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How Chile’s environment is shaping its new constitution

How Chile’s environment is shaping its new constitution

How the environment is molding Chile's new constitution
How the environment is molding Chile's new constitution

Chile’s constitutional convention began voting in commissions proposals for the country’s new constitution. The guiding principle of the process is environmental protections. The New York Times even hailed it recently as the first constitutional process to combat climate changes. 

These proposals still need to pass additional commission votes. Then they will require two-thirds approval at the full convention of 155-members plus an exit referendum later in this year. Protection of natural resources, which could impact key sectors like mining, energy, and agriculture.

A proposal to nationalize resources like copper and lithium was presented on February 1. It would allow the State to seize some of the most important mines and deposits around the world. Although this proposal is unlikely to be included as a final draft of the constitution, it has raised alarm in private sector.

BNamericas spoke to Vanessa Prez-Cirera (global director for economics at WRI) and former deputy director at the Climate and Energy Global Practice (WWF) in order to understand how the environment is influencing Chile’s new constitution and economic model.

BNamericas:While proposals are still being considered by commissions, they are beginning to get votes. However, the ones that do receive the first votes have a strong environmental component. What is the difference between legislating and constitutional protection of the environment?

Prez-Cirera:Anything that you include constitutionly gives it a legal or social weight that’s very different from the law.

Many people believe that environmental goals should be left out of the law and the constitution. However, it is important to reflect principles. The rights section of the Chilean Constitution on the Environment is my favorite part. The right of the human being to a healthy environment is a key determinant for well-being. The Constitution should be able to provide for the well-being of its citizens and the rules and regulations necessary to maintain it. The environment is an aspect that affects well-being. What is the quality and quality of the water reaching your home? What is the quality of your air?

Another aspect is the role of the environment in determining well-being. This includes recreation, coexistence and culture. These values are often difficult to quantify and monetize. It seems essential to have a clear framework in the constitution that outlines the relationships between well-being, environment and other values.

Another important aspect is to ensure that the State guarantees that well-being. Then you start to talk about social rights. These must be in the Constitution.

BNamericas:Your research has been about “environmental poverty.” How would you define the concept? And how can it be approached from a constitutional standpoint?

Prez-Cirera:International poverty has been defined by income. We now call it interdimensional poverty.

Colombia and Mexico have already started to follow this new paradigm that has five dimensions to determine poverty. I was able to work with the EQUIDE institute of Mexico to include the environmental aspect of energy and access services such as drinking water. However, we wanted the sixth dimension to be environmental.

This type of measurement could be made a constitutional rule, which would allow for the study of issues such as inequality.

We define environmental poverty as a state where you are below the minimum level of well-being, such as in air quality and water quality.

The concept of interdimensional poverty is a well-known one in theory terms. It would be important for Chile to include it in its new constitution.

BNamericas:Last week, the convention’s environment- and economic model commission rejected a proposal that would have established the right of entrepreneurship and free enterprise. Do you think this would have been compatible in light of the environmental focus seen throughout the constitutional debate?

Prez-Cirera:I would like to see all details of the proposal. While free enterprise is vital, it must be tightly regulated by the state. Certain sectors cannot be allowed to have monopolies. I am for the model where private companies develop economic activities while the government enforces strong regulations.

BNamericas:What economic reforms (taxes, regulations governing extractive industries) are needed to support a transition towards a low carbon model?

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Prez-Cirera:It is essential to immediately eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels and to establish carbon taxes.

Latin America’s mining industry is very sensitive. It would be very difficult for us to imagine that there won’t be more development, especially in the lithium sector. However, there must be clear environmental health criteria. Water plays an important role in this aspect.

Chile must also realize that extractive industry cannot be the government’s ‘petty money’, but rather a sovereign funds that can sustain social right over time.

BNamericas:The rest of the world is paying close attention to Chile’s constitutive process. Do you think this environmental debate could impact the rest of the region.

Prez-Cirera:It is without a doubt. Since COP25 Chile has been in the limelight. Chile is a middle-income country that has an NDC [National Determined Contribution to the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement]It is a bold and ambitious goal that puts it on the map.

The future development of Latin America can be affected by the implementation of a constituent process that includes the environment as a key component.

Chile’s main paradigm shift is that environmental leadership is not something that leaders or the international agenda demand, but rather it is something that its citizens demand.

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