Birth of an Ice Nation: Greenpeace declares the Glacier Republic in Chile

Greenpeace have used a legal loophole regarding Chile’s glaciers to claim them as their own, declaring a new ‘Glacier Republic’ founded on the principles of protecting the country’s ice sheets.

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Chile may have recently settled a decades-long dispute with Peru over territorial waters, but it could have a new conundrum on its hands originating from a most unexpected source high in the Andes. Members of the Chilean division of the international environmental NGO, Greenpeace, have planted flags in the ice of Chile’s glaciers, claiming that a gap in the country’s legislation means that the sovereignty and proprietary status of Chilean glaciers are undetermined. They have proclaimed the birth of a new República Glaciar (Glacier Republic), independent of Chile but located within its borders, and founded on the principles of ensuring protection for the vast ice sheets of the Andes and Patagonia, which stretch over 23,000km² and constitute 82% of the entire glacial mass in South America.

Greenpeace say that the Constitution of Chile does not specify the glaciers as belonging to its national territory, and the country’s Water Code also fails to recognise them despite their essential role in storing fresh water and providing the source to many of Chile’s rivers. According to Greenpeace, this legal vacuum has allowed for its Chilean members to establish a new country within the framework set out by the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of the States, whose first article states that independent states must have a permanent settled population, defined territories, a government, and the capacity to maintain relations with other states. Activists have set up camp on the ice, have declared that the Republic’s territory “comprises all the glaciers which are on Chilean soil given that the Chilean legislation does not recognise them as their own”, have a spokesman and other representatives, and have already initiated diplomatic talks with “neighbouring” Chile, Greenpeace claim.

The advert by Greenpeace that appeared in the New York Times, announcing the proclamation of the new Glacier Republic

Using a full-page advert (see above) in the New York Times on March 5th to proclaim the new Republic, Greenpeace state that “Chile is one of the few countries in the world that does not consider glaciers in its legislation. Worse, glaciers do not belong to the State, nor do they belong to the Chilean people. The glaciers don’t belong to anybody. This legal void has allowed Greenpeace to create a new Republic: República Glaciar (Glacier Republic), where any person in the planet can become a citizen”. In its (national?) website, the new country claims that it has been founded “so that its citizens can protect these enormous ice masses which are currently being destroyed by mining activities that are seriously affecting our country’s ecosystem”.

Matías Asún, the director of Greenpeace Chile who is also acting as the new Republic’s spokesman, said in an accompanying statement: “Glacier Republic was founded because in Chile there is a legal loophole that does not recognise these huge ice masses as part of its sovereignty. Neither the constitution nor the water code mentions glaciers as public goods that need to be protected actively”. Asún claims that mining companies use this loophole in order to carry out their mining operations without having to give proper consideration to the wellbeing of surrounding glaciers, which can often first be destroyed in order to facilitate access to the rich deposits of minerals hidden within Chile’s mountains, and then contaminated as a by-product of the extractive processes themselves. “The explosions, the destruction of roads, the transportation of materials (…) have a damaging effect on ecosystems; (glaciers) are not just frozen water, Chile is forgetting that the glaciers are its principal water reserved”, Asún remarked in an interview with Spanish-language news agency Efe.

Perhaps needless to say, so far the Glacier Republic has not received official recognition of statehood from any of the world’s governments. However, Greenpeace’s move does have a certain seriousness about it: they have said that they will inform the UN and other world governments of the Glacier Republic’s founding, and will shortly be opening embassies in Chile and around the world. It is also encouraging people to become new “citizens” of the Glacier Republic – obtaining a passport in the process – by taking an oath that reads: “I swear by God and by this flag to serve my country, the Glacier Republic, at sea, on land or wherever, and to give my life if necessary to fulfil the duties as an honourable, brave and devoted citizen of my homeland”.

The declaration of independence, and oath of allegiance, of the new Glacier Republic.

