Opening access to Chile’s mountains

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Photo: Agostina QuintanaPhoto: Agostina Quintana

By Antonia Gonzalez
Chile's Congress is considering a bill giving free access to the country's mountains. The initiative -- similar to an existing Civil Code right of free access to beaches --comes after continuing disputes and controversies over access to the mountain peaks in several areas of the country, which is dominated from north to south by the high Andean Mountain range.  
Good news came in September 2021, when the Acceso a Montañas Fiscales bill was approved by the lower house of Congress. First introduced by center-right representative Sebastián Torrealba in 2019, the proposed legislation, which seeks to define what a mountain is and to regulate access, won with an absolute majority and is now under discussion in the Chilean Senate.
In an interview with the Diario Puerto Varas newspaper, Congressman Torrealba said that a law is being created that did not exist before and clarified that "this is a fairly simple project, but we believe it will contribute to the construction of a mountain culture in Chile. Seventy percent of the high mountain terrain in Chile is privately-owned property.”
Several organizations are praising the legislative proposal. One of the key aspects of the bill is that it adopts the definition of mountains established by the United Nations, which will mean that 63.8 percent of the Chile’s national territory is to be deemed mountainous terrain. Of that mountainous territory, 66.7 percent is privately-owned, meaning that 28 million hectares (69.2 million acres) would be affected by the new regulations.
This is the first attempt at this kind of legislation in Chile, and Camilo Hornauer, a longtime alpinist and president of Fundacion Plantae, an outdoor conservation organization based in Valdivia, is concerned about several key points in the current text.
For example, according to the proposed bill, the right or possibility of access would be tied to permitting entry to access points that have certain procedures and protocols that are, so far, unclear. "The implementation of these authorization points would be very gradual: one per region per year. In other words, the law will open new access points on a case-by-case basis, which is ultimately an insufficient response in terms of time and space. Moreover, one of the ways to implement these authorization plans could be through administrative acts by the Ministry of National Assets, such as licenses," explains Hornauer.
"This generates a high degree of uncertainty given that, without adequate criteria and oversight, licensed access can be equally restrictive, elitist and its infrastructure can also have an impact on the fragile ecosystems of the Andean Mountain range and, in the process, contribute negatively to further privatization of the territory," adds Hornauer. 
Christián Moscoso, regional director of Acceso PanAm, the Latin American version of the Access Fund, which advocates for open access to natural areas for climbers and mountaineers in the U.S., shares Hornauer's concerns and assures that "this process creates a space for the discussion to be taken to the Constitutional Convention in order to discuss the rights that we, as citizens, have, such as the right to be in contact with nature.”
In short, both organizations believe that their original proposal of the law has been significantly modified, now having become a sort of "touristification" of the mountains and their access, rather than a solution to the real historical demand that mountaineers and nature aficionados have always had.
A better approach, says Hornauer, is for private landowners to replicate successful cases around the country. He says they show it is possible to provide access with protocols that work, assuring minimal impacts and demonstrating trust and agreements between an owner and a community of users.

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