Environmentalists and glacier activists stand ready to rewrite Chile’s constitution Re
On May 15 and 16, millions of Chileans flocked to the polling stations in a historic referendum: They elected the members of a national assembly tasked with revising the Chilean constitution, as the culmination of a long process of settling the difficult past. This was not the first notable vote in recent times – in 2020, a staggering 78% of Chileans voted to initiate this recast process. The results of the May elections showed that a large portion of voters had switched from both right and left to the independent parties and coalitions in the gathering activists.
This level of national unity on an existential issue has lasted for decades. In 1973, the democratic-socialist government of Salvador Allende was violently overthrown in a US-backed coup, ending decades of political stability and democracy. This resulted in a repressive regime led by Augusto Pinochet, whose government wrote the current constitution and which remained in power until 1989. Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship claimed the lives of thousands of Chilean citizens in the early years, and his neoliberal economic model exacerbated class inequalities in the country. These events and economic trends have roused the Chilean people and created widespread support for full democracy and a fair economy. In 2019, widespread protests against inequality and the high cost of living broke out, giving this popular movement even greater international recognition and leading to the 2020 Constitutional Referendum and the 2021 Assembly.
Much of the mobilization since 2019 can be traced back to economic and ecological injustices caused by intensive resource extraction, sometimes even in high-altitude, glaciated habitats. Many Chilean glaciers cover massive copper deposits and Chile is the world’s largest copper producer (industry accounts for 10% of the country’s GDP). Corporate mines that worked with the Pinochet regime were granted permission to access and mine endangered mountain ecosystems that disrupt or contaminate life-giving glacial meltwater and irrevocably alter landscapes and ecosystems.
Many members of the new assembly are environmental activists, some specifically focus on glaciers. Constanza San Juan Standen is one of these elected personalities and represents Atacama in the dry and water-conscious north of the country. In addition to her socio-ecological commitment, she is the spokesperson for the Guasco Alto Water Assembly and the CoordinaciÃ³n de Territorios por la Defensa de los Glaciares (Coordination of Territories for the Protection of Glaciers). In an interview with GlacierHub, San Juan shared her story and described how her community banded together in the early 2000s to fight the massive Pascua Lama mining project, a highly controversial proposed open pit mine that remains on hold to this day, thanks in part to her efforts . They sought to pass a glacier protection law in 2005 and included numerous municipalities in order to finally form the CoordinaciÃ³n. Despite their determination, strong pressure from the mining sector has so far prevented such laws from being passed. Now San Juan is ready to rewrite the country’s constitution.
Chile’s glaciers have one of the world’s largest freshwater reserves outside the North and South Poles. With a progressive majority made up of many of these independent parties, the assembly is now ready to reform the basis of Chile’s approach to climate change and glacial melt.
âAs the Coordination of Territories for the Defense of Glaciers, after many years of learning from experts, we now understand that protecting not only the glacier ice that is visible to the naked eye, but also the surrounding area is important,â Juan said to GlacierHub. It lists the periglacial environment, the permafrost environment, and biogeographical support elements such as the high Andean lakes, which, in addition to the glaciers themselves, must be preserved immediately. She noted that the first step could be made with law, but the aim is to include these glacier protection considerations in the new constitution itself. “This will finally enable us to put an end to the sacrifice and abuse of the vital elements that sustain life in a concrete way.”
JosÃ© Pinedo Ried, a Chilean mountaineer and editorial coordinator of the nonprofit Glaciares Chilenos, spoke in an interview with GlacierHub in which he noted that Chile has a variety of unique climates at different latitudes. With all this climatic diversity, Ried described how no region was spared the brutal effects of climate change and remarked: “It is raining less than it was 10-20 years ago – we have gone through a massive drought in the last 15 years”. Climate change is affecting the whole country. âHe stressed the need for a mechanism to protect the diverse Chilean environment, including preventing mining companies from operating near their glaciers and water sources. âIt’s not just about the glaciers,â he said. “It’s also about the biosphere around them.”
The chance of science-conscious declarations of rights is not the only factor that makes the 2021 election remarkable. For the first time in world history, this form of constituent assembly was given equal representation of men and women. In addition, within the progressive majority, 17 out of 155 seats were reserved for the nine officially recognized indigenous groups of Chile. The indigenous voices represented in the assembly represent another important and long-neglected addition to electoral politics in Chile that most of the world’s democracies have yet to address. Roxana Borquez is a PhD student in Geography at King’s College London and a graduate of the University of Chile. Speaking to GlacierHub, she explained, âWhen you add traditional knowledge, you see the glacier not only for the water it gives a place, but also for its symbolic value, how it brings the ecosystem to life, how it creates a cycle . “She emphasized that indigenous peoples can bring new systems of knowledge into the constitution in addition to scientifically sound knowledge.
The congregation met for the first time on July 4th. When asked what she would include in the constitution, Constanza San Juan stated that she would “put life at the center” and defend “common resources” against private ambitions. She wants to demand that resources such as water be declared inviolable common goods, a legal shift that would protect both people and ecosystems from resource depletion and habitat destruction. San Juan recognizes the potential of a constitutional amendment to preserve a threatened biosphere. She concluded her conversation with GlacierHub with a call to action: Lead Chile on the transition to an âanti-neoliberal and anti-extractivist economic model that serves communities, promotes local and sustainable economies, takes responsibility for the ecological crisis and climate emergency and in harmony with nature. “