However, this “declaration” and the signing up of new “citizens” does have a wider and perhaps more realistic political aim: to get the incoming government of Michelle Bachelet – who takes over the Chilean presidency on March 11th – to pass a Law for the Protection of Glaciers and to declare the glaciers as a public good for all Chileans. Once this has been achieved, Greenpeace say, “The Glacier Republic and its citizens will return the glaciers to the Chilean State”, with the new Republic ceasing to exist. As such, it could be said that Greenpeace are not so much taking advantage of the legal loophole to embark on a long-term nation-building project, but are rather protesting against the loophole itself, demanding that it is filled in order to protect the status of Chile’s glaciers against destructive mining activities and the business interests behind them.

The glaciers have been at the centre of high-profile debates about Chile’s economic development and environmental sustainability for some time. The multi-billion-dollar Pascua Lama project, being carried out by the Canadian firm Barrick Gold in its quest to mine for gold, silver, copper and other minerals in a 3,000 hectare area high in the Andes to the south of the Atacama Desert, has caused huge controversy for its damaging impact on glaciers and the surrounding environment. Protests and Barrick’s failure to carry out proper environmental impact assessments have led to the project being subjected to stop-start processes, as the Canadian company has been forced to put its operations on hold time and again. Furthermore, and more worryingly according to Asún and Greenpeace, is the proposed “Andina 244” expansion by the Chilean state-owned copper-mining firm Codelco, which would apparently see some 5,000 hectares of glacial coverage “destroyed” to make way for the mining activities.

Chile’s glaciers are already under threat from the effects of climate change, and parts of the Central Valley, where the majority of Chile’s 17-million-strong population lives, have been besieged by drought conditions in recent years as the shrinking glaciers provide its rivers with less and less water during summers and dry seasons. Greenpeace point out that many parts of the country “are being declared zones of hydrological scarcity due to [the glaciers’] destruction, among other factors”. Global reports on the likely future impacts of global warming have suggested that these parts of Chile, as with highland Andean regions in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, will suffer from greatly reduced water resources as a result of drier weather conditions and glacial retreat. Chile is also focusing on hydroelectric power as part of its strategy to “green” its energy matrices, but given that many of the rivers that would have to be dammed to generate this power have glaciers as key components of their headwaters, protection of its glaciers may be essential to Chile’s future water and energy security.

Chilean Patagonia’s Southern Ice Field (Campo de Hielo Sur) as seen from Space. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The huge importance held by Chile’s glaciers are behind Greenpeace’s concern for the lack of appropriate legislation protecting them, leading to their “founding” of the Glacier Republic. In another section of the Republic’s website, Greenpeace set out a list of six key components that an eventual Law for the Protection of Glaciers must contain in order to alleviate their just concerns for the future of Chile’s ice sheets. These include:

  • Filling the gap in Chile’s Constitution to provide official and institutionalised recognition of the country’s glaciers;
  • Establishing by law that “the glaciers represent strategic reserves of solid-state water”;
  • Determining what kinds of activity are to be permitted and prohibited within different glacial environments; and
  • Laying out a roadmap for mining and other activities that are already being carried out in glacial areas, so that they can adapt to the new regulations.

Already the campaign has won the support of the renowned Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, winner of the coveted Spanish-language literature Cervantes Prize in 2011, who became one of the Glacier Republic’s first new citizens. It has also won the backing of the MP Enrique Accorsi who, as a member of the centre-left Partido Por la Democracia (PPD – Party for Democracy), will form a part of Bachelet’s governing coalition when it takes power next week. Greenpeace, along with the world’s youngest nation and its citizens, will be hoping that manifestations of support from within the very government it is looking to put pressure on bode well for the campaign’s future. Bachelet is returning to power partly on a mandate to answer the concerns of Chile’s thriving environmentalist movement, having stated a desire to put right the wrongs of her first administration, when she was all too happy to approve of controversial projects such as Pascua Lama or HidroAysén, a proposed megadam on two of Patagonia’s largest rivers. Answering Greenpeace’s calls, and ensuring that Chile takes full responsibility for its glaciers – the lifeblood of so many aspects of its landscapes – would be a great place to start.

republica glaciar 2
Photo courtesy of Emol.