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Chile, the Social Crisis is Also an Environmental One

Mexico & Central America

The residents of the municipality of Til Til in Chile live in the midst of highly-polluting industries that produce toxic waste, drought, dust and water pollution. This is no exceptional case. Rather, it is symptomatic of a development model based on the exploitation of natural resources. This model was initiated under the dictatorship, then consolidated after Chile’s return to democracy. This investigation examines the environmental and social impact of these economic stances and developmental choices. Through the lens of the experience of the residents of Til Til, it outlines the difficulties of socio-environmental mobilization and bringing cases to court, in a context in which environmental injustice is interwoven with a social crisis. The present analysis thus also offers a perspective into the recent social movement in Chile.

To reach Cecilia’s home, you follow the train tracks along which, each and every day, the bins of Santiago are transported to the industrial-waste landfill site in the municipality of Til Til, to the North-East of Chile’s capital. I wander among the remains of waste and plastic that fly off into the air every time a train passes. The air is dry and dust-filled. The width of the main roads brings to mind a large urban conurbation—but the small houses that line them are a reminder that this is a mere village in central Chile. Hulking company buildings sit side by side with the residents’ vegetable patches, composing a strange landscape, neither rural nor urban.

Cecilia has arranged plants all around the outside of her house, which is filled with the pleasing smell of a wood fire. She shares the house with her sister, mother and two nephews. Hung on the walls of the living room are objects that invoke the family’s origins. On one side, for the father, who hails from the campo chileno (the Chilean countryside) in the country’s center, are horseshoes and pieces of leather and copper. On the other, for the mother from Chile’s South, hang telares, silver jewellery, and the Mapuche flag. 1 Seated around a meal, I ask Cecilia about her life in Til Til and her relationship with an area that, due to its high concentration of polluting industries, environmental-protection organizations have dubbed a “Sacrifice Zone”. In the course of our interview, the house shakes when the train passes by, and the electricity cuts repeatedly—“when our electricity is the most expensive of the whole metropolitan area”, her sister comments, with a knowing smile.

Til Til is a rural municipality of 19,000 inhabitants, 60 kilometers from Santiago. The predicament of its various villages is a stark illustration of Chile’s development model over the past few decades. This has been based on surface and sub-surface exploitation and the export of natural resources, mining resources in particular. It has thus has severe consequences on the locals’ environment, health and social life.

Socio-environmental claims sit in third place among the dominant issues that have prompted social movements over the decade from 2009 to 20182, with only working conditions and education prompting greater mobilization. Such claims bear on pollution of various kinds (air, water, soil, subsoil), local development, and large-scale infrastructural projects (dams and hydro-electric power stations, mining, agroforestry industries, coal-fired power stations, etc.). Environmental movements are therefore not only geared towards protecting nature and biodiversity as such; they also defend a given area, and the health and dignity of that area’s inhabitants. Collective action is generally circumscribed within a given local area—and few such movements have repercussions countrywide, in that they do not always acquire visibility outside of the area where they occur.

Drawing on Til Til and its inhabitants as a case study, this investigation examines the environmental impact of Chile’s development model, and residents’ difficulties in organizing and pursuing legal action.

Chilean-style Development: A Generator of Sacrifice Zones

In 1980, under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet, a new Constitution was adopted. This remains in force. It established the principle of the state’s subsidiarity, i.e. that the state’s action aims at facilitating regulation through the market—including with respect to environmental issues. This Constitution also etched in stone a neoliberal economic model, in the context of which education, healthcare and pensions have all been privatized. It also includes conservative provisions with respect to public morals, in particular concerning abortion. 3 The demand to change this social and political order inherited from the dictatorship lies at the core of social movements in recent years: on the part of high-school and university-student movements in 2006 and 2011, against the pension system since 2015, and feminist movements, of which a wave of university occupations in 2018 are especially emblematic.

