Will Chile Get Its Five-Star Glacier Law?

Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford
Horn of the Mountains, Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of Chile’s glaciers. ©Chris Ford

Chilean authorities and legislators agreed last week to a new framework for a law to protect thousands of melting glaciers in the towering Andes. The new proposal would safeguard glaciers inside of Chile’s national parks, but it’s not clear what protections would be offered to those glaciers that lie near some of the country’s major mining concessions.

Some 31,000 glaciers span the Chilean side of the cordillera, which represent 82% percent of all glaciers in South America and provide critical water resources to the region. But the billions of dollars worth of copper, gold and other mining projects operating in the Andes represent a significant source of income for Chile, the world’s biggest copper exporter.

Though Chilean authorities pledged to make the new proposed law a priority—it will be presented to environmental authorities this week—glacier laws have been a subject of heated debate for some time in the country, and it’s not clear this one will pass any more readily than its predecessors. While the new legal framework includes approximations of some measures contained in a “five star” glacier law proposal put forward by Greenpeace and a handful of Chilean politicians last year, environmentalists charge that there are too many loopholes for mining companies to exploit.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera
Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park. ©Daniel Diaz Vera

The new glacier law framework consists of 14 amendments to an earlier law proposed last year, according to Chilean newspaper La Segunda and radio station Radio UChile. These amendments would assign legal classification to different kinds of glaciers, as well as to the frozen land surrounding them, declare them national “patrimony” to be protected by the government, and allow for the revision of environmental permits already granted for projects that would interfere with glaciers. Such permits could not be revoked, but companies could be required to take additional measures to mitigate the impacts their projects would have on glaciers. The law would also describe specific kinds of activities prohibited on glaciers designated as requiring special protection.

The “five-star” proposal included a few extra steps: de facto protection of all areas defined as “glaciers,” as well as surrounding land, banning any activity that damages a glacier, and requiring all projects that today impact glaciers to stop doing so.

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 7.52.25 PMEnvironmentalists have been clamoring for good glacier laws in recent months with a string of colorful protests. In January, Greenpeace activists parked themselves in front of the presidential palace, La Moneda, in the capital city of Santiago with a mock food cart full of withered and dried up fruits and vegetables for the “Market without Glaciers.” Produce was advertised at outrageous prices ($5,000 pesos, or around US$7, for every ratty piece of corn). On Twitter, Matias Asun, head of Greenpeace Chile, explained in Spanish that this is what the country’s produce would look like if all of its glaciers were destroyed.

A few months earlier, on Sept. 27, two thousand people, many of them children wearing superhero costumes, marched to the La Moneda to urge president Bachelet to write glacier protection laws. And last March, Chilean Greenpeace activists declared a “Glacier Republic,” a sovereign state covering 23,000 square kilometers of glaciers in Chile that already has over 15,000 “citizens,” to push adoption of a law to protect Chile’s glaciers.

According to at least one politician, 80 to 85 percent of all glacier surface area in Chile exists within its national parks. Under the new legal framework, the fate of the rest of the glaciers would be determined by the council of ministers as opposed to by legislation. Greenpeace’s Asun told Radio UChile that he believes this would open such decisions up to political influence from mining companies such as Barrick Gold, Angloamerican, Los Pelambres de Luksic and Codelco.

"PascuaLamaPlanMap" by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
PascuaLamaPlanMap” by I, Earthsound. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Chile’s neighbor Argentina adopted a glacier protection law in 2010 that defines glacier broadly to include rock glaciers and frozen groundwater left by receding glaciers, because some scientists feel these are key sources of glacier water reserves. The Argentine law has caused delays in a few mining projects, such as Canada’s Osisko Famatina gold exploration and the Argentine operations of Barrick Gold’s Pascua Lama gold and silver mine. But even before a law has been passed in Chile, the Chilean operations Pascua-Lama have been suspended over concerns that it was interfering with nearby glaciers.

Other countries that protect glaciers under natural resources laws, water laws, or other laws include Colombia, Ecuador, Pakistan, Peru and Austria.

For more on the threats posed to Chile’s glaciers by mining projects, read this prior post.