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chile elections climate
Gabriel Boric celebrates his nomination as the presidential candidate for the leftist bloc Apruebo Dignidad. Photo: Alamy

Chile’s presidential candidates and their environmental plans

As a result of climate change, global temperatures will continue to rise and extreme weather events in Latin America will become more frequent, the IPCC noted in its latest report published on August 9. A day later, in Chile, the Coquimbo Environmental Commission approved the Dominga mining project, which aims to build an open-pit mine and a mega-port fewer than 30 kilometres from the Humboldt Archipelago, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world.

The Chilean public immediately rejected the decision made by Sebastián Piñera’s government. Local communities and scientists have resisted the project for years. But the “no to Dominga” campaign had an unexpected ally in Sebastián Sichel, Chile’s rightwing-backed presidential candidate for November’s presidential elections.

Sichel, an independent with a centre-left background who won the conservatives’ primary -a vote in which parties or coalitions choose their candidates- said Dominga “is not viable”. In an attempt to further himself from Piñera, he also pledged to sign the Escazú Agreement, the first environmental treaty in Latin America and the Caribbean, which came into force earlier this year.

After years of Piñera rejecting Escazú, there is light at the end of the tunnel for its supporters. All the main contenders for the four-year presidential term beginning in March 2022 are committed to signing it. With a profound and long-running drought also afflicting the South American country, the environment is now squarely on Chile’s political agenda. 

Nine of Chile’s presidential candidates will face off on 21 November. There are three favourites: Sichel, from the right-wing alliance Chile Vamos; Yasna Provoste, from the centre left Christian Democracy and the only woman in the election; and young congressman Gabriel Boric, from the left-wing bloc Apruebo Dignidad.

The historic constituent assembly that was born out of the massive social mobilisations of 2019, has already begun drafting the new Constitution to replace the current dictatorship-era document. Of the 155 assembly members, a significant number come from socio-environmental movements and the body is already working on incorporating the rights of nature into Chile’s new Magna Carta.

Chile sichel climate
Presidential candidate, Sebastián Sichel, during a speech on 18 July 2021. Photo: Mediabanco Agencia / Wikimedia Commons.

Chile’s ‘green’ presidential candidates

After the IPCC report and Sichel’s declaration on Dominga, Gabriel Boric also wanted to give an environmental campaign signal. He was in Punta de Choros, near where the mining company would be located, meeting artisanal fishermen who oppose the project. He then went to Puchuncaví in the central Valparaíso province, where he signed a commitment to environmental reparation and to a just transition for an area where air and water quality has been blighted by heavy industry, popularly known in Chile as a “sacrifice zone”.

For Javiera Lecourt, coordinator of Boric’s energy and mining campaigns, the Apruebo Dignidad programme was articulated around three cross-cutting themes: feminism, decentralisation and socio-ecological transformation. “We understand that the climate crisis is multi-systemic and multidimensional, it cannot be tackled only from an environmental perspective,” he said.

Boric is a native of Magallanes, Chilean Patagonia, and recognises the existence of the climate and ecological crises. He pledges to bring forward the closure of coal-fired thermoelectric plants from 2040 to 2025; to protect biological corridors of flora and fauna; to promote green jobs; infrastructure for adaptation and resilience in the face of the climate crisis; to relocate communities at risk; and a new system of water management that takes a watershed and ecosystem approach that better enables climate change adaptation.

35-year-old Boric comes from a group of young student leaders who made the leap to parliament after widespread protests at the education system in 2011. Founder of the leftist group Frente Amplio, he joined the Communist Party to form Apruebo Dignidad, a pact that despite never having governed, starts the presidential race as the favourite. 

Boric is not alone in proposing reparations for the sacrifice zones. Most of Chile’s presidential candidate’s campaigns propose the same.

For Marcelo Mena, a former environment minister, one of the low points of the campaign is that “declarations are made without specificity as to how to achieve them”.

Mena joined Yasna Provoste’s team as programme coordinator. Provoste, a 51-year-old senator, was the last to join the race after a primary among centre-left parties that governed between 1990 and 2010. These were the main focus of criticism during recent social upheavals. 

“The model we propose, in order to overcome the neoliberal one, is that the territories that are ignored in decision-making should have more powers, access to participation, and that territorial decisions should stay in the territories. We are talking about an environmental recovery fund, which contemplates remediation and replacement employment for activities that end,” says Mena.

Among other proposals, Provoste proposes bringing forward decarbonisation to 2030 and carbon neutrality to 2040 through measures such as a carbon tax and a commitment to 100% renewable energy by 2035. She also emphasises green jobs, investment in climate-resilient infrastructure, and electric public transport.

Sichel, 44, brought the “greenest” programme to the July primaries. He alone spoke of an end to sacrifice zones. The independent candidate also wants to create an Undersecretariat for Water in the Public Works ministry and speaks of “defining the hydrographic basin as a basic and indivisible unit for the management and administration of water resources”.

piñera chile climate
Chilean President Sebastián Piñera in the Balcón de la Moneda. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For Valentina Durán, director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Chile, this is a new emphasis but some candidates’ pledges verge on greenwashing. 

“The constitutional assembly took up a popular sentiment for greater protection of the environment and nature. The candidates who raised this issue did well and this is also reflected in the presidential programmes, which all try to appear very environmentalist,” she says, adding; “Today no one would say that environmental protection is an obstacle to investment, they all try to dress in green.”

For political scientist Pamela Poo, who carried out a detailed analysis of Chile’s presidential candidates’ environmental proposals, most prospective presidential programmes hark back to the last century. The environmental issue is approached “as just another chapter” when in reality “the ecological crisis should be taken as the scenario in which we live and on that basis public policies should be put in place to deal with it”, she said.

Although Poo highlights the progress that has been made in some proposals, one problem is that “there is talk of green mining without addressing the problem of water and energy use, and interconnections are not thought through”. Boric, Provoste and Sichel, for example, propose “green” or “sustainable” mining, lithium production (Boric and Provoste through a national company) and the development of green hydrogen.

The Chilean Electoral Service rejected the candidacy of indigenous Mapuche leader Diego Ancalao, for the People’s List, for presenting more than 20,000 signatures accredited by a deceased notary. The group is left-leaning and anti-party and has refused to support the Frente Amplio. They were the big surprise in the constituent assembly elections, winning 26 seats despite having practically no previous media profile. 

The constituent assembly and extractivism

The Constitutional Assembly will function alongside the campaign, election and the inauguration of the new president on 11 March 2022. Whoever wins the election will have the duty to implement the new Magna Carta drafted by a new political authority that blurred conventional distinction on the political spectrum. 

In her inaugural speech, Assembly president Elisa Loncón said: “This Convention will transform Chile into a plurinational Chile, an intercultural Chile, a Chile that does not violate the rights of women, the rights of caregivers, a Chile that cares for Mother Earth, a Chile that cleans the waters, a Chile free of all domination.”

The Assembly is now working in sectoral commissions which include a commission on human rights that will characterise the rights of nature. There are others dedicated to popular participation and decentralisation, which will be led by the scientist Cristina Dorador.

“Whoever the new president is, it will be in this context of greater demands on mining, agricultural and extractive activities. These are things that require profound policies, which cannot be achieved in four years of government, which is why the Constituent Assembly is important,” says Duran. 

“Chile is recognised as a mining country, it is not something that will change in four years, but it is a discussion that the Convention can guide for the coming decades.”

This story was originally published in Diálogo Chino.