wealth inequality

Environmentalists in Chile Are Hoping to Replace the Country’s Pinochet-Era Legal


Chile’s constitutional convention, underway in Santiago since July 4, 2021, is the first time a country has re-written its foundational document in the wake of the Paris Agreement and comes as the world reckons with three interconnected environmental crises: climate change, biodiversity loss and toxic pollution.

With most of the 155 delegates being either left-leaning or independent, environmentalists are hoping the convention will seize the moment and enshrine an array of environmental rights and obligations to create a so-called “ecological constitution,” similar to the constitutions of neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia. 

Among the concepts already approved for inclusion in the convention’s draft constitution are the rights of nature (the idea that ecosystems have legal rights to exist and regenerate), the rights of animals to live free from abuse and human rights to environmental information and participation in environmental decision making. The draft also includes recognition that the climate crisis is a consequence of human activity, and the recognition of the government’s duty to promote efforts to mitigate and face the climate crisis. 

The language of some of these provisions, and other possible ideas for inclusion, are still being worked out. The convention’s final draft constitution, due by July 5, must be approved by a national plebiscite before September to take effect as the highest source of law in the country. Otherwise, the existing 1980 constitution drafted under the military dictatorship of Agusto Pinochet will remain in effect. 

The debate inside and outside the convention has been fierce. Conservatives want delegates to adhere to the governing principles from the 1980 constitution, which were influenced by economist Milton Freeman. They see the emphasis on free markets and less regulation as fundamental to Chile’s economic success and export-oriented economy. 

Environmentalists and other progressives say those policies are responsible for the country’s high inequality and environmental problems. They want to see the new constitution set the foundation for a more inclusive and sustainable society. 

The question for convention delegates is whether Chile, a country rich in minerals like lithium and copper, can maintain the economic growth that has made it a standout in Latin America while improving social and environmental outcomes for all citizens. If it can, Chile could become a model for a world in which the benefits of the energy transition and the impacts of climate change are more equitably distributed. 

‘The Obscenity of the So-called Sacrifice Zones’

The convention’s historical moment has been decades in the making. 

Poor and middle-class Chileans have long harbored deep-seated grievances over the country’s inequality and a perception that the government has failed to deliver in key areas like education, health, social security and environmental protection. 

In 2018 alone, 116 environmental protests took place across the country, according to Chile’s national Human Rights Institute. Some of those conflicts stem from the existence of so-called “sacrifice zones,” places where clusters of mines, refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities cause extreme levels of pollution near mostly poor communities. 

In Quintero-Puchuncavi, two adjacent towns about 90 miles Northwest of Santiago that are home to about 15 industrial sites, toxic gas leaks in 2018 sent hundreds of people, including school children, to the hospital. In 2019, the Chilean Supreme Court ruled the government was responsible for the extreme contamination, but since then little has changed for residents who are still subject to high levels of sulfur dioxide and particulate pollution. Last month, researchers found people living for more than five years in those communities are more likely to have a malfunction in a gene that is responsible for suppressing tumors. 

People across Chile are also highly vulnerable to climate change, with rising temperatures expected to increase and intensify flooding, droughts, wildfires and landslides throughout the country. Poor air quality from the burning of wet wood for household energy is also a pervasive problem, particularly in highly populated areas like the capital, Santiago. 

Chile’s environmental issues are entwined with one of the main grievances of the poor and middle class: That the benefits of heavy industry go to a small number of elites while the poor and middle class shoulder the burden. Chile is one of the most unequal countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, with most of the country’s wealth concentrated at the very top. The highest 1 percent of income earners make up about one-third of Chile’s total income and the top 5 percent make up more than half of total income.

In October 2019, protests over a small increase in Santiago’s metro fares exploded into weeks of social unrest, ceasing only after politicians agreed to hold a constitutional referendum. At the polls, nearly 80 percent of voters said they wanted a new constitution drafted by a democratically elected assembly. 

A protester holds a piece of cloth reading “New Constitution or Nothing” during a demonstration at Plaza Italia in Santiago on October 22, 2019, the fifth straight day of street violence that erupted over a now suspended hike in metro ticket prices. President Sebastian Pinera convened a meeting with leaders of Chile’s political parties on Tuesday in the hope of finding a way to end the violence that has claimed 15 lives, as anti-government campaigners threatened new protests. (Photo by Pedro UGARTE / AFP) (Photo by PEDRO UGARTE/AFP via Getty Images)

In a second vote to choose assembly delegates, left-leaning and independent candidates who had campaigned in part on environmental issues took about two-thirds of the seats while right-wing political parties performed worse than expected and now lack enough seats to block proposals they disagree with. 

The makeup of the assembly, which has gender parity and 17 seats reserved for Indigenous communities, augurs well for environmentalists. Patricia Politzer, a Chilean journalist elected to the assembly as an independent, said most convention delegates understand that Chile needs to make progress on protecting the environment, both to address the climate crisis and to end the “inhumane situation” of environmental injustices. 

“We need to end as soon as possible the obscenity of the so-called sacrifice zones. There are thousands of people sacrificing their health and lives to allow others to have a comfortable life,” Politzer said. “I think the protection of nature will become the backbone of the new constitution…allowing for an environmental perspective to influence all institutions.”

An Economic Miracle, But Not for All

Chile’s existing 1980 constitution is filled with idealistic language—it begins by reciting that all men are born free and equal and even includes the human right to a pollution-free environment. But as it has been interpreted by the courts and governing bodies over the last 42 years, protections for private enterprise, free markets and private property rights reign supreme.

Marcos Orellana, the U.N. special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, attributes the existence of Chile’s sacrifice zones, in part, to that constitution.

“In many segments of Chilean society, there is a clear understanding that the extreme neoliberal model that the 1980 constitution, implemented by force, failed to ensure equality,” Orellana said. “The marginalized and poor have been largely excluded from the gains that have come about from increased economic activity.”

In 1990, when Chile’s government transformed from Pinochet’s dictatorship into a new democracy, the government held onto the…


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