Chile: Glacier Republic pushes for 5-Star law to protect glaciers

Six months after the founding of Glacier Republic, Greenpeace Chile are keeping up the pressure on the Chilean government to ensure that a ‘Five Star’ law protecting glaciers is implemented.

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Today marks six months since Greenpeace Chile grabbed the attention of local and international media by using a loophole in Chilean law to announce the founding of a new ‘Glacier Republic’, situated among all the glaciers that fall within Chile’s national territory. The environmental NGO claimed that Chile’s glaciers did not enjoy constitutional protection – or even proper recognition – and that they were therefore especially vulnerable to the malpractice of mining companies, despite the fact that glaciers are vital reserves of fresh water in a country where the majority of the population lives in areas susceptible to prolonged periods of reduced rainfall.

While the organisers and representatives of the Glacier Republic are treating it as a proper country, with a declaration of independence and establishment of embassies and diplomatic missions, as well as nearly 150,000 registered ‘citizens’, the aim of the initiative is to force the government of Michelle Bachelet to draw up legislation that guarantees the country’s glaciers proper protection, in line with that seen in other countries which are home to glaciers. When such an objective has been achieved, its representatives say, Glacier Republic will ‘return’ its territory of 23,000km² – which represents over 80% of the glacial area in South America – to the Chilean state.

Since Eye On Latin America last reported on Glacier Republic’s progress in April, the initiative has made considerable progress towards its ultimate aim. After sustained pressure, including from a newly-formed Bancada Glaciar – a ‘glacier bloc’ in parliament formed by several parliamentarians committed to pursuing reform of Chile’s laws regarding its glaciers – President Bachelet included plans to introduce legislation in a keynote speech on May 21st. “Glaciers represent a priceless source of fresh water, and we will present a bill to protect them and their surroundings”, she said in Chile’s annual state of the union address.

San Rafael glacier, in southern Chile. More than 80% of South America’s glaciers can be found in Chile, but they are coming under attack on multiple fronts, from climate change to contamination from mining activities. Photo courtesy of Philip Oyarzo Calisto via Flickr.

The Bancada Glaciar, which includes the president of the Lower House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Daniel Melo of Bachelet’s Socialist Party (PS), and other notable politicians such as two of the famed ‘student deputies’ Camila Vallejo and Giorgio Jackson, has since succeeded in drawing up draft legislation to introduce a law to protect the glaciers, with the help of social organisations such as Greenpeace, Chile Sustentable and Fundación Terram – two more of Chile’s more noteworthy environmental organisations.

On August 13th, the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which contains 12 deputies from across the political spectrum – both within Bachelet’s centre-left Nueva Mayoría (New Majority) coalition and in the centre-right Alianza (Alliance) opposition – gave the green light to the bill introduced by the Bancada Glaciar, with several other related initiatives from other politicians also considered. The bill, which was approved unanimously by the committee and will now have to await a final decision from Bachelet expected by September 21st before it can be formally introduced into the Lower House for debate, is considered by Glacier Republic to be the closest thing to a piece of legislation that would effectively cover all the essential points of a law befitting the level of protection needed by Chile’s glaciers.

It recognises the strategic value of the glaciers as a source of fresh water and guarantor of Chile’s future water security, and commits the state to take up responsibility for their protection and conservation. The bill also defines Chile’s glaciers as ‘dynamic and complex’ systems in need of specific and effective protection, and lays out what activities can and cannot be carried out on and around glaciers, with a particular eye on mining activities. Mining of metals such as copper is an essential part of the Chilean economy, but it has often led to environmental damage among the Andean territories where the majority of deposits are found, leaving glaciers vulnerable to contamination and outright destruction.

Members of Chile’s Parliament, including the President of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Daniel Melo (third from left), are joined by Greenpeace Chile director Matías Asún (third from right) as they show off their Glacier Republic ‘passports’. Photo courtesy of El Dínamo.

“This is the effort of more than 134,000 [the figure is now closer to 150,000] citizens of Glacier Republic bearing fruit”, said Matías Asún, director of Greenpeace Chile and leading spokesman of Glacier Republic, after the Environment and Natural Resources Committee gave the bill its approval. “We’re one step closer to having a Glaciers Law that will guarantee the protection of the glaciers’ ancient ice, as well as their immediate surroundings”, he added, while also expressing hope that the void over the legal status of Chile’s glaciers would finally be filled.

Not wanting to rest on their laurels, though, Greenpeace and Glacier Republic have moved onto the next phase of their campaign, by keeping up the pressure on the government to ensure that the Law for the Protection of Glaciers that eventually materialises is of as high a quality as possible. To this end, they have detailed five key proposals that they insist must be included in the new law, in order to make it a ‘Five Star Glaciers Law’. These five points maintain that:

  • There are several different types of glacier (including rocky and ‘hidden’ ones), and they should all be protected.
  • Everything that surrounds and conserves a glacier should also be protected.
  • From now on no activity that could harm glaciers should be carried out.
  • Current projects that affect glaciers should be halted.
  • Glaciers should be a public good, with their care being the responsibility of the state.
Five children holding star-shaped balloons representing Glacier Republic’s five key demands for a new law on the protection of Chile’s glaciers, ahead of their presentation to the Chilean government in Santiago in August 2014. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Chile.

These five proposals were presented to the Chilean government, represented by Secretary General Ximena Rincón, at the La Moneda presidential palace at the end of August. They were presented by five children, members of Glacier Republic, who were carrying a silver star-shaped balloon each to represent the five points and were accompanied by Melo, Vallejo, Asún, and other representatives of Greenpeace and Glacier Republic.

Melo used the opportunity to express his satisfaction with the progress made thus far. “This legislation has support from all political sectors; there is a consensus on the fact that legislation is needed to protect and safeguard glaciers”, he is quoted as saying by the English-language Santiago Times. “So we hope that together with President Bachelet’s commitment, we’ll have a special law to protect glaciers”. Asún, meanwhile, reiterated that the recent progress in advancing the drawing up of legislation must be continued, as “the glaciers can’t wait any longer”. He did, however, suggest that he remained hopeful that the bill would be passed by the Lower House by the end of the year, so that it could be introduced to the Senate at the start of 2015.

While plans continue to implement effective legislation on the legal status of glaciers, another bill is being discussed to modify the country’s Water Code, which as it stands also fails to mention glaciers, in spite of the important role that they play in Chile’s water cycle. However, both these bills – and the one concerning glaciers in particular – are being met with fierce opposition from mining companies. The country’s Mining Council, which brings together mining companies who operate in Chile, said that “a country like Chile can’t afford itself the luxury of keeping its glaciers as an a priori environmental asset”. This stance was dismissed by Asún, stating that “The Mining Council simply don’t want a law for the protection of glaciers if it’s going to affect their economic interests”.

Many of Chile’s glaciers surround the most populous areas of the country, such as the capital Santiago, meaning that they are especially important for the country’s water supplies and their conservation or deterioration could play a crucial role in the country’s future water security. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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