Glacier Republic reaches 100,000 citizens and makes headway in parliament

Glacier Republic now has 100,000 citizens, and has succeeded in getting a cross-party parliamentary group to formally ask President Bachelet to fix legislative void regarding the wellbeing of Chile’s glaciers.

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The Glacier Republic, founded by Greenpeace in March as a way of highlighting Chile’s lack of official recognition and effective protection of its glaciers, has now achieved one of its principal aims of registering 100,000 ‘citizens’. Over the past six weeks, several thousand people per day on average have signed up to become citizens of the planet’s newest nation, via the website set up by the global environmentalist NGO, pledging to devote themselves to the cause of protecting glaciers both in Chile and worldwide.

At the beginning of March, Greenpeace announced the creation of their República Glaciar (Glacier Republic), a new country founded on the 23,000km² of glaciers that fall within Chilean territory, basing their move on a legal loophole that suggests that the Chilean Constitution does not officially recognise these ice sheets as falling under national jurisdiction.

Chile contains up to 82% of all the glacial surface area in South America, but the lack of legal protection has made it far too easy for mining companies to free themselves from responsibility in ensuring that their operations do not have a damaging effect on the glaciers, leading to the destruction and contamination of these areas.

However, in spite of the initiative’s success in garnering the attention of the world and attracting supporters, the Holy Grail for the Republic’s founders will always be the enactment of effective legislation to protect Chile’s glaciers from mining activities and climate change, while at the same time ensuring proper recognition of the cultural and strategic significance of these vast reserves of frozen freshwater, upon which many parts of Chile depend for water resources during the long dry summers of the country’s Central Valley.

“Our commitment is stronger than ever”, the director of Greenpeace Chile and leading spokesperson of the Glacier Republic Matías Asún said on reaching the landmark. “We’re not going to stop until we’ve made sure that Chile has a law for protecting glaciers that is sufficient to meet our future needs”, in reference to the future strategic importance of Chile’s glaciers as mentioned above.

On this point, though, citizens and supporters of the Glacier Republic have reason to be optimistic, after a cross-party group of Senators and Deputies signed a memorandum pledging to formally ask Michelle Bachelet, who began her second term as Chilean President a week after the Republic’s founding, to do something about the legal vacuum surrounding Chile’s glaciers which led to Greenpeace taking action.

The move came the day before the Glacier Republic reached its citizenship landmark, and just a few days after the Lower House rejected a report by the powers behind the Pascua Lama mining project. The report, written by project owners Barrick Gold, was supposed to answer concerns on the environmental impact of the proposed gold and silver mine, and in particular its effects on glaciers surrounding the site, situated at altitudes of over 4,500 metres. However, by a margin of 64 votes to 42, legislators ruled that Barrick had not made sufficient provisions to prevent negative environmental and social side-effects, and requested that the project’s environmental permit be revoked.

Matías Asún, director of Greenpeace Chile and one of the Glacier Republic’s leading spokespersons.

In the memorandum, signed by 9 senators and 14 deputies, the signatories agreed to ask President Bachelet “to promote or give more urgency to the drawing up of legislation that looks to establish effective norms on the protection of Chile’s glaciers, with the ultimate aim being to preserve their condition as strategic reserves of water and […] a key component of the country’s environmental heritage”. They also noted that while glaciers have been included in the Sistema de Evaluación de Impacto Ambiental (SEIA – Environmental Impact Evaluation System), an important part of Chile’s environmental legal framework, since Bachelet’s first term between 2006 and 2010, this was not enough to “guarantee that the glaciers are conserved or protected”.

To this end, the memorandum highlighted the urgent need to introduce legislation resolving the kind of legal voids that left Chile’s glaciers so exposed to mining interests, and which allowed Greenpeace to lay claim to the sovereignty of the Glacier Republic over Chile’s ice sheets. It called for a “Law for the Protection of Glaciers, which contemplates a change in the legal status of glaciers, so that they can be defined and protected by the State and that their use be restricted and measures are taken to protect them from immediate, direct and indirect threats”.

Responding to the memorandum, Matías Asún remarked that “this parliamentary support is a very important step towards protecting our glaciers. This demonstrates that today, the citizens of the Glacier Republic have started to be listened to by an important group of elected authorities, who as well as committing themselves to caring [for the glaciers], are requesting that the President sponsor a law that protects these reserves of water, fundamental for the life and environment of the country”.

The Glacier Republic played host to its first wedding, between two of its own citizens. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace.

The Glacier Republic has enlisted several big names among its citizenship, including Nicanor Parra, the poet and winner of the Cervantes Prize, Isabel Allende, widely regarded as one of the most successful literary authors in the Spanish-speaking world, and several other Chilean celebrities from the world of television. It has also set up embassies, which are in effect extensions of existing Greenpeace offices, in the more than 40 countries around the world where Greenpeace has a presence. It has also borne witness to the first wedding to take place within its own territory, between two of its citizens, after two residents of the Chilean city of Viña del Mar, Enrique Fanta and Nicole Pozo, decided to tie the knot on the ice of the El Morado glacier, near Santiago. “Our history has always been tied to the protection of nature, so we always wanted to do something as nice and symbolic as this for our wedding, but more importantly still we are making a commitment to our planet and caring for our glaciers”, the bride said after the ceremony.