Indigenous Views on Just Transition in Northern Patagonia

Pablo Aránguiz Mesías, Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain and Núcleo Milenio Energía y Sociedad (NUMIES), Chile

Efforts for a transition towards a low-carbon economy in northern Patagonia play out in the context of a neoliberal model of extractivist development that marginalizes Indigenous peoples and harms both people and the planet. This piece introduces the struggle for socially just decarbonization in the case of Chiloé archipelago and analyses opportunities for change that arise both from recent mass mobilizations and policy commitments made for a just transition and which could present a new momentum for sustainable development in Chile.

Photo credit: Camilo Barría R. via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

September is usually a special month for the great majority of Chileans. We remember one of the darkest moments of our recent history — the 1973 coup d’état of the armed forces against President Salvador Allende that began a dictatorship that, for 16 years, was characterized by the systematic disappearance and violation of human rights of thousands of people. September 2020, however, was even more special. Since October 2019 the country has been engulfed in a serious social crisis triggered initially by a group of young students who took control of the subway train system in response to a 30 CH$ (Chilean pesos, 0.04 USD) increase in the cost of the fare. Under the slogan “it’s not 30 CH$, it’s 30 years” great masses of women, men and children marched through the streets for months stopped only by the mandatory confinement imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo credit: Cristian via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Throughout the last 30 years, with the return to democracy, the Chilean neoliberal development model has been based on an extractivist system that depends on the commodification and over-exploitation of nature and non renewable resources for export rather than productive purposes (see Svampa 2019). This system creates “sacrifice zones” of degradation to the extent that can only be justified under nationalist-developmentalist discourses of a productive nature that is essential to the dominant (neoliberal) economy.

In Chile, sacrifice zones linked to the 25 coal-fired thermoelectric plants currently in operation stand out in terms of impacts and political dispute as they are responsible for vast shares of greenhouse gas emissions (including 91% of total CO2) and have enormous impacts on the human rights of those who live in these territories. The Chilean energy system is characterized by privatization, a high concentration of ownership in energy generation, high dependence on imported fossil fuels, and one of the highest electricity prices in Latin America.

Within this context, and influenced mainly by international environmental commitments, in 2008 the Chilean government developed a set of regulations aimed at promoting renewable energy such as the Energy Agenda 2014 and, most recently, Energy Policy 2050. The latter reflects a commitment to the challenge of climate change by supporting a transition to a lower carbon economy. Among other targets, the goal is to reach 70% renewable sources of electricity generation and 30% reduction in the intensity of GHG emissions, by 2030.

This momentum has encouraged the proliferation of various wind power generation projects in recent years, most of them in the south of the country where the archipelago of Chiloé, a group of over 40, mostly inhabited islands, is located. Chiloé encompasses an area of more than 9,181 square kilometres and has a population of around 167,000, of which 65% belong to the Mapuche-Williche Indgenous people.

The historical and cultural syncretism between the original and Spanish populations, together with the geographical and state isolation, has constituted a kind of “world apart” where a large number of communities with a particular culture, way of life and cosmovision can still be identified (Sanazzaro et al. 2018). This translates into a complexity of cultural, social, economic and productive practices closely linked to the sea, the forest and agriculture.

The intensive production of mussels and farmed salmon is the largest industrial activity in Chiloé (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

From the 1980s the state began to make its presence in Chiloé through the incentive of the transnational salmon farming industry. Four decades later, Chile has become the second largest global exporter of this product with 90% of national production coming from Chiloé. Encouraged by environmental and labor deregulation, intensive aquaculture has wreaked havoc on both the marine ecosystem and the social and culture network of Chiloé.

It is within this socio-cultural context that from 2011 to date, eight mega wind farm projects have been proposed, approved or installed on the main island. Attracted by public subsidies and the good wind conditions, large conglomerates of national and foreign capital have decided to invest in these projects which, in the absence of a land planning policy, have resulted in the proliferation of conflicts between local communities, project owners and the Chilean State — making these territories new types of sacrifice zones, this time linked to renewable energy.

The main concerns expressed by the local communities relate to the adverse local impacts these projects have on the ecosystems, water, biodiversity, landscape, culturally significant sites of the region as well as on the traditional and emergent economic activities (for example, tourism) that take place on the island.

From the perspective of a just transition, the greatest demands coming from the communities affected by these projects relate to the lack of recognition of the Indigenous population since they see the installation of these projects as a new form of violation of their territorial rights.

The lack of participation by affected communities in decision-making processes is evident. At the forefront of local demands is the weakness of the environmental legislation that in some cases requires only a simple declaration of non-impact to the environment. Local communities also distrust existing citizen consultation processes, beause these are carried out by the government, which has demonstrated its permanent alignment with the interests of the private sector while ignoring community views because the majority of the inhabitants are Indigenous.

Mussel and salmon farming impacts traditional practices, such as the extraction of seaweeds, and threatens the local community’s livelihoods (Photo credit: Marta Sadowska via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0))

Finally, local opposition highlights the unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of these projects. Inhabitants of Chiloé fear that they will lose out, while others will reap the benefits: the energy generated by the projects will mainly benefit companies and privileged economic sectors in the center and north of the country (large scale mining), but negative impacts and consequences will be borne by the locals of Chiloé, reinforcing the latent feeling of marginalization and abandonment on the part of the Chilean State that surrounds the people of Chiloé.

The landslide approval of the national referendum for a new constitution on 25 October might be a signpost for imminent change and was followed by a Congress decision to reserve seats for Indigenous peoples in order to ensure political participation. In addition, an updated NDC document was submitted to the UNFCCC in April 2020 for which the Minister of Environment highlighted the inclusion of a social pillar of just transition. The pillar emphasizes the necessity to prioritize the needs and circumstances of those who are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of decarbonizing electricity generation. As indicated in the document, by the year 2021, the Ministry of Energy should design a Strategy for Just Transition “that protects the rights of the most vulnerable in the process of decarbonizing the energy matrix, ensuring active participation of citizens in its design and implementation”. An air of cautious optimism sweeps across Chilean skies in hopes of advancing into a new era away from extractivism and towards recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Pablo Aránguiz Mesías (@MesiasAranguiz) is a Chilean scholar and doctoral candidate of Universitat Politècnica de València, Spain as well as an associate doctoral candidate of Núcleo Milenio Energía y Sociedad (NUMIES), Chile. Pablo has spent more than 20 years in the archipelago of Chiloé working with and for the Indigenous Williche communities of the region. As Professor of Sustainable Development at the Wekimün Chilkatuwe intercultural school, and as a long-time associate of the Williche Council of Chiefs of Chiloé, Pablo has supported the implementation of dozens of participatory action and community-based projects through local and international community-led development. His areas of research include the role of education in just transition processes towards sustainable societies, and intercultural approaches to education for the care of the common worlds.

This think piece is part of the Just Transition(s) Online Forum and was written with support of the Advanced Human Capital Formation Program “ANID/DOCTORADO BECAS CHILE/2018–72190320” which the author gratefully acknowledges. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the JTRC or its partner organizations.

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