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Conflict and compassion: How Chile’s ‘social crisis’ could reframe the pivotal UN climate summit in Santiago

Conflict and compassion: How Chile’s ‘social crisis’ could reframe the pivotal UN climate summit in Santiago Young protestor confronts riot police with flowers in Plaza Italia, Chile (Image: Matt Maynard)
28 Oct
Protestors claim the nation’s neo-liberal system is broken. Amid bullets and tear gas, socio-economic reforms are being rushed through. With the COP25 climate conference fast approaching, could this spotlight on equity help deepen commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement?

Protestors are handing out quartered lemons to grateful strangers in Santiago’s Plaza Italia. The busy junction is the Chilean equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, used for celebration and protest. Today it serves both purposes as thousands chant ‘Chile has woken up,’ chewing the fruit to fend of the worst effects of tear gas. Some spray water vapour from hairdresser’s bottles to clear sore eyes. Others have improvised white crosses on their chests from masking tape to indicate they possess medical training. The vast majority of protestors are here in peace, undeterred by the latest incursion of the military a few minutes ago into the plaza. As armoured vehicles reverse away into a side street, a group of protestors return to their burning-barricade frontline. As they advance they collect improvised munitions from a topless man hacking clumps of concrete from the pavement with a crowbar.

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Plaza Italia is the Chilean equivalent of Piccadilly Circus used for celebration and protest (Image: Matt Maynard)Plaza Italia is the Chilean equivalent of Piccadilly Circus used for celebration and protest (Image: Matt Maynard)

It’s Thursday and Chile’s socio-economic protests, triggered initially by a price rise in the underground metro system, have gone nationwide. The litany of discontent includes health care, minimum wage, education, pensions and the deleterious effects of privatisation. The foreign minister, Teodoro Ribera, was on damage limitation duty this morning, attempting jokes with the foreign press as coffee was poured into fancy cups, a helicopter circling closely overhead. ‘We are not facing an institutional crisis,’ Ribera bluffed, ‘we are in a social crisis.’ Meanwhile a delegation from the UN High Commission on Human Rights is on the way to the usually stable South American nation to investigate claims of human rights abuses, with torture allegations akin to the Pinochet dictatorship.

In just 35 days’ time, a far larger UN-led delegation of 25,000 international climate scientists, NGO members, politicians, Indigenous groups, media outlets and members of civil society are due to arrive in Santiago. Their goal is to oversee how the Paris Agreement will be implemented: seeking commitments to reduce still-rising global greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent before 2030 to avoid catastrophe; while defending the rights of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to sustainable development. If the climate delegates needed a vision of how failing global policies and high-stake equity issues could rapidly unravel – they couldn’t have picked a better venue.

Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera on damage limitation duty (Image: Matt Maynard)Foreign Minister Teodoro Ribera on damage limitation duty (Image: Matt Maynard)

Rampant inequality

Victor Rios, a local Santiago man in his thirties, is standing with his back to the wall, holding a banner above his head in Plaza Italia. ‘Not even after looting all the water,’ it reads ‘would you be able to wash your hands – resign!’ The sentiment is directed at Chile’s political elites, headed by a billionaire president. The nation is the lowest ranked of all 35 OECD countries on the GINI inequality index. Sebastian Piñera’s centre-right government (and all the other preceding left-wing governments since the country re-established democracy in 1990) have maintained a controversial dictatorship-era water privatisation law. Despite a pervasive ten-year drought affecting northern and central Chile, industrialists can still buy water rights leaving local agriculturalists without irrigation and entire communities relying on water delivered by lorries. ‘We can’t hope to continue plundering the country, like we have been doing over recent years,’ Rios adds, ‘and hope that nothing happens.’

Marcelo Mila Necul carries the Mapuche flag in Plaza Italia (Image: Matt Maynard)Marcelo Mila Necul carries the Mapuche flag in Plaza Italia (Image: Matt Maynard)

Nearby, on the northeast corner of Plaza Italia, an indigenous Mapcuhe man carries his people’s flag over his shoulder. Marcelo Mila Necul is in his fifties and also lives in Santiago. ‘The government recognises it has a historical debt for an ecocide and a genocide,’ he says of the treatment of the Mapuche people. ‘A systemic violation of human rights has occurred,’ he adds. ‘Chile needs to nationalise its water. It’s a human public good. Today the whole of Chile is asking for a change to the neoliberal political system. It has failed.’

