Chilean law does not recognize its 3,100 glaciers, leaving them with limited protection from industrial development. Most notably, the copper mining industry, which contributes 15 percent of the country’s $268.3 billion GDP, often encroaches on the glaciers, tapping water for operations, or dumping mining detritus on them. Recently, the state-owned Codelco proposed expansion of the Andina 244 mine to make it the most productive in the world, drawing criticism from officials and environmentalists who foresee an unjustifiable environmental impact on the glaciers and the region’s geography. The dust from new unpaved roads would cover the glaciers, hastening their melting.
There is some legal protection for glaciers: Before proceeding with the expansion, Codelco was required to produce an environmental impact assessment that would outline impacts from the mine expansion on the region’s environment. The official document for the 1,260-acre expansion noted that six glaciers would be affected.
Environmental groups and others disagreed, submitting 2,200 comments on the environmental impact assessment which outlined their objections. Among those objections were disagreements over the extent of the impact, with environmental groups saying 26 glaciers and the surrounding ecosystems would be degraded by the mine as well as the new associated infrastructure – 32 miles of high voltage transmission lines, a 26-mile mining waste disposal chute, and transport networks. These comments are still under review and delayed the project .Sitting just 34 miles from Santiago, the country’s capital of 6 million people, the case is likely to remain controversial, as citizens weigh the mine’s economic benefits against its certain environmental harm.
Greenpeace, however, is trying to provide permanent protection for the glaciers by attempting to exploit the very lack of legal recognition that threatens glaciers in the first place. They argue that because the glaciers are not recognized as part of Chile’s sovereignty, that under the Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties (which defines the criteria under which a state can be recognized under customary international law), they can create a new country on the glaciers, to be known as the Glacier Republic. The Republic would be a sovereign state with a defined territory, permanent population and government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states.
Though it’s highly unlikely that the United Nations will recognize the Glacier Republic, not to mention Chile itself would take this step, as an exercise in raising awareness, the loophole maneuver may be effective in spurring legal protection for glaciers and slowing or preventing expansion of the Coldelco’s Andina 244 mine.