While the Chilean government is serving free wine to UN negotiators in Germany, the Piñera government is fighting to over-rule his own environmental court to keep a coal mine alive.

The open-cut “Winter mine” (mina Invierno) has been operating since 2012 on Riesco Island in the south of Chile. In 2017, environmental regulators rejected a request to change the mine’s original permit and allow explosive mining on Riesco Island.

When the newly elected Piñera government appealed the decision against the environmental court and community objections it pitted the government’s international messaging against its economic priorities.

In 2018, local community members from Alerta Isla Riesco appealed the government’s push for a new blasting permit on the grounds of “precautionary principles”.

The appeal  at the environmental court effectively suspended the blasting until a final decision which is expected next month.

The mine has been on a “jobs offensive” ever since, threatening massive lay-offs as a result. Whether a tactic or not, this has led to internal divides between mining families and local environmental groups as 230 miners have been laid off so far this year.

Tapping into these divides, Chile’s Sub-secratary of Mining added that, “the people want it, it is not a matter of ecosystem damages.”

In a whole-government push, the environmental court’s decision was also dismissed by the Treasury Sub-secretary,  Francisco Moreno told Diario Financiero; “we think it will have no environmental damage.”

While the final ruling has not been handed down, the court has clearly signalled its intentions and the government is getting nervous. Yesterday’s announcement confirmed that if the blasting permit is rejected, the host government of COP25 will continue to fight and appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.  

“This is not finished yet, but if they continue to support it, it will be a total contradiction of their international position”, said Gabriela Burdiles, a Chilean environmental lawyer representing Alerta Isla Riesco.

For many, Chile’s leadership has come as a symbol of hope, especially for those in the region. To Gabriela though, “if you want to be seen as an environmental leader, you cannot be incoherent with your own environmental laws”.

Originally from Santiago, Burdiles believes it comes down to a simple equation; decarbonisation is incompatible with explosive mining. 

“They are trying to raise a decarbonisation plan but they are supporting a big coal mine that is causing environmental problems in a protected area”.

Chile refuses to sign Escazu Agreement

Yesterday, incoming COP25 President Carolina Schmidt also confirmed that Chile would also not be signing on to a critical piece of environmental regulation known as the Escazu Agreement.

The Agreement that was jointly initiated by Chile and Costa Rica in 2012 in an effort to improve environmental justice standards across Latin America.

In November last year, Chile refused to sign the agreement it helped create, a step that many believe had far more to do with an active dispute at the International Court of Justice with Bolivia, and a political decision not to be seen to co-sign an agreement with their northern neighbour.

Yesterday, Schmidt argued that the decision was instead due to Chile’s superior environmental regulations.

“The Escazu Agreement has 3 pillars; public participation, access to information and environmental justice. Our legislation covers far beyond what is included in the Escazu Agreement”.

Alberto Curamil, a Goldman Prize-winning Environmental Defender 

She added that, “we include an obligation of citizen participation in every project. This is characteristic of Chile.”

When I asked Gabriella what she thought of the COP25 President’s response, she agreed that on paper, Chile is a leader, but that in practice, there was still a big role for the Agreement.

“From the beginning of the Escazu negotiations this was always seen as a tool to improve the implementation of our environmental regulations.” 

Civil Society campaigners have been actively pushing Chile to ratify the agreement, both as a symbol of international solidarity, but also as a practical addition to their current environmental legislation.

“By refusing to even sign the agreement Chile undermines the incredible momentum that it had itself contributed to generate”, said Sébastien Duyck, a Senior Attorney at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

Sebastien believes this decision not only undermines  environmental justice in Chile, but has a follow on impact across the region.

“It also makes the agreement’s entry into force more challenging as it requires ratification from 11 different countries.”

With a series of active conflicts often involving large dams, deforestation and salmon farming, many believe the Escazu agreement would fill a key gap in Chile’s current approach to environmental justice.

While Burdiles notes that Chile has “some of the best environmental regulations in South America. But there are also elements of Escazu that we don’t have in Chile, like protecting environmental defenders.”

These environmental protections may have played a critical role in protecting Alberto Curamil. Currently in preventive detention, the Mapuche leader won the Goldman Prize for his fight against a hydroelectric dam. After his victory, he was later accused of armed robbery – a case that was widely criticised with suspicion as a trumped up charge linked to his activism.

It also may have helped to protect and gain justice for Macarena Valdes, a resistance leader also from the south of Chile. Macarena was found dead in 2016 while campaigning against a large hydro dam. While her death was originally described as a suicide, the case remains unresolved.

This week’s announcements has led many here at the UN climate talks begin to question Chile’s promise of a “People’s COP”.

For Sebastian Duyck, “to restore its credibility before COP, Chile should sign the Escazu agreement and submit it as soon as possible for ratification by the National Congress as a matter of urgency.”

However, for Alberto Curamil and the community leaders at Alerta Isla Riesco, Chile will have to go a lot further before its domestic realities life up to the free wine and friendly image it is presenting here in Bonn.

This article was written in collaboration with Francisco Parra.

Chris Wright

About Chris Wright

Co-founder and Director of Climate Tracker. Based in Borneo. Trail Running convert.