The Constitution also reinforces a development model based on the exploitation and export of natural resources. The model was put into practice by the disciples of Neoclassical economics—Milton Friedman’s famous “Chicago Boys”. 4 It was established through companies gaining easy access to mining concessions (through the 1983 Mining Code), and by the privatization of access to water (through the 1982 Water Code). The return to democracy in the 1990s did not alter this model, and Chile’s economic growth remained reliant upon the wealth obtained through exporting copper (55% of Chile’s exports): Chile has the world’s greatest copper reserves (29%), and is the top world producer.

The consequences of this exploitation of natural resources—including the deterioration of biodiversity— affect the entire country. They have transformed natural areas at the whim of the global demand for the country’s most valuable resources (copper, lithium, avocados, salmon, paper pulp). In the North, mining has destabilized and weakened the local fauna and flora, covering the desert landscape with the ridges of giant excavations. In Chile’s central region, intensive monocultures dominate—such as the Hass avocado, a product that is not native to these areas, grown for consumption by the European and American markets. In the South, the forestry industry depletes native forests, while locals track growing sea pollution caused by overproduction of salmon. These salmon are fish-farmed in underwater cages, and their intensive farming both destroys ecosystems in the long-term5and harms the local seashell and fishing industries.

Who is “sacrificed”—and in the name of what?

This neoliberal inheritance weighs especially heavily on certain areas. Their inhabitants have dubbed these “Sacrifice Zones”, since they consider that they have paid a heavy toll for the development model that Chile boasts of. The term emerged in the 1980s in the US in the context of environmental justice movements, and was introduced to Chile by environmental-protection organizations. At the time, US activists spoke of National Sacrifice Zones to designate the sites where nuclear weapons were produced, some of which were shut down due to high levels of radioactivity. They denounced a double injustice—environmental and social—inasmuch as marginalized groups, namely African-Americans and the poorest US residents, were the most exposed to this chemical pollution, that went beyond mere radioactivity.6

As for Chile’s environmental-protection organizations, they repurpose the term Saturated Zone. In Chilean law, this designates areas exposed to air pollution, and, in particular, to high exposure to fine particles. Several such areas were re-dubbed “Sacrifice Zones” given their high concentration of polluting activities, especially coal-fired power stations (termoelectricas). Chile has five Sacrifice Zones, Til Til among them: in the North, the Tocopilla/Mejillones Zones in the Antofagasta region, and Huasco in the region of Atacama; in central Chile, the Puchuncaví-Quintero Zone in the region of Valparaíso; and finally, in the South, the Coronel Zone in the region of Bio Bio.

In these Sacrifice Zones, environmental catastrophe is compounded by social issues, since these industrial activities (coal-fired power stations, the stockage of toxic waste, petrol refineries, copper-processing, etc) only marginally benefit locals. These densely-industrialized areas therefore also feature high rates of poverty and unemployment. Til Til is for instance one of the poorest municipalities of the metropolitan region—even while it gathers economic activity that is essential to the development of Santiago. Only few Til Til locals work in the companies that sit within the municipal area, however, either because certain activities do not require major manpower, or because the companies bring in seasonal workers from other areas of the country.

This repurposing of the term Sacrifice Zone enables interrogating the impact of how these areas are exploited—and who is responsible for such exploitation. Concretely: who is “sacrificed”—and in the name of what. The expression enables environmental-protection organizations and locals to politicize their situation, and to question the exploitation of natural resources and the national development model—as well as how the benefits of that model are redistributed.

Til Til, Santiago’s Backyard

The history of Til Til is linked both to the development of Chile’s major towns and to various evolutions in Chile’s mining activity. Today, the train line between Santiago and Valparaíso ferries the trash-trains that one sees when arriving at Cecilia’s home. When it was inaugurated, at the end of the 19th Century, it enabled the villages along its route to grow and to commercialize their agricultural products in the towns. The end of the saga of saltpetre production 7 in northern Chile led to waves of worker migration towards other regions. Some of these miners emigrated to central Chile to work in the gold and copper mines, including in Til Til. Thereafter, the cement manufacturer Polpaico came to town, to supply Santiago’s construction businesses in the 1950s, marking the beginnings of heavy industry settling in the area. Polpaico’s arrival swiftly attracted those from the surrounding countryside and Santiago’s impoverished neighborhoods, who came to build the various villages that today make up the municipality of Til Til.

