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Historic victory for citizens of Chile’s ‘sacrifice zone’

Recent Chilean court victory for environmental campaigners shows how contant mobilization and pressure can yield results as long as authorities are kept accountale.

Anita Peña Saavedra
24 June 2019
View of the CODELCO Ventana thermoelectric, complex in Quintero-Puchuncaví,. Photo by Anita Peña Saavedra

In 1993, environmental history was made in California when a self-taught activist, Erin Brockovich, began a three-year court battle against Pacific Gas and Electric over contaminated drinking water. That same year, one of Chile’s most beautiful coastal areas, Quintero-Puchuncaví, was declared an environmentally “saturated zone” by the Agriculture Ministry due to sulfurous anhydroid and particulate material in the air. This ominous label was no surprise to the inhabitants of these mostly working-class communities: for years, they had been calling on the thermoelectric, petroleum and chemical firms in the area to stop polluting the air, soil and water – and for the Chilean government to hold them to account.

Like Erin Brockovitch, the local women who have played key roles in Quintero-Puchuncaví’s grassroots environmental groups had little training when they began the fight against corporate polluters and weak regulations. But like Brockovitch, their courage would help to ensure justice was done. On 28 May, after years of citizens’ calls for justice, environmental history was made on the Pacific coast once again. In an unprecedented decision, Chile’s Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling and confirmed that the government was ultimately responsible for the area’s environmental contamination, and that it must take concrete steps to prevent another event like the chemical leak that descended on Quintero-Puchuncaví in August and September 2018, sending over 1,700 people to hospital.

The 2018 mass poisoning was far from the first or only example of environmental crises in Quintero-Puchuncaví

The landmark ruling also focused attention on denials of responsibility by the companies most likely to have been the source of the 2018 environmental emergency, a large yellow cloud containing substances such as methyl chloroform, nitrobenzene and toluene. Although there had been widespread media attention for last year’s dramatic event (if not for the brutal police response to a peaceful protest march by local citizens and environmental activists), the 2018 mass poisoning was far from the first or only example of environmental crises in Quintero-Puchuncaví.

Some 100 former employees of CODELCO Ventana, a state-owned thermoelectric plant in the region, have died of cancers that the mineworkers’ trades union Federacion Minera de Chile says were directly linked to their work environment. In 2011, more than 40 children from La Greda elementary school in Puchuncaví fell ill from a cloud of toxic gases. An investigation found high levels of lead and arsenic in the school, which was located just 500 metres from a National Copper Corporation of Chile (Codelco) refinery and thermoelectric facility. The government’s inadequate response was to close La Greda and move pupils to another school just 2km away. Compounding the problem in this and many other such crises is the fact that manhy of Chile’s environmental standards are far below world norms: the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum exposure to sulfur dioxide is 20 ug/m3 as a 24-hour mean, for example, but Chile’s is 250 ug/m3, more than twelve times as much.

For many years, the Chilean state has openly stated that some areas of the country must pay the price for the nation’s resource extraction and processing industries. The clue is in the official term “sacrifice zone” that is applied to five regions, including Quintero-Puchuncaví, where the state has allowed thermoelectric, petroleum and chemical industries to operate since the 1950s. The Annual Human Rights Report of 2011 argues that the Quintero-Puchuncaví “sacrifice zone” constitutes an obvious injustice, because the economic benefits it generates are distributed among Chileans as a whole, but the environmental costs are borne by people in a situation of social vulnerability.

A Protest March organized by MUZOSARE (Mujeres de Zona de Sacrificio de Quintero-Puchuncaví en Resistencia. Photo Ana Peña SaavedraNone

Socially vulnerable or not, people in Quintero-Puchuncaví have been learning how to fight for their rights. Without them, the 28 May Supreme Court battle that was led by a Chilean NGO, Defensoria Ambiental, could not have been won. MUZOSARE (Mujeres de Zona de Sacrificio de Quintero-Puchuncaví en Resistencia) is a group of women – many of them retired, and few with previous campaigning experience – that is one of the area’s most effective grassroots organisations working for the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

It is also one of the most networked. Knowing the institutional weakness of the Chilean government, MUZOSARE built a collaborative system with the Colegio Medico de Chile (the national medical association) to document miscarriages, cancers and cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses affecting the communities’ women and children in particular. In addition, it monitored marine environmental damage by working with local fishermen, who supplied photographic evidence of on- and off-shore pollution.

The Supreme Court victory on 28 May was by no means certain, not least because of the scale of the challenge involved in small, modestly resourced groups taking on not only public and private companies but the state itself. During the final hearing on 22 April, I was the only observer in the court – apparently no media found the poisoning of Quintero-Puchuncaví significant enough to be present – as the Chilean government’s State Defence Council argued that the toxic cloud that descended on the area in 2018 was an “isolated event”, and that it would be impossible to determine which of the nearby industries were responsible.

During the final hearing on 22 April, I was the only observer in the court – apparently no media found the poisoning of Quintero-Puchuncaví significant enough to be present –.

But in a unanimous decision delivered just over a month after that argument was made, the Supreme Court showed just how emphatically it disagreed with the Chilean state’s legal representative. It placed responsibility directly with the government, saying that the situation in Quintero-Puchuncaví was not unprecedented or unknown and that “on the contrary, the characteristics, magnitude and severity were known for years”. It also ordered the government to immediately institute a raft of 15 measures, including the reduction of gas emissions, better inspection of the materials used in industries’ operations, the evacuation of citizens and implementation of emergency plans when air and water quality deteriorate, and the investigation by health authorities of health problems linked to emissions.

It is the determination of grassroots groups such as MUZOSARE to help take environmental fights to the highest courts in the land – and, just as importantly, to international arenas as well – that make a difference in victories such as this. MUZOSARE is now part of the campaign #ChaoCarbón that demands decarbonization of Chile’s energy matrix in order to meet its commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 2030 agenda, and its coordinator Katta Alonso was a guest speaker at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)’s 171st period of sessions in Bolivia in February. At that hearing, she spoke of the impact of living in a “sacrifice zone” and the consequences of industrial activity on the rights to health in Chile. In her address, Alonso said: “The State of Chile has abandoned the community of Quintero-Puchuncaví. The government shows no desire to confront the socio-environmental problem. We demand national norms that accord with WHO standards; we demand new and strong regulations to protect soil, water and air; and we demand that the maximum breathable concentrations of arsenic and organic compounds should be reduced”.

These demands vindicate calls for social justice in a country whose government shows so little concern for the human and environmental costs of the “sacrifice zones”. In fact, in its recent decarbonization plan announced on 4 June, the Chilean government proposed to wait until the end of 2022 to shut down the most outdated thermoelectric energy facility in Puchuncaví - AES Gener, which has been operating since 1964. This closure date would come at the end of the term of the country’s current right-wing administration: very convenient for the ensuing election period, but in the meantime, an ongoing danger to the communities of Quintero-Puchuncaví. According to a statement by MUZOSARE, “The government is considering the wellbeing of the people who live in the community. This announcement does nothing to address any of the environmental injustices that we have experienced for almost 60 years”. As part of a government decarbonization plan that will not be fully implemented until 2040, this means 21 more years of environmental suffering for all of us.

Campaigners such as the women of MUZOSARE and their use of the tools of solidarity are inspirations in the fight against inequalities – and ecocide. Although we should celebrate this landmark legal victory, there are many more battles to come to ensure that the Chilean Supreme Court’s decision becomes a reality, and the industries polluting the air, water and land are held to account. The time has come for the state to act, because the people of Quintero-Puchuncaví have sacrificed enough.

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