Twenty children have been reported hospitalised from suspected sulphur dioxide poisoning in Chile. This is the latest incident to affect the socio-economically deprived coastal town of Quintero, 100 miles west of Santiago. The heavily industrialised surrounding area includes four coal power plants that Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, vowed to close by 2040 as part of his decarbonisation announcement this June. Following receipt of his controversial Global Citizen Award in New York last month, documents suggest this closure timeline seems to have been dropped. Chile is preparing to host the COP25 UN global climate summit beginning 2 December. Yet nationwide protests and rioting have put the talks in jeopardy.
CHILDREN OF THE SACRIFICE ZONE
Quintero is referred to in Chile as a ‘sacrifice zone’ (the term applied to geographic areas that have been permanently impaired by environmental damage or economic disinvestment). Children cannot play outdoors on days when prevailing winds blow polluted air into their playgrounds. ‘This has been happening for 50 years,’ teacher Olga Garri told Geographical of the pollution-related illnesses last Friday. The last of Garri’s nursery class had just been collected at the Burbujitas school. An assistant handed an infant to a mother explaining the child is unwell and lacking energy. Nearly everyone seems to have a cough. ‘People learn to live like this,’ Garri explains. ‘They don’t complain.’
The town’s lethargy in tackling the industrialists began to change in August 2018 when ENAP’s (the state oil company) shipment of crude oil was linked by local prosecutors with as many as 1,800 medical incidents, including the temporary paralysation in the right side of Garri’s 17-year-old son. Clashes with police by protestors ensued, followed by the suspicious death of local activist and fisherman Alejandro Castro. That September, Garri became the coordinator of the Quintero and Puchuncavi Stands Up movement, representing 1,300 citizens in their fight against industrial contamination of their air, land and ocean. ‘2018 was the year,’ Garri adds, ‘that people woke up.’
PRIZES FOR PROMISES
Eyes began turning towards Chile’s environmental policies in late 2018 when the nation volunteered to hold the COP25 climate summit. In March this year, the national government initiated a decontamination plan for Quintero, attempting to normalise levels of particulate matter within five years. The headline news came in June 2019 when Piñera announced a decarbonisation plan that would close the two oldest and least productive power plants in the Quintero area by 2024. Piñera promised to cut the nation’s dependence on this most GHG-intensive of electricity producing sources by 50 per cent within the next five years, phasing out all coal power by 2040. Climate Action Tracker – a website that monitors nations’ commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement – called the move a ‘remarkable step’, noting the country is in a unique position, as the COP25 climate summit host, to push for leadership. In September it was announced that Piñera had been awarded the Global Citizen Award by the Atlantic Council for his ‘ground-breaking leadership in addressing climate change’.
‘This is not news,’ Chilean national Greenpeace director, Matias Asun, struck back about Piñera’s prize for closing coal plants that were nearing the end of their useful life. ‘It’s like announcing the retirement of a 65-year-old worker.’ The two largest coal-fired plants near Quintero are both less than ten years old and have no date for closure. ‘We were expecting a closure of the plants in a few months, a year maybe. Not 2040,’ Garri commented of her expectations before the decarbonisation announcement. ‘You give prizes for objectives completed. Not promises.’
Piñera’s 2040 promise itself now seems to be fracturing. Days after Piñera was awarded the Global Citizen Award in New York, Chile released a draft update to its nationally determined contributions to the Paris Climate Agreement. The much lauded coal phase out plan was not included. Climate Action Tracker noted that if Chile fully implemented all of its public facing climate goals, its contribution would help limit global heating to 2ºC.
A NATION ON FIRE
The latest pollution crisis in Quintero broke last week as the protests intensified in Santiago. A few blocks from Garri’s nursery school, 50-year-old Bernadita Durán shows photos of her nephew held in a headlock by Chile’s special operations policemen during last year’s air pollution protests. Removing her dog-grooming work apron, Bernadita recounts how she herself was hit by rubber bullets. Her 11-year-old son Gustavo sits beside her. She shows his 2018 medical diagnosis, detailing exposure to pollution, smoke and vapour that left him losing sensation in his legs and passing blood in his stool.
Bernadita’s mother died aged 57 from cancer. Her father, who underwent open heart surgery last year, has worked nearby in the state-owned Codelco copper smelter for 40 years. He doesn’t believe it’s the air quality affecting his family’s health. He prefers the idea that it is pollen: a belief propagated among the Quintero population by regional governor Jorge Martínez. ‘That’s why they call it the sacrifice zone,’ the president of Quintero Hospital Patient Advisory Board, Maria Araya, later explains citing the jobs the polluting industries provide, ‘because there is no choice.’
Similar government comments in Santiago helped escalate the Metro price-rise protests last week when finance minister Juan Andrés Fontaine stated the hike would be an incentive for people to get out of bed earlier. Disorder spilled out from the underground, directed at broader socio-economic inequality issues. As the situation deteriorated on Friday night, Piñera was photographed dining in a wealthy Santiago district unaffected by the unfolding chaos.
The continuing anarchy has seen arson of buses, total destruction of underground stations, looting and live rounds fired as the military has taken control of the streets, initiating a curfew for the first time since the 1973 to 1990 Pinochet dictatorship era. Eight people are currently reported dead.
CHILE’S CLIMATE TALKS IN JEOPARDY
In the Quintero sacrifice zone, Gustavo’s symptoms have deteriorated and the family has decided it will split. Bernadita will take Gustavo 700 miles south to Puerto Montt for cleaner air. Her husband Manuel and her daughter Paula will stay behind. Bernadita is unsure how the family will pay two rents. Araya has the money to leave Quintero but says ‘the system is not going to beat me. I will not leave until there is a decent hospital that has specialists for all our children.’
The Quintero coal plants, owned by US-based AES Corporation, have four punitive proceedings against them including exceeding maximum noise levels; exceeding maximum generation limits and excessive emissions of liquids into marine areas. They are also frustrating access to vast tracts of state land near Santiago with the highly-criticised, river-diverting 531MW Alto Maipo project.
Meanwhile in Santiago, both peaceful and violent protests are occurring over inequality issues including cost of education, health care, pensions, the privatisation of water rights, the destruction of glaciers and the exploitation of Atacama for lithium. Many of these nexus issues will be scrutinised alongside the depth of Chile’s real commitment to decarbonisation at the COP25 climate summit.
Serious questions will be asked in the next few days as to whether Chile can get the tanks off the streets and the metro trains back on the lines in time to keep the UN climate summit on the rails. Currently a disconnect between the political leaders of the country and its populace has caused concerns for not only the safety of Chile holding the summit, but its legitimacy too.
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