Social unrest in Chile and its effects on the climate agenda and COP25


Hosting COP 25 in Chile would have been an excellent chance to visualize the continent’s environmental problems and improve the space for negotiations. Now, Latin American civil society is making an effort to make their voices heard in Madrid.

Chile Woke Up

Social unrest and the demand for a new social-ecological contract

The social protests that were triggered by a fare hike for the integrated public transport system of Santiago were the straw that broke the camel’s back. This increase followed a long series of fare and tariff increases, which affect a large part of the population, including the heavily indebted middle classes.

Today, for a significant segment of the Chilean population, transportation costs may account for 20 to 25 percent of a family’s income. Education and health costs are also high: The privately managed pension schemes based on individual accounts create high profits for companies, but they largely generate pensions that are below minimum income levels and discriminate against women especially.

The initial protests led to an escalation of mass protests that have included all parts of the country (from Arica to Magallanes), all age groups (grandchildren marching with their grandparents), and almost all social strata. Unlike with other protest waves, political parties, major trade unions, and even the most visible social movements, such as the movement against privatized pension schemes, No más AFP!, have been relegated to observer roles.

It is the citizens who have organized thousands of largely peaceful marches, artistic interventions, and actions such as cycling tours and concerts in a decentralized and autonomous manner. The demands for access to public healthcare, public education, a different pension scheme, and access to water – which has been almost completely privatized, despite the extreme water stress in the country – quickly culminated in one major request: a new social pact and a new constitution to replace the one written by the “Chicago Boys” during the military dictatorship.

The 130 organizations that comprise Chile’s Civil Society for Climate Action (Sociedad Civil por la Acción Climática, SCAC) quickly added the topic of environmental justice to the discussion on a new social contract, insisting that the social crisis that triggered mass protests is also an environmental one.

Considering the fact that Chile is highly vulnerable to climate change and one of the 18 countries worldwide suffering most severely from water stress, members of the environmental movement who are organized on the SCAC platform emphasized that the new social contract and a new constitution need to take into consideration the principles of environmental justice.

The environmental dimension of Chile’s social crisis

In a nutshell, social unrest in Chile is the result of a multidimensional crisis in which the following elements have converged: intransigent structural inequality, a crisis of political legitimacy, indebtedness of private households, and a proliferation of socio-economic conflicts due to the extractivist development model.

Similar to what is occurring in many Latin American countries, the Chilean economy is based on the relentless exploitation of natural resources that require little treatment and are destined for export to international markets. This has led to high environmental costs; the creation of so-called sacrifice zones throughout the country, where thermoelectric power plants generating dirty energy for the mining industry are concentrated; and to stresses on the water supply, which jeopardizes the human right to water.

The Chilean export industry is highly dependent on a scarce resource: water. Eighty percent of all fresh water is used by the agro-business for the production of fruit, vegetables, and wine, which are exported to international markets. The mining industry uses less water, but it is operating predominantly in the most arid parts of the country in the north, such as the Atacama Desert.

Additionally, the run for the new white gold – lithium – is having a heavy impact on fossil water and also on biodiversity in the fragile Andean ecosystems. While Chile literally exports water, more than one million citizens are without access to drinking water or functioning sewage systems.

Despite its resemblance to similar development models in Latin America, the Chilean model has some distinctive features that are part of a more radical experiment. These features have led to

  • a high degree of privatization of many public utility companies as well as many strategic natural assets, and
  • a high degree of the commodification of nature, including a highly volatile and nontransparent (black) market for water rights with scarce public control and no priority for human consumption, which leads to a systematic violation of human rights by the Chilean state.  

The particularities of the Chilean development model are closely related to the high levels of distrust of political parties, which explains their absence during the October upheaval. Most political parties, ranging from the right to the Socialists, have benefited from the privatization of public assets and common goods.

Members of the Christian Democratic Party are among those accumulating most of the water rights; Socialists are owners of highway concessions and water supply companies, to name just a few examples. In the last couple of years, a considerable number of scandals have revealed illegal contributions of extractivist enterprises to election campaigns that have involved almost all parties.

