Chile's glaciers: Between progress that freezes and commitments that melt away

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By Patricio Segura
Segura is a journalist living in the Aysen region, where he also active in several citizen socio-environmental organizations. He is also director of Coporación para el Desarrollo de Aysén.
It seemed like an April Fool's Day joke. 
Chile's self-described first "environmentalist government" ended, via Exempt Resolution 3824, the Glaciology and Snow Unit (UGN) of the National Water Directorate.  The news, on December 28, fell like a bucket of cold water in times of climate crisis and the need to strengthen water security.
Since 2008, in Michelle Bachelet's first government, this area had been responsible for public policies related to the country's glaciers.  Among its functions was to prepare the general inventory, its study and monitoring.  When the UGN disappeared, its functions were transferred to the Hydrology Division, a higher level division (even subject to the senior public management procedure) but sharing priority with hydrometry and meteorology; process and development; and monitoring of effective extractions.
In view of the commotion caused, the public works ministry clarified that this measure would give greater hierarchy to the focus on glaciers within the DGA, since having the hydrology division with officials all over the country would ensure a greater territorial deployment.  On the other hand, the UGN only had professionals in Santiago and Aysén.  This was endorsed in a presentation to the Senate Public Works Committee, where DGA director Rodrigo Sanhueza Bravo said that "what we are doing today is to incorporate this unit as a department within the Hydrology, Glaciology and Snow Division, but within the organic structure of the service, so it has more power."
Moreover, it was said that in the future Glaciology and Snow would become a subdivision.  Something of which there is no trace in the resolution nor in the current web page of the service.
Explanations more, explanations less, what is certain is that not everyone was convinced by the rationale.  
From the scientific point of view, University of Santiago climatologist Raúl Cordero pointed out that "going back to the institutional framework that existed before the creation of the Glaciology Unit is a clear step backwards." And on January 13, a total of 146 environmental organizations asked President Gabriel Boric to revert the measure, requesting that this area be maintained in a specialized entity focused on these essential ecological and hydric systems.
Criticism even came from within.  In mid-January, a group of former officials of the defunct unit filed a motion for reconsideration with the director of the DGA, Rodrigo Sanhueza Bravo, requesting reconsideration of the measure.   In this action they were represented by the former director of the UGN: Gino Casassa Rogazinski.  
Among his arguments were that the measure lacked "technical support" and his conviction that "diminishing the hierarchy and removing the autonomy of the UGN will negatively affect its operational, technological and scientific work, not being up to what the country needs in glaciological issues."
Paradoxes of fate, although Casassa was the last head of the Glaciology and Snow Unit and defended the discarded institutionalism, his words have not always been in search of the safeguard of these relevant water sources: "There is a biblical quote that says that God when creating the world gave the mandate to man to rule the earth. I understand this as a design for sustainable development, that is, to exploit the land without destroying it. If we are a country rich in natural resources, I cannot be absolutist and say that glaciers are sacred and untouchable" he said in 2014.
If it were an isolated event, this decision would be nothing more than an anecdote.  However, the latest measures of Gabriel Boric's government on the matter point to the fact that glaciers, despite what was previously stated by those who today lead the country from the Executive, would not be their priority.  An assumption that on Thursday, June 1, when he addresses the country in his second State of the Nation address, the president will have the opportunity to dispute or confirm.
Is copper worth more than water?
According to the report "Glaciares de Chile: El lobby minero y el tortuoso camino para protegerlos" (Chile Sustentable, 2020) Los Bronces "destroyed between 1988 and 2005 almost 1 square kilometer of glaciers in the upper basin of the San Francisco River, which also flows into the Mapocho, causing a loss of between 6 and 9 million cubic meters of water reserves," according to an article published in October 2020.  
The Los Bronces mine is currently operated by Anglo American Sur (AAS), a corporation majority controlled by the British transnational Anglo American.  It is located in the mountainous area of Santiago and Valparaíso, close to the La Paloma glacier, the Olivares River parks, the recently created Glaciares de Santiago National Park and the Yerba Loca Nature Sanctuary.  It also borders Codelco's Andina operations.  
