying out this desired regional project.
In the area, protected under judicial agreement, there are petrified vestiges of about 8 million years. Amidst a dazzling landscape, it’s possible to find remains of fish and marine crocodiles; shark teeth, including megalodon ones, fossils of extinct penguins and other birds, including the Pelagornis chilensis, the biggest flying species that ever existed on Earth.
As well, there are whales, dolphins and marine mammals such as sloths, sirenians and seals. These fossils report an extinct warm-water ecosystem, which subsisted before the Humboldt Current and the desertification process: The evolution of the natural history of Chile is preserved there on rock, an ancient biodiversity preceding the current flora and fauna of the Atacama’s coastline.
The spokesman said that “the entity early knew about the complaint made by the paleontologist Pablo Quilodrán and started working, together with the Council for National Monuments, to seek for damage compensation, which now is a reality under a judicial agreement with great benefit for Atacama.”
Finally, the President of the State Defense Council recognized “the work made by my officers in Copiapó, especially by my predecessor Mrs. María Eugenia Manaud, along with the counselor Raúl Letelier and our Environmental Committee, who committed to carry this process forward and now allows providing future generations with a protected area to develop scientific research and knowledge”.
CIAHN Atacama’s projects consider a Research Center on Natural History, the writing of a file for Caldera’s Heritage to be included in the Unesco Global Network of Geoparks, and the construction of a new paleontological museum.