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Chile constitution

Indigenous academician Elisa Loncon (C) is elected as president of the Constitutional Convention in the National Congress during the First Constituent Assembly in Santiago, on July 4, 2021. Chile is in the midst of writing a new constitution to replace the one it inherited from the era of dictator Augusto Pinochet and is widely blamed for deep social inequalities in the nation. (Photo: Javier Torres/AFP via Getty Images)

As Chile Rewrites Constitution, Will Rights of Nature Be Enshrined?

"The current legal system fails to represent the intrinsic value of nature, with laws and decision-makers typically only considering economic or human interests," said one advocate.

Kenny Stancil

Delegates elected to rewrite Chile's constitution must consider whether to enshrine the rights of nature after a citizens' initiative gained enough signatures to merit discussion at the constituent assembly currently underway.

"This constitutional mandate would redefine and rebalance the relationship of government and citizens with the natural world by recognizing nature as a legal entity with its own rights and interests."

Called "15,000 Hearts for the Earth - For the Recognition and Defense of the Rights of Nature," the initiative was one of 77—out of 2,496 proposals put forth—that garnered the 15,000 signatures required to be analyzed and debated at Chile's ongoing constitutional convention, Earth Law Center and Defensa Ambiental announced Thursday.

As the pair of NGOs behind the effort explained in a statement: "The initiative calls for recognition of nature as a subject of rights. It also identifies specific rights held by nature, including the right to exist, to be preserved, to be protected, to exercise and regenerate its life cycles and its ecological functions, to integral restoration of its ecological balance, and to representation."

According to Constanza Prieto Figelist, Latin American legal director at Earth Law Center, "The current legal system fails to represent the intrinsic value of nature, with laws and decision-makers typically only considering economic or human interests."

"This constitutional mandate," said Prieto Figelist, "would redefine and rebalance the relationship of government and citizens with the natural world by recognizing nature as a legal entity with its own rights and interests."

Critics have long argued that Chile's 1980 constitution—imposed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's far-right military dictatorship, seven years after democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende was deposed in a U.S.-backed coup—has been the major obstacle to the creation of an equitable and sustainable society.

That's because Pinochet's neoliberal policy blueprint, which intensified resource extraction and privatized public resources, including water, remains intact more than three decades after his military junta ended in 1990.

Amid a sustained wave of social unrest—which exploded in October 2019 following a transit fare hike but that Chileans insist was sparked by 30 years of post-dictatorship austerity rather than 30 pesos—President Sebastian Piñera was forced to schedule a plebiscite to let citizens decide whether to rewrite the nation's constitution, but not before his government violently repressed protestors, killing 36 individuals and blinding hundreds of others.

After the referendum was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chileans in October 2020 rejected Pinochet's constitution by a 4-to-1 margin. In another vote last May, they elected a progressive slate of 155 delegates to the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, raising hopes that the citizen-led body will produce an emancipatory charter that curbs inequality and environmental destruction.

Chile's leftist President-elect Gabriel Boric—a key leader of the 2011 student movement for free, quality public higher education who assumes office in March—told a crowd of supporters during his December victory speech that "to destroy the world is to destroy ourselves."

"We don't want more sacrifice zones; we don't want projects that destroy our country, destroy communities," Boric added, vowing to oppose a copper mining project that activists say poses a threat to a biodiverse coastal ecosystem.

As Grist reported late last month:

His comments represent a growing desire among environmental advocates to rein in the mining industry's abuses, from its Indigenous rights violations to environmental degradation, at a moment when demand for minerals is skyrocketing. Countries seeking to transition away from fossil fuels are clamoring for metals like lithium, copper, nickel, and cobalt—all of which are essential components of batteries, especially for electric vehicles.

Chile, already suffering from the effects of climate change, is rich in both lithium and copper; it stands to benefit from the energy transition in more than one way. But Chileans also intimately understand the costs of mining—and want to mitigate its social and environmental harms.

In addition to enshrining the rights of nature, Earth Law Center and Defensa Ambiental said Thursday, the initiative proposes "a series of robust environmental principles, such as the prevention principle, precautionary principle, and nonregression principle," and would "establish the right of citizens to file actions demanding compliance with the rights of nature."

"I am certain that future generations will be appreciative."

Camila Palma, the coordinator of the 15,000 Hearts for the Earth campaign, said that "raising the rights of nature to the highest level of government means that all decisions made by public authorities must consider this framework."

"It also ensures that environmental protection becomes recognized as a national interest," said Palma.

Earth Law Center and Defensa Ambiental noted that "if adopted, the rights of nature will also inform policies on extractive activities, which are currently carried out without considering the natural limits of ecosystems and the environmental rights of present and future generations."

Proponents of the initiative note that there is precedent for governments to protect the rights of nature, and they say that doing so complements existing legal frameworks regarding human rights and the right to live in a healthy environment.

In 2008, Ecuador became the first country to constitutionally recognize the rights of nature.

Grist reported that "these rights have been effective. Last year, the country's constitutional court forced the Ecuadorian government to revoke mining permits for two companies after ruling that their operations in a protected part of the Amazon rainforest violated the rights of nature."

"Chile would be the world's second nation to enshrine the rights of nature into its constitution," the news outlet noted. "But several other states and countries—in Bolivia, Mexico, Pakistan, and India, to name a few—have recognized them in national laws and judicial decisions."

Palma, for her part, said that "this is a historical process with deeply engaged citizens, and I am certain that future generations will be appreciative."

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