In Chile, for decades, what are known as »sacrifice zones«—areas marked by intense industrial activity mainly using coal-fired power plants—have been at the heart of socio-environmental conflicts. These zones tend to be found in low-income and minority communities. Consequently, when discussing the energy transition, we must bear in mind the impact it has on the most vulnerable communities.
A study presented at COP27 by the Global Carbon Project finds that global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels will peak in 2022. The report shows that these emissions have increased by one per cent this year. Moreover, in the same year, coal has been responsible for approximately 40 per cent of global fossil CO2 emissions. For decades, localities in northern and central Chile have been the focus of socio-environmental conflicts, largely due to the intense coal-fired industrial activity there. These sites are commonly known as »sacrifice zones«.
Reducing carbon emissions is about the global temperature, but is also related to protecting those communities that have been most affected by the climate crisis. The town of Quintero-Puchuncaví in the region of Valparaíso, less than three hours from Santiago, has already faced multiple episodes of contamination. In 2018, nearly 600 people were admitted to hospital with unusual symptoms: vomiting blood, headaches, dizziness, paralysis of the extremities, as well as strange swellings on children’s skin. Between August and September of that year, at least three such episodes occurred.
»The Global North produces much more CO2 emissions than the Global South. This climate inequality is also reproduced at a national level. Those in the most favourable economic position are also those that cause the most environmental problems, and above all, the people who live in sacrifice zones are the ones who have suffered the most from the consequences of this situation,« says Ezio Costa, doctor of law from the Universidad de Chile and executive director of the environmental NGO FIMA (Fiscalía para el Medioambiente).
Coordinator of the Greenpeace Chile campaign, Estefanía González, agrees that the global discourse of reducing fossil emissions has an impact at a local level. »When we talk about decarbonizing and de-fossilizing economies, this not only has an impact at the global level but also at the local level,« González explains.
Although the »sacrifice zones« are not one of the issues being negotiated at COP27, they are an area of critical importance for countries such as Chile. Even if the subject is not part of the COP27 negotiations, there is still a connection between countries’ global environmental commitments and their local policies. The government of Gabriel Boric, who took office in March of this year, has planned since the beginning to be the first »ecological« government of Chile and protection of the environment and the climate crisis have thus been part of its programme since day one. Four months after becoming president, Gabriel Boric announced the closure of copper smelting plant Ventanas I, owned by Quintero-based state mining company Codelco, due to new episodes of poisoning in the population. The decision was important for the city, despite the fact that cases continue to be recorded, explains Katta Alonso, environmental activist and leader of the organisation Mujeres de Zona de Sacrificio Quintero Puchuncaví en Resistencia.
»There have been a lot of preventative initiatives and efforts. However, we still don’t see any signs of sacrifice zones being eliminated. For this we have to change the regulations, create new norms and update others that have not been changed for 20 or 30 years,« Alonso tells us regarding the work of the government in recent months.
In October, the Ministry of the Environment announced the creation of the »Socio-Ecological Transition Office«, an initiative that aims, among other measures, to take charge of the »sacrifice zones« in Chile and turn them into »transition zones«.
»What environmental justice would demand in a case like this is that as part of the transition being made, a new way of generating energy is used and hopefully a new way of producing and consuming, and that those who have been affected by the system will be compensated”, says Ezio Costa.
Estefanía González, for her part, is critical of the role that government representatives have played in Chile. »Chile doesn’t emit as much as other countries, but we know that an energy system based on the burning of fossil fuels impacts the people who live in Chile. Chile’s NDC is not only insufficient but also condemns the sacrifice zones to 20 more years of coal. We would have expected that a government that included the end of sacrifice zones in its programme, that calls itself an ecological government, would come to this COP with a different proposal to the one that the government of Sebastián Piñera actually presented,« she concludes.
Emilia Aparicio Ulloa is a journalist based in Santiago, Chile, covering issues at the intersection of the environment, science, and culture. Holding a BA in Social Communications from the University of Chile, she believes in journalism that reflects on social, political and environmental conflicts in Latin America with an intersectional and gender approach.