Today, many Chileans see political parties as part of the distribution coalition competing for rents from the exploitation of natural resources. The favorability ratings of political parties is down to 9 percent. Chile is usually labeled as a neoliberal market economy – a characterization that misses the point. Due to the very limited capacities of the state to regulate the economy and with a lack of anti-trust laws, Chile has more in common with rentier states, which are characterized by crony capitalism, where a limited number of families control large parts of the economy. As a result, its major businesses do not thrive as a result of risk and competition but rather due to returns on money amassed through a nexus of the business class and the political class.

As the contradictions of the development model can no longer be dealt with in the existing constitutional framework – due to the fact that the institutionalized minority veto rights of the right do not leave any room for the necessary reforms – the demands of the social movement have culminated in the claim for a new constitution.

This dynamic has united the agendas of the social and environmental organizations and led to a historic chance to create new alliances in order to draft the main points for a new social-ecological contract as a foundation for the constitutional process. Although widely criticized for its lack of transparency and any participation by civil society organizations, the agreement reached on November 15 opens the way for a constitution written by a Constitutional Assembly – composed mainly or exclusively of citizens, if the majority of the electorate votes favorably in a plebiscite scheduled for April 2020.

The Latin American summit that was not to be

In the middle of the political and social turmoil, without any consultation with civil society organizations, the Chilean government unilaterally decided to call off two international summits: the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit, scheduled for mid-November, and COP25. The last-minute cancellation has brought COP25 to Madrid, as Spain accepted the challenge of organizing the event, although Chile will still preside over the presidency of the Conference of the Parties.

For Chilean and Latin American environmental organizations and movements, the sudden reshuffling came as a surprise and a big disappointment. Hosting a COP summit in the region would have been an excellent chance to visualize the continent’s environmental problems and improve the space for negotiations on matters such as financing, adaptation, as well as loss and damage, which are particularly important for a group of countries characterized by high levels of vulnerability to climate change. Latin American observers of the COP process uttered their concerns that widespread social and political unrest in the region – which is not limited to Chile but also includes Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil – together with the relocation of COP25 to Europe, will seriously harm the chances that Latin American voices will be heard clearly in international climate negotiations.

What is left of the climate agenda of Chilean civil society?

The environmental crisis is part one of the concerns that triggered the social unrest, despite the fact that environmental issues are not always at the top of the list of concerns of social organizations and actors. Apart from pushing the presidency of COP25 to take an active role in climate negotiations and urging more ambition, Chilean environmental groups have concentrated their common efforts on seven major socio-ecological conflicts that dominate the Chilean environmental agenda:

  1. Closing down the country’s coal-fired power plants and converting the so-called sacrifice zones[1] – a term coined as the opposite of “poles of development” – into habitable spaces free of contamination. The coal industry has a stronghold on Chile’s electricity grid. There are currently 28 coal-fired thermoelectric plants that generate approximately 40 percent of the country’s electricity. Those account for 90 percent of the CO2 emissions from the electricity sector, concentrated in six towns in the country.
  2. Exiting from coal is particularly urgent in the case of Puchuncavi-Quintero, which is located in central Chile. It has a high rate of contamination from coal-fired power plants providing dirty energy for the mining industry, which causes chronic illnesses that affect women and children especially.
  3. Stopping the highly invasive copper mining project Dominga and the new Mega Port Cruz Grande, located in the National Humboldt Penguin Reserve; both are jeopardizing an area rich in biodiversity.  
  4. Reminding the government that any agenda of a “blue cop,” that is, any meaningful protection of oceans and coastal lines, means regulating any further expansion of the highly invasive salmon industry and a total prohibition of the industry in protected marine areas.
  5. Water conflicts: Chile is rich in glaciers and water resources, but it is one of the countries with extremely high levels of water stress. Any agenda of a “blue cop” must also necessarily include the protection of the 24,000 glaciers, which correspond to 80 percent of all South American glaciers, and of other freshwater resources more generally against exploitation by mining enterprises and agricultural monocultures, which destroy soil quality, displace small producers, and leave large parts of the population without access to drinking water.
  6. Lithium mining: One of the major contradictions of the world’s energy transition is the high demand for lithium, which affects the equilibrium of the highly fragile Andean ecosystems, destroys biodiversity, and fuels a real water war in the most arid desert of the world.
  7. Chile’s denial to sign the Escazú Agreement[2] and the human rights agenda. This last point requires a more detailed analysis.

