Felipe Espinosa, a programmer and climber-turned-activist, founded the Fundación Glaciares Chilenos in 2017 to educate people about glacier protection in Chile. The country is home to 82 percent of the glaciers in South America, which makes it a significant freshwater reserve. And yet, the word “glacier” is nowhere to be found in its constitution or any of its laws — something that Espinosa found troubling. “Chile is basically the Andes,” his colleague José Pinedo, told GlacierHub. By founding Glaciares Chilenos, Espinosa and his team set out to fill this vacuum.
To address the complex issue of glacier protection, the Fundación Glaciares Chilenos focuses on three activities: educating the Chilean population about glaciers, making the topic more visible, and providing information through comprehensible scientific papers. Earlier this month, the non-profit organization offered an online course on the importance of glacier protection and sustainable management of waters in Chile. Additionally, the group’s scientists are working on measuring changes in glacier albedo—the reflection of solar radiation—on Marmolejo, a mountain which lies near the capital city of Santiago.
The diverse profiles of team members help to root the non-governmental organization (NGO) in Chilean society, Espinosa told GlacierHub. The climbers, lawyers, designers, doctoral candidates, and hikers at Glaciares Chilenos all contribute to the various projects offered by the organization. One team member, who joined during the COVID-19 quarantine, has never even seen a glacier before and is patiently waiting for the end of the lockdown to visit one. “It is a good thing that I am not a glaciologist, or the team would never have turned out to be so diverse,” Espinosa added.
This work started when Felipe Espinosa hiked the Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia. Struck by the fragile beauty of the site, he started researching glaciers. “I realized there wasn’t that much information for ‘normal people’ like me,” he told GlacierHub. He started by gathering a few articles to “make science easily accessible to citizens.” The initiative proved to be much needed, and the NGO soon grew to reach the current team of over 30 volunteers.
A topic that needs constant attention from Glaciares Chilenos is glacier laws. Due to an institutional vacuum, NGOs in Chile have emerged as important players in creating environmental legislation. “NGOs generate environmental public policies because otherwise there would be no one doing it,” Roxana Borquez, a Chilean geographer at King’s College London told GlacierHub. Currently, the entirety of Chilean environmental policy lies in one sentence in the constitution mentioning the right to “an environment free of contamination.”
In 2006, President Bachelet’s administration was ready to pass a law on glacier protection for the first time. They put NGOs in charge of writing the text; however, support for the law was lost due to pressure from the mining lobby, Espinosa told GlacierHub.
The Andes are considered one of the largest gold and silver regions on the planet and many ore deposits lie near glaciers. This has led to a history of strong control by transnational mining companies in these areas. Some, like the Canadian company Barrick Gold, have private security firms and have been reported to pressure local police to repress environmental organizations. What’s more, legislation and enforcement is rather decentralized when it comes to water access in mountainous zones, leaving room for mismanagement. Since 2006, there have been five additional attempts to pass a glacier protection law, but “it has been modified so much that it no longer is a true law of protection, and rather one of intervention,” said Espinosa. Therefore, glacier legislation is still in the embryonic stage.
In order to develop more comprehensive glacier legislation, lawyers at Glaciares Chilenos work closely with Chile Sustentable and other international organizations like Greenpeace Chile who are involved with the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the national legislature.
Currently, Chilean environmental NGOs are also aiming for a change at the highest level of national governance. A referendum on a change to a new constitution, originally planned in April but delayed due to COVID-19, will take place on October 25, 2020. Civil society will intend to include glacier protection and water access in the new text. Although Chile transitioned to democracy in 1990, the majority of the current constitution dates back from the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, established by the US-backed coup d’état in 1973.
Glaciares Chilenos and other NGOs have joined the larger social protest that has shaken Chile since October 2019 to give Chileans discretion on how their land is managed. Originally sparked by an increase in the metro fare in Santiago, upheavals reflect public disagreement with the neoliberal system that is still in place, even after the end of the dictatorship. Amongst other issues, the de-Chilenization of mining to the benefit of transnational firms like Barrick Gold is a controversial issue.
Glaciers receive little attention in public discourse on natural resources simply because they are rather absent from Chileans’ everyday life. Even though Chile’s mountain range stretches from North to South, the distance from Paris to Beirut, “people are not familiar with snow,” Borquez told GlacierHub. The Chilean Andes are higher and less accessible than in neighboring countries like Peru. As a result, mountain activities “require money and access to a car,” she added.
This logistical issue adds to the fact that water and water sources in Chile are privately owned. Therefore, “access to mountains is not guaranteed by law, unlike beaches or lakes,” Eyal Levy Grass, an industrial engineer and Andean climber, told GlacierHub. This rule dates back to the 1981 Código de Aguas, a law created under Pinochet’s military dictatorship that gave absolute usage and usufructuary rights to private holders of water rights. The policy has caused citizens to further distance themselves from mountain regions over the past 40 years, Pinedo told GlacierHub. Consequently, the topic of glacier management has largely shifted to the private sphere.
¿Sabes cómo es la #proteccióndeglaciares en #sudamérica?#Argentina y #Ecuador y sus avances concretos: la #Ley N° 26.639 de protección de los glaciares de la República Argentina y la #Constitución de la República del Ecuador.
— Fundación Glaciares Chilenos (@glaciares_ong) July 13, 2020
In terms of glacier protection, “Chile is truly a different case than its neighbors,” Espinosa told GlacierHub. Despite facing similar resistance from the mining industry, Argentina has had glacier protection laws for over a decade. The context is also different because “Argentina has had large immigration from countries with a strong mountain culture, like Switzerland or Italy,” Borquez told GlacierHub. Ecuador’s constitution is nicknamed “constitución ecológica” (ecological constitution), Espinosa told GlacierHub. Among other requirements, it introduces a mandatory consultation of Indigenous people before any project of exploitation of non-renewable resources. According to Pinedo, Chile’s lack of comparable legislation is largely because “Chileans are unaware of the environment in which they live.”
In comparison to Peru, “the spiritual cosmology that links Indigenous cultures to glaciers has largely been lost in Chile,” he added. This is another cultural wound of Pinochet’s dictatorship, which severely repressed Indigenous people. “We now only account for about 11 percent of the total population,” Borquez told GlacierHub.
All in all, “our NGO does a lot,” Espinosa told GlacierHub. “But there is still a long way to go,” he added. What he is most impressed by is the altruistic nature of the people on his team. All of them, including himself, are volunteers. They accomplish an impressive array of tasks, ranging from educational, legal, to scientific. Will this suffice to fill the gap between glaciers, law, and society in Chile? While nothing is guaranteed, it is quite remarkable how the NGO and the broader Chilean civil society have self-organized to gain ownership of their lands.