Industrial growth in Til Til has made it the backyard of Santiago’s development

Since the late 1990s, this rural area has progressively become industrialized according to the Santiago metropolitan region’s urban development plan. Urban planning has therefore followed the capital’s expansion and its needs, without taking into account the rural nature of Til Til. The area’s locals have been employed in the factories as manual workers, even while they also developed their own local agricultural production, primarily in fruit (olives and melons), before these two revenue streams dried up. Industrial growth in Til Til has made it the backyard of Santiago’s development, relegating mining (and the jobs of local workers) to the background. The area then “specialized” in stocking mining waste, from mines outside the municipality that transferred their residue via underground tubes to the large settling-tanks housed in Til Til. In open-air pools, these tanks contain the mining “residue” after minerals are separated from rock. Other companies that bury domestic and industrial waste are also present in Til Til. Finally, the municipality also features agro-industrial industries (companies that engage in intensive pig-breeding) and wastewater-recycling centers. The train that threads through the villages ferries neither travelers nor agricultural products: it now only transfers waste towards the municipality’s waste-treatment industries. The train was once a symbol of Til Til’s development. Today, it merely reminds locals of both the municipality’s past economic dynamism—and its present-day marginalization.

Faced with this predicament, the anxiety of locals may be measured through their daily discussions about the risks imposed by the various industries in the midst of which they live. They observe for instance that the cement walls that contain the toxic residues of mining activity are cracking. These settling-tanks sit close to their houses, and are an integral part of their everyday landscape. They worry about how watertight these open-air pools really are, and fear that heavy metals infiltrate the groundwater table and the soil that they use to farm their own vegetable gardens. Part of the year, the lack of water in the municipality forces some of Til Til’s villages to be supplied by tankers—a process that makes the local passage of trucks even denser, produces immense quantities of dust, and generates permanent air pollution. Implementing such “emergency” plans has become the norm to confront shortages and drought, without any restriction on water usage by the industries settled in the municipality being considered. Finally, these activities prevent agricultural activity—and especially the local production of fruit, that had previously allowed locals a certain economic autonomy, including in terms of producing their own food.

These diverse kinds of pollution also affect locals’ health: the rate of respiratory diseases is proportionately higher in Til Til than in the rest of the country. Add to this noise pollution (the rattle of the train, the throb of the trucks) and the nauseating smells given off by the factories. Locals do not know whether such pollution may have a long-term impact on their health, and no scientific study has yet been conducted on the subject.

In this context, Til Til’s residents wonder about the extent of their rights to decide whether these industrial projects in their municipality should be implemented, and on how much legitimacy they may have as citizens to refuse them. For several years, some Til Til locals have fought the construction of a new industrial-waste treatment project that would bring waste from the whole country to Til Til. They regularly organize by blocking Road 5, a motorway that crosses the country from North to South, and that passes near their villages. Faced with these polluting projects, locals express a feeling of impotence and of being marginalized in decision-making processes:

“Of course, they say that [the project] will respect international norms and, well, it’s always the same thing but, well… we worry about what they could destroy in the process. (…) So, yes, there has been this consultation process where you have to go to a website, but we know that people won’t go on this website, that they won’t submit their observations, and they don’t understand, either, that’s the real issue… What I wonder is: why do they consult people about something that people don’t understand? People have no idea. On top of that, it’s all written in a… legal language that no-one understands. It’s terribly difficult to read these things, and it’s stressful to not understand, on top of that you have to do it on the computer, and a little old man God knows how old is never going to go online. So in practice, we have to believe that all [these projects] are done so that it happens regardless, and it doesn’t matter whether people give their opinion or not… And well, people know, they have the feeling that they can say if it’s good or not, but why am I going to say something if in the end, they’re going to do it anyway? That’s the feeling we have, it doesn’t matter what we do, what we do doesn’t matter, they’re going to do it anyway”. 8

Finally, healthcare centers are not adapted to the industrial risk that threatens these areas. Healthcare crises that occurred in another Sacrifice Zone especially worry Til Til’s inhabitants. On the Pacific Coast, a hundred kilometers from Santiago, many locals, and especially children in the industrial basin of Quintero Puchuncaví, were intoxicated in 2011, then again in 2018. Those poisoned were urgently sent to hospitals that were not equipped to deal with this type of infection, prompting anger from local residents.