Central demands of Chilean civil society organizations within the climate alliance SCAC

The Chilean government reacted to the October upheaval with a heavy-handed policy that included decreeing a state of emergency, deploying the military into the streets, and issuing curfews, which immediately stirred up traumatic memories of the military dictatorship. Within a month, more than 6,362 people were arrested, 23 people lost their lives, almost 2,400 were wounded, and 222 demonstrators lost their eyes and/or sight due to injuries largely caused by rubber bullets and teargas bombs.

The National Human Rights Institute has denounced the systematic violation of human rights by police and military officers, and international human rights delegations have arrived in Chile over the last few weeks to gather information on human rights violations. Amnesty International released a report that accused the government of systematic repression and violation of human rights, including mutilation as a form of intimidation against protesters. Currently, a fact-finding mission of the Inter-American Commission is investigating the massive human rights violations.

Environmental organizations have continually criticized the lack of protection of environmental defenders in Chile. They are asking the government to reconsider its position on the Escazú Agreement, which is the Latin American equivalent to the Aarhus Convention. Latin America is one of the regions in the world where environmental defenders are most at risk. In Chile, environmental defenders, especially indigenous ones, have suffered from diverse forms of repression – ranging from death threats to the abuse of legal measures – in order to deter social protests against contaminating enterprises.

The death of Macarena Valdés, who fought against a hydroelectric project on indigenous territory, and the circumstances of the imprisonment of this year’s Goldman Environmental Prize winner, the logko[3] Alberto Curamil, have hit the headlines of the international press.

Considering the massive and systematic violations of human rights, the Chilean organizations that form part of the climate alliance SCAC have agreed to include the topic of human rights in the climate agenda as one of the three main points:

  • Making an appeal to the international community representatives present at COP25 in Madrid to insist that Chile, which despite the conference’s relocation still maintains the presidency of the COP, makes a credible effort to fully investigate the human rights violations committed by police and military forces during the last couple of weeks. “No to impunity!” will be one of the main demands of the environmental organizations present in Madrid, apart from pushing for the signature and ratification of the Escazú Agreement in order to provide more substantial protection for environmental defenders at risk;  
  • Apart from that, Chilean organizations will insist on an increase in national climate ambitions (especially in the NDCs – nationally determined contributions);
  • Putting an end to the sacrifice zones by fostering the decarbonization of the electricity grid.

Representatives from SCAC will travel to Spain to participate in the side events of the COP and the parallel summit organized by Spanish civil society. Together with the platforms of social movements and organizations from Latin America, the organizations united under the SCAC alliance have prepared a dialogue process for a Latin American Climate Action Manifesto, which will be presented on December 9 at COP25 in Madrid. The manifesto seeks to summarize the demands of this highly vulnerable region and to provide a Latin American perspective on the main challenges of the negotiation process, focusing on adaptation, reductions in emissions, and access to finance.

Although COP25 moved to Madrid, Latin American civil society organizations are making an effort to make their voices heard in Europe. This is particularly important considering that the current political turmoil in the region is mainly being caused by the social and environmental crisis generated by the one-sided dependence on the exploitation of natural resources. Latin America’s social crises cannot be solved without ambitious climate action, environmental justice, and the defense of the environmental defenders who are at risk.


[1] Sacrifice zones are areas that serve as dumps and are forced to bear high levels of pollution from industries such as smelters and thermoelectric plants. Their residents live with levels of pollution that exceed accepted standards, and they have levels of mortality that are higher than the national average.

[2] The Escazú Agreement is a binding convention on the right to information and participation in matters related to climate justice. It was adopted in 2018 by 24 Latin American countries and is the first convention on environmental democracy that explicitly includes the protection of environmental defenders. Following its pioneering role in pushing the Escazú Agreement, Chile dropped out of the agreement last year – a decision that has been questioned by the organizations in the SCAC alliance.

[3] Traditional Mapuche authority.