Chile Just Did a U-Turn on Protecting the Environment -- And the People Fighting for It

The country’s change of position on the Escazú Agreement has severely damaged its image as a global front-runner in environmental rights and climate action. 
chile, environment, escazu

SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile’s government just rejected a landmark pact between Latin American and Caribbean countries that it had previously pushed for and pioneered.

The first environmental treaty in the region, the Escazú Agreement, champions environmental democracy and includes measures to protect land defenders in the world's most dangerous region for environmental activists.

A total of 212 land and environmental defenders were murdered last year — and over two-thirds of the killings took place in Latin America.


The rejection of the deal caused confusion and anger in Chile. It was President Sebastian Piñera’s first government that presided over the treaty’s initial negotiations in 2012 alongside Costa Rica. In 2018, during his second presidency, his government reaffirmed its commitment. 

But in a complete U-turn, Piñera’s government became the first out of the 33 invited nations to publicly reject the treaty in late September, claiming it “threatened” Chile's sovereignty.

A document detailing the decision said that the treaty’s legal ambiguities could “expose Chile to international controversies”, potentially dragging the country into international courts over land disputes with neighboring states.

“From an international law perspective, there is no plausible reason not to be part of the treaty,” said Dr. Paulina Astroza, an international law and relations expert and professor at Concepción University. “Escazú’s objective is to improve internal laws; it does not create obligations toward other states.”

She was shocked by the arguments from Chile’s government. “It’s not how international law works… the Escazú Agreement protects the environment through citizen participation, transparency, and access to environmental justice.”

Chile’s environmental activists feel betrayed by the decision.

“The government has abandoned us,” said Barbara Astudillo, who fights for water rights in the country's parched agricultural region, Petorca. Here, activists struggle against agricultural companies that exploit the region’s water sources.


Increased global demand for avocados has generated unsustainable production in the region, drastically intensifying drought. In the space of only 15 years, Petorca’s two rivers have dried up and residents live with a limited and unreliable water supply.

Activists in Petorca have received death threats from the region's anonymous “water mafia.” Astudillo has received intimidating phone calls, and was hopeful of the protection Escazú guaranteed. She believes the government rejected the treaty to protect private-sector interests. “The government turns their back on us [activists]. The economy is their priority.”

The government has not been transparent in its decision to reject the Escazú Agreement, says Astroza. “It’s an internal problem related to groups who do not agree with the treaty’s demands for greater citizen participation and transparency.”

In September 2019, Piñera was awarded a Global Citizen Award for playing a “key role” in Chile’s leadership in environmental protection. The country was heralded as a pioneer in sustainable progress; it boasts Latin America’s largest solar panel plant, the second-largest fleet of electric buses in the world, and it was the first country in the Americas to ban plastic bags.

However, in October 2019, the county was paralyzed by months of social unrest, in which frustrated protesters called out the flaws of the country’s strict adherence to neoliberal principles that allowed private companies to operate with little regularization.


Along with social reforms in the health and education sectors, demonstrators called for greater environmental protections, pointing out that the economy had wreaked environmental havoc in the country, leaving communities exposed to drought, contamination, and wildfires.

The protests left over 30 dead and thousands injured in violent clashes with armed forces, forcing Piñera to cancel Chile’s plans to host COP25 only two months before the climate change conference was set to take place.

Chile’s failure to lead COP25, and the U-turn on the Escazú Agreement, has severely damaged its image as a global front-runner in environmental rights and climate action.

“On an international level, the decisions made by this government have been shameful,” says Astudillo.

Out of the 33 Latin American and Caribbean countries eligible to join the treaty, 23 have signed, and ten have ratified it. The treaty requires one more ratification to allow the agreement to enter into force.

Chile is considered one of the Latin America’s most stable and prosperous countries (although this image has been greatly contested during the civil unrest). One of the three Latin countries on the OECD index, it was in a strong position to guide its neighbouring countries on implementing sustainable and environmental measures. There are concerns that the treaty will suffer without Chile’s involvement, and may influence deciding states to similarly reject the agreement.

The signature deadline officially expired on September 26, although countries currently are allowed to continue the ratification process in their respective parliaments. Chile can join the treaty at a later date, but will not form part of the original member states who lead core decisions.

Cover: Aerial view of a dried area of the Penuelas Lake, in Valparaiso, Chile, on January 22, 2020. Flows of rivers and reservoirs have reached historic minimums in Chile. A severe drought is hitting the country's central area, making local communities more vulnerable to face the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images