• Chile Rejects Changes to Air and Water Regulation

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Chile Rejects Changes to Air and Water Regulation

Sep 04 2022

On Monday, a plebiscite in Chile on the adoption of a new constitution decided overwhelmingly (61.8%) in favour of rejection, maintaining the status quo. More than an insular matter of domestic policy, this result was eagerly anticipated by politicians and activists of all stripes from across the world, embodying as it did many of the struggles of our time around wealth distribution, the environment and social integration. In particular, the draft constitution proposed a radical overhaul of air and water regulation, an agenda that is now delayed – or even defeated. 

After the draft was delivered in early July, many big-name intellectuals and regulators from around the world threw their weight behind the environmental proposals. Luminaries like Thomas Piketty, Jayati Ghosh, and Gabriel Zucman signed an open letter labelling the draft the “new global standard”, and Luc Lavrysen, President of Belgium’s Constitutional Court, remarked in an interview that if Chile’s new Constitution is approved, it would be the most advanced of its kind in the world when it comes to matters of environmental protection. Nevertheless, pollsters had Rejection and Approval neck and neck in the weeks before this week’s vote. As seems to be the rule in recent years, the actual result was significantly different from these predictions. 

But in terms of environmental protection, what has actually been rejected? Well, so much of the excitement around the draft’s environmentalism derives from its proposal to accord pioneering rights to nature, including an inherent right to exist which no other rights can contradict. With these innovative protections, the state becomes liable for many forms of environmental harm, including pollution and ecosystem destabilisation. In addition, the draft enshrines human rights to clean air and more generally, to live in a healthy environment. Similarly, if the plebiscite had approved the proposals, Chile would have claimed broadly-defined natural commons that would have included both water and air, both of which were to be maintained in viable form for present and future generations. In fact, it was largely this notion of long-term custodianship that had environmentalists and regulators all starry-eyed. In adhering to this concept, the Chilean state would have become responsible for the integrity of the region’s ecosystems, and in becoming legal conservators of, for example, watersheds, glaciers, permafrost, and oceans, the state becomes constitutionally committed to fighting climate change.  

In order to meet these responsibilities, the Chilean state had to undergo drastic structural reform, and so much of the draft constitution was dedicated to laying out all the details of this new system of governance. By contrast with the centralised authority enshrined in the current Pinochet-era constitution, the draft outlined an almost wholly renovated ‘regional state’, to be constituted relatively autonomous regions and communes. In line with recent changes to Chilean political life, like the establishment of an elected position of regional governor, the rejected constitution detailed the creation of Regional Assemblies in a bid to further strengthen the region’s infrastructure of participatory democracy, enabling wide-spread but local engagement in plebiscites, referenda, and consultations.  

It was to be a whole new chapter in Chilean history, and the contest over the nation’s future is not over yet. But for now, there will be no dramatic change to environmental regulation in Chile. 

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