Chileans to decide fate of ‘ecological’ constitution


President Gabriel Boric appearing with Cabinet members on Aug. 25 to detail government plans for a constitutional referendum scheduled for Sept. 4. (Photo by Chilean Office of the President)

Chileans are slated to vote Sept. 4 on a new constitution that would significantly strengthen the country’s environmental protections. Approval of the document, though, is by no means assured. Opposition is coming not only from parties on the political right, but also from some environmentalists and center-left politicians who worry the draft as written could trigger confusion and conflict.

Once seen by environmentalists as an historic opportunity to set the stage for green Chilean laws and institutions, the constitutional overhaul is now questioned by some activists who had strongly supported it. One is Macarena Soler, a longtime environmental lawyer and founder of Fundación Geute, a conservation group headquartered in Puerto Varas, Chile.

Soler, who had been among those pushing for a new, more “ecological” constitution, surprised many when she recently appeared on national television in a block of video spots calling for rejection of the proposal.

“I am disappointed and very worried,” a solemn-looking Soler said in the spot. “I cannot think we will achieve an effective protection of nature with this proposed constitution. I know a lot of people thought I would approve this proposal ... and I know for some this will be disappointing. But if I am coherent with my democratic, political, and even social beliefs, for me it is impossible to approve this constitution.”

The constitutional rewrite stems largely from social conflict and street violence that engulfed Chile in October 2019. The unrest highlighted a range of festering issues, among them severe economic inequality and ongoing environmental-health threats posed by pollution-prone industrial areas known as ‘sacrifice zones.’ (See "As promised, Boric takes on ‘sacrifice zone’ issue" —EcoAméricas, June 2022.) Pledges by politicians to rewrite the constitution with social- and environmental-justice in mind were credited with helping pull Chile back from the brink. Among those calling for a new charter was Gabriel Boric, who became Chile’s president in March after riding a strong wave of optimism to win office in a two-candidate runoff, capturing 56% of the vote.

But the world economic slowdown and price shocks have forced Boric to begin his presidency amid slumping growth, fierce price inflation, falling copper prices and private sector fear that a new constitution will make matters worse. In the run-up to the vote, Chilean television has been awash in political commercials arguing for and against the proposed constitution, which will be decided by a mandatory vote of all legal residents age 18 or older.

Behind in the polls

An Aug. 19 opinion survey by the polling firm Pulso Ciudadano found 45.8% of Chileans plan to vote against the proposal. Only 32.9% said they’ll vote in favor and the rest stated they were undecided, would submit a blank vote or would not vote at all. Another polling firm, Cadem, drew a similar tally, finding that 46% intended to reject the new constitution.

Last year, Chile elected a constitutional assembly to propose a new national charter in 12 months’ time. The participation of independent candidates, who were barred from forming election slates in the past, was guaranteed for the first time, dramatically broadening participation. As a result, 103 independents won seats, with traditional-party slates roundly rejected. Crucially, Chile’s conservative elite failed to gain the one-third minority needed to block the passage of progressive articles.

The first article of the draft going to voters describes Chile as “plurinational, intercultural and ecological” and cites the “dignity, freedom, and substantive equality of human beings and their indissoluble relationship with nature” as “intrinsic and inalienable values.”

The entirety of its third chapter is devoted to “nature and the environment.” It establishes guiding principles on environmental justice, intergenerational solidarity, responsibility and fair climate action, and recognizes essential rights of nature itself, saying these must be protected and respected by “the state and society.”

The chapter also sets forth Chileans’ rights concerning natural commons such as land, water and air, and declares water a human right subject to “integrated management” by a new National Water Agency. It also grants the state “absolute and exclusive domain” over minerals and fossil fuels, prohibiting mining on glaciers, in parks and near large water bodies, and establishes new environmental entities. These include regional environmental courts and an ombudsman’s office citizens can use to hold the government or corporations responsible for violations of rights reserved for nature.

Key changes cited

Supporter Ezio Costa, executive director of FIMA, Chile’s largest and oldest public-interest environmental law firm, sees two changes as key. “With this constitution, Chile has given rights to nature and declared itself an ecological state, a country that protects its ecosystems,” he says. “Protection of nature will be indivisible from protection of present and future generations of Chileans. And the text expressly recognizes we are living in a climate crisis and puts urgency behind making changes to how we act to prevent damage to nature.”

It is the multiplicity of changes, and the potential for chaos in their implementation, that concerns Soler, who worked with the late U.S.-born conservationist Douglas Tompkins on his extensive Chilean parkland projects. “The proposal is very regulatory, almost a code, so at times it is confusing, contradictory and, therefore, has varied interpretations,” she told the daily El Mercurio. “What worries me most about the proposal is institutional weakening due to fragmentation, at all levels, of our country, and politicization...of many aspects of this.”

Free-market advocates warn of severe economic impacts. Natalia González of the Chilean think tank Libertad y Desarrollo, says the new constitution would stymie new investment. “This proposal positions development and sustainability as antagonists, helping neither,” González told EcoAméricas. “It mostly weakens Chile’s ability to achieve progress.”

But backers argue that by building strong legal foundations for natural-resource, climate and health protection, the new constitution will prevent the kinds of social conflicts that have so frequently embroiled development projects. Biologist Cristina Dorador, a convention delegate, says approval will align Chile with best practices: “We’re catching up with international standards for the protection of health and the environment.”

- James Langman

Ezio Costa
Executive Director
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 2664-4468
Natalia González
Legal and Legislative Affairs
Libertad y Desarrollo
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 2377-4800