• What Are Chile’s 'Sacrifice Zones'?

Environmental Laboratory

What Are Chile’s 'Sacrifice Zones'?

Sep 09 2022

One of the central concerns animating the political struggle around Chile’s new constitution has been widespread strife in the nation’s ‘sacrifice zones’ - a group of five areas selected for rapid industrial development, often at the cost of public and environmental health. Indeed, much of the nation-wide rioting that shook Chile in 2019, culminating in the decision to revise the nation’s current constitution, drew its energy from the anger and frustration of these polluted regions. At the time of the protests, in Quintero, a well-known sacrifice zone, over 20 school-age children were in treatment for sulphur dioxide poisoning, a gruesomely frequent occurrence in the area; only a year earlier, over 1,300 residents were admitted to hospitals with the same malady in just one month. 

Although Chile ultimately rejected a draft constitution that proposed some solutions to these problems, resentment in the nation’s sacrifice zones has not subsided. Understanding just a little about these areas will give professionals a sense of where Chile might take its water and air quality regulation in the coming years. 

Past is Prologue    

In the 1950s, the Chilean state was eager to transform the nation’s undeveloped colonial economy into an industrialised force capable of capitalising on the region’s natural reserves of copper, oil and natural gas. It was to proceed at a breakneck pace, and it appears that the government had a presentiment of the potential harm such rapid development might cause, because they designated only five distinct areas in the country that could be used for these purposes. It was accepted – at least by state authorities – that economic development of this kind would require sacrifices. Thus, these industrialising regions became known as ‘sacrifice zones.’  

With the arrival of General Augusto Pinochet, forcibly seizing power in a military coup against President Salvador Allende in 1973, the regulation of the pollution streaming out of the facilities in sacrifice zones became even more laissez-faire. Indeed, a blissful ignorance of externalities in favour of fortifying property rights was a preoccupation of Pinochet’s new constitution and much of his administration’s legislative activity.  

For instance, the Water Code, passed in 1981, successfully privatised Chile’s water resources, foregoing state responsibility for the safety of the water attendant upon its maintenance as a public utility for recreation and consumption. Similarly, a new Mining Code in 1983 loosened restrictions on private entities looking to purchase a lease for mining that enabled all sorts of short-sightedness when it came to pollution and environmental degradation. Such is the laxity of environmental regulation in Chile that whilst the World Health Organisation pegs its maximum of daily exposure to sulphur dioxide at 20µg/m3 , Chilean regulators are comfortable with a maximum of 250µg/m3. 

Today, around 200,000 Chileans live in these ‘sacrifice zones,’ and their resultant suffering has become a subject of international horror. 

Life in Quintero 

Katta Alonso still remembers life in Quintero before its industrialisation. The 65-year-old spearhead of the Women of the Sacrifice Zone, an activist organisation dedicated to the reform of industrial practices, eagerly reminisces: “The quality of life was marvellous. The community lived off the ocean, the land and tourism. There were white sand dunes, wetlands with nature and birds. At the beginning it was disguised as an opportunity for work and progress. People bought into it. But eventually people started noticing this wasn’t true.” 

The first signs, arriving in the late 1960s, were somewhat easy to ignore – cattle and horses dying, portions of land becoming non-arable. Soon, though, the symptoms became horrifying. Many in Quintero know of the “green men”, cancer-stricken workers from a local copper refinery with green pigmentation on their vital organs. As an exhumation in 2013 discovered, significant concentrations of arsenic and mercury were discovered in their bones. 

Quintero is emblematic of Chile’s sacrifice zones. Its industrialisation has been rapid: in 1964, it had one copper smelter, it now has 20. And its industrialisation has been dirty: the region is home to copper smelters, coal power, cement and thermoelectric plants, and natural gas facilities. Like many other sacrifice zones, the critical pollutants with which Quintero must contend are various heavy metals (lead, arsenic, mercury), sulphur dioxide, coal dust, and oil.  

The negative effects of these pollutants are manifest. The fishing industry, so foundational to Quintero in the years before heavy industry, has been all but eviscerated by one heavy metal in particular: arsenic. Exceedingly high levels of arsenic have been documented in a number of local species, including a regional crab, jaiba peluda, which was found to have concentrations of arsenic thirty times in exceedance of permitted levels. Among the local population, allergies are widespread and school children are frequently forbidden from spending their lunches outside, both on account of coal dust and sulphur dioxide. Industrial accidents are depressingly commonplace. There have been three major oil spills in just six years, with the largest dumping over 37,000 litres of oil into an already-distressed ocean. In 2011, more than 40 local children fell ill when a chemical leak at a nearby copper refinery doused their school with arsenic and lead. Spillages of coal during transfer from cargo ships to thermoelectric plants are so frequent that they can hardly be called industrial accidents; in attempting to document the scale of these spills in 2018, Alonso found coal sedimented in Quintero’s beaches on 170 days of that year. To be clear, that’s almost a 50/50 chance of a coal spillage on any given day! 

Considering all of this degradation and suffering, it may baffle the mind to consider how little is being done to reform this industrial activity. 

Worth the Sacrifice? 

The reason for this hesitation, of course, is that Chile is extremely reliant on the industries in its sacrifice zones. For instance, Codelco, the state-owned company in charge of the nation’s copper smelters, supplies 11% of the world’s copper – indeed, China is almost dependent upon it. Worryingly, 60% of global demand for copper stems from the building of infrastructure for electricity, meaning that Codelco’s prospects are only getting brighter as the world electrifies in response to climate change. In terms of domestic demand, the situation is just as intractable. There are 28 thermoelectric plants in Chile, all of which are in the sacrifice zones and all of which burn coal – most of which, it must be noted, is imported from Colombia, Australia and the United States. In total, these plants are responsible for over 40% of Chile’s energy.   

Further compounding these problems, many of the businesses in sacrifice zone are owned by private corporations registered in other countries – another legacy of Pinochet’s reign, in fact, keen as his advisors were to prime Chile for direct foreign investment. In Quintero, for instance, there’s a thermoelectric complex operated by an American company and another plant owned by an Italian corporation.  

In essence, then, Chile both needs its sacrifice zones – just as intended, they have become the lifeblood of its modernised economy – and retains limited control over them. A researcher at the Inter-American Association for Environmental Defence (AIDA), Florencia Ortúzar, regards the situation bleakly: “The energy of the whole country depends on these terrible sacrifice zones where very few people live that don’t have any capacity to fight back, they are poor, vulnerable. There is no way they are going to stop these plants that are keeping the country alive.’ 

But a recent report by Sandra Cortes for Santiago’s Universidad Catolica puts the point on all of this: living in a sacrifice zone increases one’s risk of illness and premature death. It is, therefore, utterly necessary that a change is made. With the recent upheavals in Chilean politics, it seems sure that some sort of change is on its way. The only question, then, for the future of Chile’s sacrifice zones is what form this change will take.


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International Environmental Technology 32.5 - September 2022

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