Chilean government lets bill to protect glaciers fall

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Photo: Jackman ChiuPhoto: Jackman Chiu
By Patricio Segura
Translation by Justin Mueller
“About this project and the amendment that would be declared inadmissible if it does not have the support of the executive, we as the environment ministry are not going to support the project nor the amendment that came from the previous government.”
With that declaration the past Wednesday in the finance committee of the lower house of Chile’s Congress, Chile Environment Minister Marcela Cubillos and the new center-right government allowed the bill to create a Glacier Protection Law to permanently fail. The initiative was introduced in 2014 and had already been approved by the environment committee, but not in the finance committee where the text involving the creation of a National Register of Glaciers, which was the exclusive responsibility of the government for involving public resources, had stalled. Because of this, since the current government has pulled its support for the initiative, the continued existence of the bill is impossible.
The original motion was presented by the following congressmen: Cristina Girardi (PPD), Giorgio Jackson (RD), Luis Lemus (PS), Daniel Melo (PS), Vlado Mirosevic (Liberal), Andrea Molina (UDI), Leonardo Soto (PS), Camila Vallejo (PC) and Patricio Vallespín (DC).
Since the bill was first presented four years, the project had suffered profound changes under pressure, primarily, from mining industry lobbyists that opposed the legislation from the start. One such change was an amendment from the previous center-left Michelle Bachelet government that, according to media reports, was designed to address the miners’ objections by limiting the protection of the country’s glaciers only to the strategic reserve, in other words only applying to some of the nation’s glaciers.
After being reviewed and approved by the environment commission at the beginning of 2016, the proposed legislation then moved on to the finance committee, wherein the previous government paralyzed its continuing progress, as modifications introduced by legislators there were viewed by government supporters as measures that would affect mining investments.
At the same time, the National Institute of Human Rights also raised a series of objections, but with a diametrically opposite view. “The level of protection of the glaciers is decreasing considerably,” stated a 2015 report, referring to the amendment presented by the Bachelet government to appease the mining sector, since all bodies of frozen water are not truly protected but only on a case-by-case basis through the strategic glacier reserve. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, informed congressmen that the legal text “could worsen the glacier situation by regulating a proceeding that will enable their exploitation,” thus they urged that they consider “national public-use assets” and not simply “national assets,” which would give them a larger framework for non-intervention.
Chilean environmental minister Marcela Cubillos speaking to the finance committee of the lower house of Chile's Congress.Chilean environmental minister Marcela Cubillos speaking to the finance committee of the lower house of Chile's Congress.

The continuing debate has allowed the Sebastian Piñera government to put a stop to the project after taking office, sidestepping his campaign promise to improve the protection of the country’s glaciers.
Cubillos explained in the finance committee that they do not share the idea of approving specific laws to protect biological diversity, rather they will concentrate on promoting the conservation instruments included in pending legislation to create a Biodiversity and Protected Area Service, which includes protected areas, classification of ecosystems and management plans for threatened ecosystems. Still, currently, that initiative does not mention whatsoever protecting glaciers.
As such, today the only project in the pipeline that aims for any type of protection, besides the reform to the water code that prevents the surrendering of glacier water rights, is a bill that was introduced at the beginning of this year in the lower house with the same goal. The text was already approved by the environment committee, where they progressed to have the definition of a glacier include “the total volume of permanent ice and snow, which remains for periods of at least two years and that covers an area greater than or equal to 0.01 km2, including any rocky service with evidence of superficial viscous flow, product of a high content of current or past ice in the subsoil.”
Also, the aforementioned bill recognizes that glaciers as “complex ecosystems associated with pre-glacial and glacial environments and they are part of the hydrological water cycle,” expanding its definition not only to the ice, but to “detrital rocky material, and the lagoons and water flows found under the surface.”
It also establishes their protection by banning all activities “which generate a significant impact on, or irreversible damage” to these masses of solid water, including activities that involve their removal, relocation or destruction; activities that when performed on the surface affect the glacier’s functions, dynamics and essential properties. It also bans activities conducted under the surface of the glaciers which can alter their natural condition, accelerate or interrupt their movement, or accelerate their melting, and the release, emptying or filling of trash, chemical products, particulate matter, scraps or waste of any nature or volume. Finally, it also bans any action that is against the law or that could directly or indirectly affect the functions of the glacier.
The initiative was to be voted on last week by Congress, however it has been postponed until the beginning of July.
The view from environmental groups is that this does not meet their goal of 100 percent protection, but it would allow for a certain degree of progress to other legal initiatives that, hopefully, achieve an all-encompassing and permanent safeguard of the primary water reserves of Chile and multiple communities. In addition, it is hoped that once this bill is approved, other improvements will be able to be introduced in its eventual review by the Senate.

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