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A game of 'keepy-uppy' in Plaza Italia, with burning barricades in background (Image: Matt Maynard)A game of 'keepy-uppy' in Plaza Italia, with burning barricades in background (Image: Matt Maynard)

It would be wrong to characterise the majority of protestors’ concerns as direct climate grievances. One immaculately dressed woman straddling a bicycle simply waves a Chilean flag amongst the tear gas and approaching water cannon. Others begin a city block-wide game of keepy-uppy with resounding cheers accompanying each volley. Police brutality has not been witnessed in the equally animated protests of nearby middle-class neighbourhood Ñuñoa. Here in Plaza Italia, however, a shirtless homeless man displays a body seemingly bruised by rubber bullets.

Woman with flag in Plaza Italia (Image: Matt Maynard)Woman with flag in Plaza Italia (Image: Matt Maynard)

While the rawness of recent unrest hasn’t been directly connected with the climate sphere, the calls for systemic sweeping change in Chile in the areas of health, gender equality, the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities are key tenets of the Paris Agreement. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations, John Knox, spoke to Geographical, about the Paris accord being a human rights treaty. The environmental and health consequences of climate change are understood to disproportionately affect low-income groups. As resources become ever scarcer and climate change exacerbates these issues, national societal unrest should be expected to inform international climate decision-making platforms such as COP25 this December in Santiago.

A impromptu citizen assembly forms in the middle-class neighbourhood of Nunoa (Image: Matt Maynard)A impromptu citizen assembly forms in the middle-class neighbourhood of Nunoa (Image: Matt Maynard)

A Chilean new deal

On Friday 25 October, an estimated 1.2million people marched in Chile for socio-economic reforms. That’s 14 per cent of the nation – four times greater than Harvard Public Policy Professor Erica Chenoweth’s seminal statistic of just 3.5 per cent being the number needed to topple a government. Piñera had already conceded measures on Tuesday 22 October to raise minimum wage, increase the lowest monthly pensions and freeze planned metro and electricity prize rises. A leaked audio from a flustered Cecilia Morel, the president’s wife, heard her tell how ‘we are going to have to reduce our privileges and share with everyone else.’ But the momentum continued to grow with continued protests across the city during the weekend.

Chile will find it hard to recover in time to show effective leadership at COP25. The Civil Society for Climate Action (SCAC) – a national body representing more than 150 organisations – called on the international community this Friday to pressure the Chilean government to respect democracy. SCAC stated it was unviable to discuss the future of the planet at COP25 in a country which has broken the rule of law ‘generating panic, assassinations and documented torture’.

dualLeft: Victor Rios in Plaza Italia; Right: Chilean young woman passes note to riot police that reads ‘A lifetime hating you... And I open my eyes... I don’t know you. They manipulate us.’ (Images: Matt Maynard)

The Chilean branch of the youth-led Fridays for Future (FFF) organisation, that strikes from school for climate-related action, stated that COP25 has become a ‘political trophy for Chile.’ FFF rejects that COP25 can be held in Chile while the military are ‘attacking and assassinating civil society’. The nation’s refusal to sign the South American and Caribbean region Escazú agreement, enshrining access to information and defending environmental activists, continues to highlight the seeming disconnect between the host nation’s words and its actions.

Military await orders in central Santiago (Image: Matt Maynard)Military personnel await orders in central Santiago (Image: Matt Maynard)

Whether the Chilean unrest will have the effect of deepening climate justice commitments at COP25 to support the most vulnerable remains to be seen. Ex-Chilean president, Ricardo Lagos, rejects the idea that the nation is witnessing the breakup of neoliberal values. Quite the opposite, he argues, with a growing middle-class wanting to benefit from the country’s successful economy, with all the consumption and increased resource extraction that will entail. ‘We have to lift up people from poverty,’ John Knox told Geographical about the socio-climate relationship, ‘without destroying the environment that those people, and all of us need, to survive.’ Attempts to meet increasing demands for these privileges on a finite and warming planet has the potential to generate the greatest depths of conflict and compassion ever witnessed.

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