SANTIAGO — A coalition of organizations from Chile’s northern and central regions publicly challenged the Senate board reviewing a bill on glacier protection. The organization also specifically rejected a suggested change by the Piñera administration that would exclude many glaciers from protection. According to the organization, the board is simply a rubber stamp for the administration and lacks transparency.
Glaciers are the planet’s primary freshwater reserves. Chile has over 80 percent of the glaciers in South America. According to the General Directorate of Water, there are over 24,000 in the country. In Chile, glaciers are also threatened, including by rising temperatures and mining projects. These are among the reasons a pending bill seeks to protect the country’s vast ice fields.
The Mining and Energy Commission of the Senate is overseeing the bill, but it has been stuck in neutral since January. To speed things up, Senator Guido Girardi proposed to work on an agreement between the senators’ advisors and President Sebastián Piñera’s administration. This led to the creation of a discussion board that is now accused of lacking transparency and being complicit with the administration.
A coalition of organizations from Chile’s northern and central regions that seek to protect the glaciers, La Coordinación de Territorios en Defensa de los Glaciares (The Coordination of Territories for the Defense of Glaciers, CTDG), issued a statement to “alert citizens and communities of the agreements that may be executed in this instance, since [the board] is not a public body that allows citizen control.”
The organization also accused the board of being complicit with the Piñera administration, to approve provisions from the latter that, according to the glacier defenders, would be “a setback in the protection proposed in the original bill.”
Pressure To Enact A Law to Protect Glaciers
The need for a bill to protect glaciers has been in discussion since 2005, but it wasn’t until March 2019, after many setbacks, that the Commission for the Environment and National Assets finally approved the idea of a new glacier protection bill. The bill currently under review classifies the ice fields as national assets for public use and establishes criminal penalties for those who access them illegally.
Constanza Espinosa, co-founder of the Fundación Glaciares Chilenos (Chilean Glaciers Foundation), told Chile Today that there is an urgent need for a bill to protect glaciers. “Right now, only the glaciers inside a national park are protected … there is also a problem with the classification, for example, rock glaciers are not recognized, so the mining companies have a green light to destroy them.”
To senator Girardi, promoter of the bill, it is fundamental to protect glaciers because, as he emphasized at a conference, glaciers “are natural refrigerators that participate in climate dynamics. They provide surface water — particularly since October when it stops raining — and also groundwater.”
Minister of Mining Baldo Prokurica, on the other hand, presented a proposed change to the bill that would modify the definition of glaciers and only include those over one hectare.
The spokeswoman for the CTDG, Stefanía Vega, told Radio UChile that defining glaciers as “ice bodies over one [hectare], is harmful to all the glaciers in northern Chile,” as it is a territory mostly covered by rock glaciers, and hundreds of them are smaller than one hectare.
Espinosa agrees that the proposal made by the government and the mining companies would leave thousands of small glaciers unprotected; “that is an example of the power that mining companies have in Chile to lobby and stop projects of environmental protection.”