What does an ecological constitution mean for Chile?

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By Sara Larrain

Editor's note: The following is from Issue 24.

In recent centuries, the human species has found a certain stability under the political institutionality of the Nation-States, after thousands of years living on Planet Earth under different forms of social, political and economic organization. They agree on principles, duties, rights and forms of governance in the constitutions and laws which protect the common good, justice and democracy.

The energy and industry development model has led to an increase in environmental deterioration in various countries, causing an increase in tension between society and politics since the mid-20th century due to inequality. Human activity has affected water, air, forests and biodiversity, at such levels that today it faces local and global consequences like global warming, massive species extinction and sustained desertification.

Thirty years after the United Nation Earth Summit in Rio, at which countries signed conventions to change their economic development models and to protect nature, nothing has changed. Today the human species faces climate alteration, a global pandemic and extreme vulnerability due to an extractivist economy that exceeds nature’s regeneration capacity.

Chile is a clear example: it achieved economic development based on a legal and constitutional framework focused on the exploitation and exportation of its environmental heritage and poor rules to protect the common good. Today, its population faces a big water shortage, environmental deterioration due to mineral, agricultural, aquatic and forestry exploitation, conditions of social inequity and a lack of access to basic services. The social conflict of October 2019 opened a process of profound revision to the rights and rules of the game enshrined by the 1980 constitution and the laws emanating from it.  Environmental organizations have now managed to position a concept and some conditions toward a possible “ecological constitution,” within the framework of the election of representatives to the constitutional convention, which in July began work toward writing a new constitution.

An ecological constitution for Chile should contain elements which ensure the care of nature, our environmental heritage and its development, and also confront the climate and ecological crisis. This requires establishing the protection and restoration of the ecosystems which make up the national territory as a fundamental objective of the constitution, including: glaciers, maintenance of the hydrological cycle of waters in basins, aquifers, wetlands and estuaries, the protection of species and ecosystems which make up the national territories’ biodiversity, including territorial sea and the Economic Exclusion Zone. These safeguards require the inclusion in the constitutional text of preventative and precautionary measures an ecological equilibrium and intergenerational solidarity.


Photo: Recicla la PoliticaPhoto: Recicla la Politica


Also, an ecological constitution should recognize nature as our common cause, our environmental heritage and our sustenance; and establish the state’s duty to guarantee that everyone “lives in a healthy environment and an ecological equilibrium.” This requires principles of environmental responsibility, equality and democracy to be incorporated in order to make it possible to advance toward a post-extractivist economic development based on territorial planning with an ecosystem focus, integrated watershed management and agro-ecological criteria for food production.

An ecological constitution would establish the environmental vocation of the territories, the participation and consent of local communities as a condition for land use planning, and national, regional and local development planning. This way, public and private ownership of natural assets would always be limited by a social and ecological function and by the rights of future generations. The ecological constitution should also recognize common natural assets such as water, for which it should not allow private ownership.

But an ecological constitution is not limited to environmental principles and regulations which allow a healthy coexistence between humans, other species and ecosystems, but it should also establish principles, duties and rights which enable a fair, inclusive and supportive human society. It should mandate the State to guarantee universal access to health care, education, housing, social security, and essential services like water, sanitation and clean energy. But it should also eradicate gender bias, promote and protect identities and cultural diversity, especially the constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples, their self-determination and their full political participation.

Finally, an ecological constitution should decentralize and deconcentrate power and decision making, bringing it closer to communities and territories; guaranteeing the right to information, binding citizenry participation, access to justice and the protection of human and environmental rights defenders, in line with the Escazú agreement. 

The director of Programa Chile Sustentable since 1997, Sara Larrain has been at the forefront of Chilean environmental issues for more than three decades.