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Environmentalists and Glacier Activists Are Poised to Rewrite Chile’s Constitution

Massive protest in Santiago, Chile
View of a 2019 protest against inequality and high cost of living in Santiago, Chile. Source: Hugo Morales

On May 15 and 16, millions of Chileans flocked to polls in what would become a historic referendum: they were electing the members of a national assembly that would be charged with rewriting Chile’s constitution, as the culmination of a long process of reckoning with the country’s difficult past. This was not the first remarkable vote in recent memory—in 2020, an astounding 78% of Chileans voted to set this rewriting process in motion. Results in the May election showed that a large proportion of voters had pivoted from both right- or left-wing backgrounds to support independent parties and coalitions in the assembly, stripping the incumbent conservative party of veto power and giving a voice to environmentalists, including glacier activists.

This level of national unity on an existential issue has been decades in the making. In 1973, Salvador Allende’s democratic socialist government was violently overthrown in a United States-backed coup d’état, ending decades of political stability and democracy. This led to an oppressive regime headed by Augusto Pinochet, whose government wrote the current constitution, and who remained in power until 1989. Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship claimed the lives of thousands of Chilean citizens in its first few years, and its neoliberal economic model exacerbated class disparities in the country. These events and economic trends galvanized the Chilean people, creating broad support for a full democracy and fair economy. In 2019, widespread protests erupted against inequality and a high cost of living, bringing even greater international recognition to this popular movement and leading to the 2020 constitutional referendum and the 2021 assembly.

Much of the mobilization since 2019 has been motivated by economic and environmental injustices caused by intense 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 (the industry accounts for 10% of the country’s GDP). Corporate mines working alongside Pinochet’s regime were given permission to access and strip mine vulnerable mountainous ecosystems, disrupting or contaminating lifegiving glacial meltwater and irrevocably altering landscapes and ecosystems.

Copper mine surrounded by glaciers
División Andina, a copper mine operated by Codelco at over 3,000 meters above sea level in the Valparaíso Region. Source: Javier Rubilar

Numerous members of the new assembly are environmental activists, with some focusing specifically on glaciers. Constanza San Juan Standen is one of such figures elected, representing Atacama, in the country’s arid and water-conscious North. Alongside her socio-environmental activism, she is a spokesperson for the Guasco Alto Water Assembly and Coordinación de Territorios por la Defensa de los Glaciares (Coordination of Territories for the Defense of Glaciers). In an interview with GlacierHub, San Juan told her story, describing how her community banded together in a fight against the massive Pascua Lama mining project in the early 2000s, a highly controversial proposed open pit mine that remains on hold today, in part thanks to their efforts. They sought the passage of a glacier protection law in 2005, enlisting numerous communities to ultimately form the Coordinación. Despite their resolve, strong pressure from the mining sector has prevented the passage of any such legislation thus far. Now, San Juan stands ready to help rewrite the country’s very constitution.

Chile’s glaciers hold one of the world’s largest reserves of freshwater outside the north and south poles. Now, with a progressive majority composed of many such independent parties, the assembly is poised to reform the very foundation of Chile’s approach to climate change and glacial melting.

“As the Coordination of Territories for the Defense of Glaciers, after long years of learning from experts, we now understand that it is not only important to protect the glacial ice that is visible with the naked eye, but also the surrounding environment,” San Juan remarked to GlacierHub. She lists the periglacial environment, the permafrost environment, and biogeographic support elements, such as high Andean lakes, as needing immediate preservation alongside the glaciers themselves. She noted that the initial step could be taken with a law, but they are striving to include these considerations of glacier conservation in the new constitution itself. “This will finally allow us to, in a concrete way, end the sacrifice and abusive use of the vital elements that sustain life.”

José Pinedo Ried, a Chilean alpinist and the editorial coordinator of the non-profit Glaciares Chilenos spoke to GlacierHub in an interview, in which he noted that Chile contains vast numbers of unique climates at different latitudes. For all this climatic diversity, Ried described how no regions have been spared from the brutal effects of climate change, noting that “it’s raining less than it was 10-20 years ago— we’ve been through a massive drought over the past 15 years. Climate change is something that is hitting the whole country.” He emphasized the need for a mechanism that protects the varied Chilean environment, that among other things will prevent mining companies from operating near their glaciers and water sources. “It’s not just about the glaciers,” he emphasized. “It’s also about the biosphere around them.”

A chance at science-aware declarations of rights is not the only factor that makes the 2021 election notable. For the first time in world history, this type of constitutional assembly was mandated to feature equal representation of men and women. Additionally, within the progressive majority, 17 of 155 seats were reserved for Chile’s nine officially recognized Indigenous groups. The Indigenous voices included in the assembly mark another important and long-neglected addition to electoral politics in Chile, one that most of the world’s democracies have yet to address. Roxana Borquez is a doctoral candidate in geography at King’s College London and a graduate of the University of Chile. Speaking to GlacierHub, she explained that “when you add traditional knowledge, you are not seeing the glacier simply because of the water it gives to a place, but also the symbolic value it has, how it gives life to the ecosystem, how it creates a cycle.” She emphasized that Indigenous people can bring new systems of knowledge to the constitution beyond science-based evidence. “They are bringing other aspects that we don’t usually use in Chile for making laws.”

The assembly met for the first time on July 4. When asked what she would include in the constitution, Constanza San Juan stated that she would prioritize putting “life at the center” and “defending common resources” from private ambitions. She intends to demand that resources such as water be declared inviolable common goods, a legal shift that would protect both people and ecosystems from resource extraction and habitat destruction. San Juan recognizes the potential for constitutional change to preserve a threatened biosphere. She concluded her conversation with GlacierHub with a call to action: to lead Chile in a transition to an “anti-neoliberal and anti-extractivist economic model, one that is at the service of communities, promoting local and sustainable economies, taking charge of the ecological crisis and climate emergency, and in harmony with nature.”


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A post shared by Constanza San Juan Standen (@constanzasanjuanstanden)


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A post shared by Constanza San Juan Standen (@constanzasanjuanstanden)

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