Environmentalists and glacier activists set to rewrite Chile’s constitution


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Environmentalists and glacier activists set to rewrite Chile’s constitution

View of a 2019 protest against inequalities and the high cost of living in Santiago, Chile. Source: Hugo Morales

On May 15 and 16, millions of Chileans flocked to the polls for what would become a historic referendum: they elected the members of a national assembly that would be responsible for rewriting the Chilean constitution, the culmination of a long process of in balance with the country past difficult. It was not the first remarkable vote in recent memory: in 2020, 78% of Chileans voted to initiate this rewrite process. The results of the May elections showed that a large part of the voters came from right or left circles to support independent parties and coalitions in the assembly, depriving the incumbent conservative party of the right of veto and giving the word to environmentalists, including glacier activists.

This level of national unity on an existential issue has been in the making for decades. In 1973, Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government was violently overthrown in a US-backed coup, ending decades of political stability and democracy. This led to an oppressive regime led by Augusto Pinochet, whose government drafted the current constitution, and who remained in power until 1989. Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship claimed the lives of thousands of Chilean citizens during its early years, and its neoliberal economic model exacerbated class disparities in the country. These economic events and trends galvanized the Chilean people, creating broad support for full democracy and a just economy. In 2019, widespread protests erupted against inequality and the high cost of living, bringing even greater international recognition to this popular movement and leading to the 2020 constitutional referendum and the 2021 assembly.

Much of the mobilization since 2019 has been driven by economic and environmental injustices caused by intense resource extraction, sometimes even in high altitude glacial habitats. Many Chilean glaciers cover huge deposits of copper and Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world (the industry accounts for 10% of the country’s GDP). Mining companies working alongside the Pinochet regime have been given permission to access and exploit vulnerable mountain ecosystems, disrupting or contaminating vital glacial meltwater and irrevocably altering landscapes and ecosystems.

Copper mine surrounded by glaciers

División Andina, a copper mine operated by Codelco at an altitude of over 3,000 meters in the Valparaíso region. Source: Javier Rubilar

Many of the new assembly are environmental activists, with some focusing specifically on glaciers. Constanza San Juan Standen is one of these elected personalities, representing Atacama, in the arid and water north of the country. Along with her socio-environmental activism, she is spokesperson for the Guasco Alto Water Assembly and the Coordinación de Territorios por la Defensa de los Glaciares (Coordination of territories for the defense of glaciers). In an interview with GlacierHub, San Juan shared his story, describing how his community came together in a fight against the massive Pascua Lama mining project in the early 2000s, a highly controversial surface mine project that remains in the works. outstanding today, in part thanks to their efforts. They demanded the passage of a glacier protection law in 2005, enlisting many communities to eventually form the Coordinación. Despite their determination, strong pressure from the mining sector has so far prevented the adoption of such legislation. Now San Juan is ready to help rewrite the very constitution of the country.

Chile’s glaciers hold one of the largest reserves of fresh water in the world outside of the north and south poles. Now, with a progressive majority made up of many independent parties, the assembly is poised to reform the very foundations of Chile’s approach to climate change and melting ice.

“As the Territories Coordination for the Defense of Glaciers, after many years of learning from experts, we now understand that it is important to protect not only the glacial ice visible to the naked eye, but also the ‘environment that surrounds it,’ San said. Juan pointed out to GlacierHub. It lists the periglacial environment, the permafrost environment, and biogeographic support elements, such as the high Andean lakes, as requiring immediate preservation alongside the glaciers themselves. She noted that the first step could be taken with a law, but they are working to include these glacier conservation considerations in the new constitution itself. “This will finally allow us, in a concrete way, to put an end to the sacrifice and misuse of the vital elements that sustain life. “

José Pinedo Ried, a Chilean mountaineer and editorial coordinator of the non-profit organization Glaciares Chilenos spoke to GlacierHub in an interview, in which he noted that Chile contains a large number of unique climates at different latitudes. Despite all this climatic diversity, Ried described how no region has been untouched by the brutal effects of climate change, noting that “it’s raining less than 10-20 years ago – we’ve been through massive drought over the course of time. over the past 15 years. . Climate change is something that hits the whole country. He stressed the need for a mechanism that protects the diverse Chilean environment, which, among other things, will prevent mining companies from operating near their glaciers and water sources. “It’s not just about glaciers,” he said. “It’s also about the biosphere around them.

A chance for scientific bills of rights is not the only factor that makes the 2021 election remarkable. For the first time in the history of the world, this type of constitutional assembly has been mandated to present equal representation of men and women. In addition, within the progressive majority, 17 of the 155 seats were reserved for Chile’s nine officially recognized indigenous groups. The indigenous voices included in the assembly mark another important and long neglected addition to electoral politics in Chile, one that most democracies around the world have yet to address. Roxana Borquez is a doctoral candidate in geography at King’s College London and a graduate of the University of Chile. Speaking to GlacierHub, she explained that “when you add traditional knowledge, you don’t see the glacier just because of the water it gives to a place, but also because of the symbolic value it has, of the way it brings the ecosystem to life, of the way it creates a cycle. She pointed out that indigenous peoples can bring new systems of knowledge to the constitution beyond scientific evidence. ” other aspects that we don’t usually use in Chile to make laws. “

The assembly met for the first time on July 4. When asked what she would include in the constitution, Constanza San Juan said she would prioritize “life at the center” and “defend common resources” from private ambitions. She intends to demand that resources such as water be declared inviolable commons, a legal change that would protect both people and ecosystems from resource extraction and habitat destruction. San Juan recognizes the potential for constitutional change to preserve a threatened biosphere. She concluded her conversation with GlacierHub with a call to action: to lead Chile in a transition towards an “anti-neoliberal and anti-extractivist economic model, at the service of communities, by promoting local and sustainable economies, by taking into account load the ecological crisis and climate emergency, and in harmony with nature.




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