Locals dispute the argument that the companies in the industrial park and the port area respect norms governing polluting emissions. From the early 1990s, this Sacrifice Zone was declared a Saturated Zone. Among other industries, it contains copper-processing plants, four coal-fired power stations, a smelting plant, and a petrol refinery. For several years, healthcare personnel have sounded the alarm over many cases of intoxication and chronic illnesses, whose growth-rate in these municipalities is anomalous. Professors and school personnel have also repeatedly mobilized to denounce the risks to which schoolchildren are exposed. For their part, artisanal fishermen unions insist that it is impossible to keep practicing their fishing activity, because marine biodiversity is disappearing due to water pollution from chronic black tides.

In 2018, faced with a new wave of intoxication, groups of women, fishermen and locals mobilized in the port cities of Quintero and Puchuncaví to hold these private companies and the State accountable. In a historic ruling in May 2019, Chile’s Supreme Court forced the State to take steps to clarify the causes of this environmental and health crisis, and to implement urgent protection measures. In the absence of reliable information about what caused these intoxications, however, no company has yet been found responsible. Various prevention measures have been contemplated, such as moving schools and sports venues further away from the industrial park. But no plan provides for effective control of these companies’ emissions or implementing potential sanctions—much less reducing industrial activity in these municipalities.

Defending the Environment by Force of Law

Faced with these predicaments, the inhabitants of Sacrifice Zones such as Til Til have sought access to justice to make their situation known. But only few lawyers have elected to defend the environmental cause, and the victims affected by the relevant health risks are equally few. Such trials “don’t yield returns9 , as several lawyers encountered in the course of my research confided. For the most part, NGO lawyers defend social organizations that are made up of locals, environmental-protection activists and victims of pollution who demand justice. They plead their case up against the lawyers of Chilean or foreign multinationals.

According to Chilean legislation, each industrial project must follow an evaluation process of its environmental impact, according to which locals who are liable to be affected by the project may articulate their comments and fears. This citizen participation is, however, severely restricted by the technical nature of documents provided by the companies. As a Til Til resident quoted above told me, this constrains the ability of those affected to grasp their content.

Lawyers also emphasize that such impact studies are often partial, to the extent that they are funded by the companies themselves. Locals who live in a trying socio-economic situation find it impossible to fund contradictory scientific analyses, that could measure the quality of water, air and the soil—and that would enable drawing correlations between locals’ deteriorating health and industrial activities. Further, such impact studies are conducted based on specific projects, not on a given territory; the upshot is to ignore the cumulative impact of various industrial sites clustered together in one space. Older projects, especially those linked to installing coal-fired power stations or mining-residue pools, are quite simply not subject to new environmental legislation, since their installation predates the law. Til Til’s inhabitants cannot therefore mount legal action concerning the residue pools that alarm them.

Access to information is a real battle

Nevertheless, lawyers prepare cases, meet with locals and plead cases in the new environmental tribunals set up since the 2010 environmental legislation came into force. They gather evidence and information on ongoing projects and the expert assessments that would be required. To buttress their arguments, they rely heavily on a phrase in the 1980 Constitution: “the right to live in an unpolluted environment”. Yet the outcome of these cases is often defeat, since it is often impossible to prove the link between environmental impact and a given project. Most often, judges decide in favor of the protection of the right to free enterprise that is also inscribed in the Constitution. Lawyers explain that these are precisely the limits of a legal framework for protecting human rights that relies on a dictatorship-era Constitution.

