This week we received ratification by the Executive that Chile will not sign the Escazu agreement. This is the first treaty of Latin American origin that seeks to improve public participation, access to information and environmental justice.
What does this treaty mean for socio-environmental conflicts in the country? Escazú is especially important given the climate of increasing environmental and territorial conflict, in a context where many of the disputes are characterized by little or no citizen participation. Moreover, they are often unleashed, radicalized or scaled by non-compliance with the prior consultation request, as set out in ILO Convention 169; because of its implementation in an unre transparent manner or through questionable means, or by not opening up to the demands for dialogue with the different territorial actors. These requests require the government and the private to form instances to find joint solutions or compliance with the agreements acquired.
For example, in the province of Choapa, the communities of Caimanes and Salamanca have claimed for various environmental and archaeological damage, caused by the mining operations of Los Pelambres. The villagers at first instance demanded a dialogue table to discuss with the government and mine representatives and reach agreements, but they were not heard. And the conflict began to escalate with demonstrations, takes, hunger strikes and their subsequent judicialization.
According to a compilation by Rimisp, from the different conflict maps available on the web (INDH, EJAtlas, among others), with disputes reported until April 2020, 164 socio-territorial conflicts linked to investment projects in Chile have been identified. Of these, around 20% have implemented some form of participatory process, such as prior consultation, dialogue table or artboard. By contrast, in more than 90% of these projects, citizens demanded participation, but their expectations were not met.
This tells us about a scenario where citizen participation is highly valued by communities, and both the state and private ones are not giving it the same value. This means, in practice, that there are no adequate mechanisms to ensure this participation, creating barriers to achieving higher levels of environmental protection and, of course, well-being in the territories.
Ensuring effective participation mechanisms could improve the quality and implementation of the same investment projects, directing them towards sustainability not only ecological, but social and economic. In addition, it would contribute to improving the Community and social environment, as they would reduce the duration and intensity of conflicts. The government’s position imposes a development model that provides an unrestricted defense to the stakeholders, or interest groups involved in these projects, and their short-term gains, without thinking about the long term of the territory or chile’s own economy.
The government argues that Chilean environmental legislation is robust and the agreement would make it difficult to comply, conditioning the rules or creating legal uncertainty that could erode national sovereignty. However, in Chile there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. While it is true that Chilean law provides for some environmental safeguards and courts to resolve disputes, unfortunately, there is little compliance with laws and many barriers to access to the judicial system, such as the availability of legal advice on these issues, with many processes and impacts on investors’ will remaining. In addition, the Escazu agreement aims to establish minimum implementing standards and not to the formulation of new laws.
From a territorial perspective, it is essential to promote dialogue processes that contribute to a transparent, relevant and participatory formulation of development strategies. The signing of this agreement is an opportunity to move towards implementing measures to ensure that dialogue occurs and beneficial agreements are reached for the territories.
In addition, there are conditions for this to happen since most conflicts linked to investment projects occur in rural-urban territories (58%), that is, they have between 15 thousand and 300 thousand inhabitants. These territories are characterized by joint capacity and established spaces of debate where it is opposedvisions of development. In fact, thanks to this work it has been possible to raise national awareness and awareness of cases in the provinces of Tocopilla (thermoelectric) and Chiloé (with various environmental threats), where existing challenges are often ignored by the urban bias of national public policies.
In short, not signing the agreement implies that the country is unwilling to meet better standards in transparency for access to information, nor to ensure public participation in environmental issues, helping to obstruct the at issue of justice in such disputes. The lack of these mechanisms increases territorial tensions, the possibilities for escalation and more lag in the territories already affected by fragmentation and deterioration in their quality of life.
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