CLIMATE Constitutional Process NATIONAL

How will the new constitution address the environment?

Last year’s rejected proposed constitution declared Chile an “ecological state.” The Boric Administration has taken steps to live up to its “green” promise, but much progress is yet to be made. In addition, what place the environment will have in the new proposed constitution remains to be seen.

On May 7, Chileans head to the polls to elect 50 “advisors” to the new Constitutional Council. The advisors will be tasked with writing the final draft of Chile’s proposed new constitution. A central aspect of last year’s proposed constitution was its focus on environmental protection and conservation. Will they play a central role in the new draft as well? 

For example, last year’s constitutional draft declared Chile an “ecological state,” and recognized nature as a subject of rights. More specifically, it imposed limits on mining activities, ordered the state to protect its biodiversity, and made water a human right (currently, water rights are privatized in Chile).

Of course, none of these high aspirations came true. Chile overwhelmingly rejected last year’s proposed constitution, and the government went back to the drawing board.

Despite the rejection, Chile’s current government has high aspirations to take the environmental bull by the horns, in line with President Gabriel Boric’s environmentalist spirit.

The first Latin American “green government”?

Upon assuming office, President Boric was hailed as the “leader of Latin America’s green revolution.” That came as no surprise, considering he made tackling climate change one of the key pillars of his campaign. “His” Chile would have the first “green government,” he promised.

During that campaign, Boric pledged to: protect Chile’s biodiversity by creating biological corridors for flora and fauna, nationalize the mining industry through the creation of a national mining company, modernize and improve the country’s water management system, and help repair the country’s “sacrifice zones” (areas considered by some to be too polluted to be saved).

Chile is especially vulnerable to climate change. It is home to some of the most extreme climates in the world: it includes the world’s driest desert in the north, and the world’s second largest continuous extra-polar ice field in the south. It has one of the largest coastlines of any country in the world, a coast that is vital to dozens of marine species migrating from north to south each year.

In addition, given that Chile’s economy is mainly driven by environment-damaging industries like salmon farming and the mining and timber industries, and that it has several “sacrifice zones,” it is not hard to imagine the effects that rising temperatures and sea levels might have on the country.

After winning the elections, Boric said that we cannot destroy more of our world than we already have. “We don’t want any more sacrifice zones, we don’t want any more projects that destroy our Chile, that destroy communities.” Under his administration, Boric said, avoiding destruction of the environment would become a priority, and economic development from there onwards would be achieved in a sustainable way.

Also read: 

Mission Blue sets out to document Patagonian biodiversity

Progress since the election

A little over a year in, Boric has shown his commitment to resolving environmental issues. In a shift from his predecessor’s stance, the newly-elected president had Chile join the United Nations Escazu Agreement, just days after assuming office. This environmental treaty among Latin American countries aims to protect “the right of each person, of present and future generations, to live in a healthy environment and to sustainable development.” 

In early 2023, the government also unanimously rejected the Dominga mining project. The project, worth US$ 2.5 billion, was targeted for the La Higuera municipality. After a 10-year vetting process, Chile’s Committee of Ministers decided that its potential impacts on biodiversity, water, and air quality exceeded national standards – especially its expected undue impact on the nearby Humboldt nature reserve, one of the world’s most biodiverse areas.  

More recently, Boric has fulfilled one of his other campaign promises, when the government announced the creation of a national company for the extraction of lithium from the Atacama Desert.

Chile is home to the world’s largest lithium reserves and is currently the second-largest producer of the valuable metal (Australia is the largest producer). In time, the country plans to transfer lithium-mining operations from mining conglomerates Albemarle and SQM to a government enterprise. Nationalizing the production is “the best chance at transitioning to a sustainable and developed economy,” Boric said during the announcement. 

However, the news has not all been positive for environmentalists. Days before announcing the national lithium company, the government approved the controversial “Los Bronces” mining project. It concerns the expansion of mining operations in the mountain ranges close to Santiago and has been criticized for its potential effects on air quality, flora, fauna, and the glaciers that supply water to the capital.

More about mining in Chile: 

Chile seeks to nationalize lithium industry, minimize extraction impact

It is not all good news

Chile’s sacrifice zones are another sore point. It was only several weeks ago that over 60 people were hospitalized in Quintero (affected by the oil, gas, and copper industry) with signs of poisoning. The current constitution states that it is the state’s duty to guarantee “the right to live in a pollution-free environment,” but despite this the Boric Administration has not been able to find a solution to the effects of pollution in these areas.

Then there is the salmon industry, Chile’s third most important economic activity. The country’s Ministry of Environment has pointed to 14 companies that have been systematically overproducing salmon in the southern regions. Many of these companies are also active within protected areas, and evidence suggests that the industry is doing serious damage to the local biodiversity.  

Chile’s water crisis, potentially the biggest one of all, remains unsolved. The country faces a mega-drought, one that has lasted over a decade. Riverbeds dried up, affecting agriculture and local communities’ water supply. Some say the current constitution is to blame. Under this constitution, water rights are privatized, meaning that there is no human right to water. In practice, this means that water might flow to large companies like mining corporations and avocado producers, rather than to communities in need. 

The elections ahead

Between June 6 and November 17 the Constitutional Council will make a second attempt to write a draft that appeals to the Chilean population. If it is up to the Boric administration, the environment will once again play a vital role.

In its constitutional proposal, a document containing the government coalition’s “minimal demands,” the ruling parties state the following things:

  1. In addition to promoting sustainable development, the government should take “an active, directive or guiding role” in addressing the climate and ecological crises.
  2. The government must “ensure the recovery and care of nature, its resources and biodiversity,” and therefore it must find a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.
  3. The right to water has to be a “national good of public use, that belongs to the society as a whole.”
  4. The State has “the absolute, exclusive, inalienable and imprescriptible right to all mines.” Exploitation of mines must always be with the public interest in mind; the environment and cultural protection must also be considered.

These demands all fit the broader agenda of the Boric administration. Whether Chileans agree remains to be seen. In May, they will have a chance to decide who is going to write the new constitutional draft. Then, later this year, the new draft will be voted on in a national plebiscite on Dec. 17.

More about the constitutional process: 

Constitutional Council elections: what you need to know

Public security remains citizen priority, polls say

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