The true benefit of these court cases rather rests in the fact that, during these long trials, locals become better-informed, in a context in which access to information is a real battle. They attend gatherings, exchange their perceptions and malaise, and share their experience of organizing. Ultimately, such trials enable (re-)creating a local social fabric, or even prompt activist callings.

A lawyer I met in Santiago in April 2018 emphasized that, in Chile, “there is a notion that problems must be resolved by a lawyer, through the courts, through institutions (…) When what I observe is that it’s precisely the institutions that created the problem. So the community [of locals] grows ever-more-conscious of this fact, communities across the country in general grow more conscious of this fact, and so they act accordingly and they seek other alternatives—not this one only. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that they abandon [the judicial path], but that they consider that it isn’t the only means available to them.

Various small groups of citizens organize at the local level, as in Til Til, where—including on social media—locals exchange information relative to the necessary scientific analyses to “document” pollution, and to the new projects being implemented. They thereby seek to institute citizen control over what occurs around their homes. The accumulation of such micro-mobilizations—such as those regularly conducted around Route 5—, and what they enable in terms of citizen debate, create brief crucibles for the politicization of socio-environmental issues in Chile.

Sacrifice Zones—The Limits of a Model

Various ills converge in Til Til: severe attacks on the environment provoked by a high concentration of industrial activity, locals’ degraded health, trying socio-economic conditions, and a lack of access to mechanisms for citizen participation. These Sacrifice Zones are emblematic of a development model that was established under Chile’s dictatorship, and that was reinforced when the country returned to democracy. Such spaces illustrate the limits of a development model that now prompts feelings of injustice and anger across the country. Social and economic issues, employment, precariousness and health issues have become intertwined with the environmental crisis. Such “environmental injustice” makes up the everyday life of locals in these areas, who seek to become better-informed, to condemn violations of their health, and to mount court cases. Despite the absence of a constitutional basis, and an existing development model that is anchored in the imaginary of a prosperous Chile, mutual-aid networks are emerging, and inhabitants are organizing at the local level. They thereby help to convey messages concerning the environmental crisis—and so nurture the growing politicization of Chilean society.


  1. The Mapuches are one of Chile’s indigenous peoples. They make up around 10% of the population. ↩︎
  2. Database of the COES, Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social (2018). Observatorio de Conflictos, Acciones de Protesta 2009-2018. [Archivo de datos]. Santiago, Chile: Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social (COES). ↩︎
  3. Chile had partly legalized abortion as early as the 1930s, before Pinochet’s dictatorship re-imposed a total ban. The decriminalization of abortion on “three grounds” (a risk to the mother, a grave malformation of the foetus, and cases of rape) was passed during Michelle Bachelet’s second mandate as President (2014-2018). In practice, a “Conscience Clause” restricts the exercise of the right to abortion. This can be collective, and apply to an entire hospital. ↩︎
  4. See the documentary “Chicago Boys” directed by Carola Fuentes and Rafael Valdeavellano, 2015. ↩︎
  5. In 2016, an unprecedented crisis tied to intensive salmon farming hit the islands of Southern Chile. Such salmon is not native to the region—and is hormone-fed. It contaminates all underwater fauna and flora, and especially the islands’ seashell farms, in particular when salmon escape from their pools. As soon as given marine areas have become infertile, salmon industries move their farms. They also use antibiotics that are ever-more-resistant to the species’ antibioresistance. Quinones Renato et al, “Environmental issues in Chilean salmon farming: a review”. Reviews in Aquaculture, 2019. 10.1111/raq.12337 ↩︎
  6. The process is detailed by Steve Lerner in a book on these “Sacrifice Zones”: Lerner Steve, Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States. MIT Press, 2010. ↩︎
  7. Saltpetre was used to produce sodium nitrate, that was itself used as a fertiliser in Europe. The discovery of a synthetic product that could be used as a substitute for the natural resource of saltpetre led to the sudden closure of the saltpetre mines in northern Chile. ↩︎
  8. Interview with a female resident of Til Til, July 2019. ↩︎
  9. Interviews and observations conducted with lawyers in the framework of research into socio-environmental conflicts in Chile, between August 2018 and July 2019. ↩︎