The mining district was discovered in 1867, when its exploitation began.  "In 1916 the company Disputada de Las Condes was created, and in 1952 it was transferred to Minera Metalúrgica Peñarroya. In 1972 Disputada became part of Enami, and in 1978 it was sold to Exxon, when the state agency reserved a repurchase clause for up to 49%,” according to the Chilean Mining portal. 
When Exxon decided to sell its assets, it gave priority in the transaction to Anglo American, which Codelco opposed because it had first option to buy.   The controversy was settled in 2012 when the state-owned company, together with Japan's Mitsui, entered AAS with a 29.5% stake (Codelco holds 20% of this total percentage).  The parent company Anglo American retained 50% while Mitsubishi kept 20.44%.  A very minor 0.00008 % is held by the British copper company Clarent SARL.
Los Bronces is of the open pit type and in order to extend its useful life until 2036, the company submitted its Los Bronces Integrated project to the Environmental Impact Assessment System in July 2019. 
In these four years of processing, it was evaluated by multiple services. Until a year ago, on May 2, 2022, the Environmental Assessment Service (as it is an interregional initiative, the final decision was not taken by a regional Environmental Assessment Commission) rejected it because the company could not rule out "the generation of risk to the health of the population," mainly for not carrying out "an impact assessment in terms of magnitude, extent and duration of the contributions of respirable particulate matter on human receptors during the construction and operation of the project."
Faced with this decision, the owner filed a complaint with Gabriel Boric's Committee of Ministers.  
On April 17 the government reversed the SEA's decision and approved it.  A decision that was applauded by the business community but widely questioned by experts and environmental organizations in the country.
"This project will have a high socio-environmental impact, because it will aggravate the effect on the cryosphere in the mountain range. And I say this not only because of the deposition of particulate material resulting from the exploitation of the mine, blasting and the circulation of vehicles," explained Francisco Ferrando, PhD in Geography, who is a professor at the Seminar on Rocky Glaciers, Water Resources and Climate Change at the University of Chile.
In the opinion of Sara Larraín, director of Chile Sustentable, "unfortunately the self-styled environmentalist government is voting against the environmental logic that the Committee of Ministers should be carrying out. It is not a committee for investments, it is a committee for the environment and sustainability, and it should be concerned that national development is in line with environmental protection, particularly with water security."
More than two months have passed since that decision and its effects are haunting the government, with international repercussions.
In his recent visit to the country, David R. Boyd, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, stated that "the recently approved Los Bronces mining project could accelerate the melting of glaciers in the region that supplies drinking water to the Santiago and Valparaíso regions."
In another area, that of water institutions, after the approval of the Water Code, in January 2022, of an article that prohibits the creation of water rights on glaciers, the two initiatives that persist in protecting these fundamental ecosystems have made little progress.  
In March of that year, the motion that seeks their integral safeguard was passed to the Senate Finance Committee, but to date the Executive has not given it urgency.  Said body has not analyzed it, remaining stuck in its first constitutional procedure.
And since September 2022, the legal proposal whose original objective was to prohibit the constitution of water rights in glaciers, but which in its processing was advancing towards greater protection, has also been paralyzed.  That month it was approved by the Chamber of Deputies and passed to the Senate, where it must be resolved by the Environment Committee.  It has not been reviewed in the latter and the only session where the issue was tangentially dealt with was that of May 9, when the environment minister, Maisa Rojas, spoke about the approval of Los Bronces.
None of the projects has had any urgency on the part of the Executive during this entire period.
This is the most visible result of Gabriel Boric's management during his government in this area.  In contrast with his program for the second round, which committed, as one of its differentiating elements from José Antonio Kast, the "protection of glaciers."  
A matter that was even a banner of struggle of the former student leader who in 2019, being a congressman, was one of the founders of the so-called "Glacier Bench”, a coalition of congressmen concerned with glacier protection. 

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