Donations law reform: toward a culture of environmental philanthropy

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 Patagonia National Park. Photo: Linde WaidhoferPatagonia National Park. Photo: Linde Waidhofer
Editor’s note: Reforms to Chile’s donations law were approved by Chile’s Congress in February and go into effect on May 1. The reforms will give tax incentives for environmental philanthropy in Chile. 
By Eugenio Rengifo
There is no doubt that we are living a decisive moment in the trajectory of human and non-human life on the planet. In terms of biodiversity crisis, with undeniable global warming, climate emergency and brutal species extinction, we are facing a scenario that forces us to act decisively. We are facing times in which we still have the opportunity to reverse the anthropogenic causes of the climate crisis and mitigate in part our impacts on the community of life of which we are a part. Key to this is reconnecting humanity with nature, especially through large-scale conservation actions, the development of nature-based solutions, and the strengthening of civil society committed to the environmental cause. To achieve changes that are really timely and have a decisive impact, it is key to bring together all actors, communities, the public and private sectors and the third sector of NGOs, which are the pillars on which we can move forward decisively to mitigate the effects of this crisis and attack its causes.
In Chile, we have an environmental sector that has developed despite the existing institutions, relying on its own resources, creativity, and the good will of many actors. For decades, the tax system punished donations for environmental purposes by subjecting them to the Inheritance, Allocations and Donations Tax charged to the recipient of the donation, which is progressive from 1% to 25% of the amount donated, and if it was the corporate world, the punishment was to be treated as a rejected expense subject to the 40% income tax, as if it were a withdrawal of profits. With such a forceful framework of disincentives, it has been very diffiuclt to build a solid socio-environmental fabric that can promote the care, promotion and strengthening of initiatives for the conservation and protection of nature, as well as generate the cultural and social changes to guarantee their permanence.
If we approach the challenge in terms of conservation with a more comprehensive look, we will realize that there are many false paradoxes underlying the discussion of legal changes to move toward effective conservation. One of the most deeply rooted is the supposed opposition between conservation and “development,” whose argumentative basis is completely disproved if we accept that no human activity flourishes without a healthy ecosystem. If we look in detail at our national reality it is even more evident, in the words of Florencia Attademo of the Inter-American Development Bank: " Ninety percent of what Chile produces is at risk," this risk to which Attademo refers, is an anthropogenic risk, originated by human causes, if we do not change our behaviors and mitigate the damage caused, the whole system is at risk. 
In recent months, we have witnessed the success of the articulated management of many actors of the organized civil society to open a crack of hope for conservation in Chile, with the approved reform to the Donations Law. From the environmental world we celebrate the news and consider it an advance toward the consolidation of a culture of environmental philanthropy in Chile. Since its enactment, it is defined by law that donations from abroad are not subject to tax (which until now was only an interpretation of the Internal Revenue Service); it eliminates the process of insinuation that forced a judge of the republic to investigate donations; the inheritance tax is eliminated and new purposes are included, among which for the first time in Chile is incorporated the protection of the environment. The good news is that today everyone can donate to the care of the environment, both natural and legal persons and companies with and without loss in its annual exercise. Likewise, with this reform, donations can be made in cash and in kind, as long as they do not include any type of consideration. The law contemplates measures to advance in active transparency and thus improve the certainty of the destination of donations. With the above, the legitimate fear of the environmental sector about possible corporate donations for image laundering in the territories where they operate is cleared. Until now, a letter from a mayor was sufficient to enable the procedure before the SII; in the new framework, there will be an obligation for the grantees to be incorporated in the Public Registry of the Technical Secretariat, as well as to submit an annual report to the Technical Secretariat and inform the SII of the donations received.
The fine tuning of the law is still pending, which will come with the completion of its regulations, and the formation of the technical secretariat. Altogether, the impression of many civil society actors is that there is a lack of progress to deal with the legal bureaucracy regarding donations in Chile. As Magdalena Aninat, director of the Centro de Filantropía e Inversiones Sociales says: “Chile has more than 60 legal bodies regulating donations, including more than 10 laws with incentives for specific areas. This regulatory dispersion is the result of partial legislation in the absence of a comprehensive public policy to promote civil society organizations. This reality makes it difficult to understand the rules of the system, thus raising barriers to entry for the various types of organizations to participate in the donation system throughout the territory."
This reform is clearly good news for the health of Chile's ecosystems, for the environmental sector and for the recovery of the planet's natural balance. We should feel this legal change as a direct invitation to all of us to contribute decisively in the direction of recovering the natural course of ecosystems and to settle in some way our pending accounts with the planet.
Eugenio Rengifo was formerly director of development of Tompkins Conservation and executive director of Amigos de los Parques (Friends of Parks), he nowadays serves as an advisor to Philanthropy Cortés Solari.

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