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UN expert warns Chile faces storm of environmental injustices, praises good practices

12 May 2023

SANTIAGO (12 May 2023) – Chile faces a daunting series of inter-connected environmental crises that violate human rights, including the fundamental right to live in a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment David Boyd said today.

“These crises, which have been ongoing for many years, include: profoundly disturbing sacrifice zones where marginalised and vulnerable communities suffer exposure to toxic substances and environmental degradation, water scarcity, as many rural residents lack access to safe and sufficient water and deadly air pollution,” Boyd said in a statement after a 10-day visit to Chile.

The Special Rapporteur said Chile was also suffering major impacts due to the global climate crisis, including droughts, desertification, devastating wildfires, deadly heat waves, sea level rise, coastal erosion and the increasing intensity of extreme weather events.

“Chile must respond to the environmental crisis by implementing urgent actions to ensure universal access to clean water, clean air and non-toxic environments for all,” Boyd said.

“It is completely unacceptable that children and youth in some communities are growing up without a reliable supply of water in homes or schools and are exposed to toxic chemicals that threaten their health,” he said.

The UN expert called for stronger environmental laws and standards, substantially increased resources for environmental protection and stricter enforcement of environmental rules in the country.

The Special Rapporteur said he had been impressed by Chile’s leadership in the vital transition towards renewable energy. “I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Chile is number one globally in the share of electricity produced by solar power,” he said, “and Chile’s recent Framework Law on Climate Change is very strong.”

He also praised the closure of eight coal-fired power plants and the imminent closure of the state-owned smelter in Ventanas, as much needed steps to alleviate extreme pollution in sacrifice zones and combat the climate crisis.

The expert said Chile was also well-positioned to fulfill its commitment to protect 30 percent of its terrestrial and marine territory by 2030, having already protected 21 percent of its land and 41 percent of its oceans. The Government is also working on many promising initiatives related to environmental human rights defenders, green taxes, environmental crime and more, but Boyd warned that implementation and enforcement are key.

The expert said all future climate and environmental actions taken by the government of Chile, including its national lithium strategy, decarbonisation and biodiversity protection, must employ a human rights-based approach, prioritising the rights of vulnerable groups and individuals including the rights of Indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent regarding projects in their territories.

“The Government has the ambitious objective of achieving a just socio-ecological transition, a goal which is vitally necessary in a country facing daunting environmental challenges and systemic inequality,” Boyd said. “Human rights must be placed at the heart of this effort. This is a legal obligation, not an option.”

During his visit, the UN expert spent time in the northern, central and southern regions, visiting Quintero-Puchuncavi, Calama, the Salar de Atacama and Puerto Montt as well as Santiago. He met with national and local government officials, judges, prosecutors, the National Human Rights Institution, members of UN agencies, businesses, and academics.

The Special Rapporteur said he was impressed by the passionate and insightful testimony of members of civil society, Indigenous Peoples and local communities, many of whose leaders were women and girls.

“I was deeply moved by the stories of pain, suffering and fear shared by victims of Chile’s environmental injustices,” Boyd said. “The people who are defending Chile’s remarkable natural heritage are heroes for the planet and humanity, and I urge the Government to respond positively to their concerns and recommendations.”

The Special Rapporteur will present a full report to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2024.

David R. Boyd (Canada) was appointed Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment on 1 August 2018. He is an associate professor of law, policy, and sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter: @SREnvironment

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Chile

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