By Natalia A. Ramos Miranda
SANTIAGO (Reuters) - When Chile voted in October to scrap its constitution written during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, residents of the South American nation's "sacrifice zones" were among the strongest supporters of change.
In those five heavily industrialized areas, established from the 1950s to help drive Chile's economic development and home to some 200,000 people, support for a new charter exceeded 90% in some cases compared to 78% nationwide.
Residents, activist groups and academics who have studied pollution in these areas believe a new constitution could help reduce emissions, shutter coal-fired power stations and improve healthcare for those left sickened.
But there remains a long way to go: the body of 155 civilians who will draft the text will not be elected until April and have up to a year to agree wording. Chile's conservative government insists sweeping changes are unlikely as each element of the text requires a two-thirds' majority and the final text will require the approval of another referendum.
Nevertheless, after decades of largely fruitless court battles and lobbying to curb pollution by mining and industry, campaigners see constitutional change as an opportunity to put environmental protection at the top of the national agenda.
"It is a call to start forging a recovery zone and to leave behind the stigma of being a 'sacrifice zone', with all the vulnerability and poverty that implies," said Carolina Orellana, a resident of the industralized town of Quintero in central Chile and spokeswoman for the Women of the Sacrifice Zones campaign group.
Chile's current constitution was drafted in 1980 during a free market revolution under Pinochet's 1973-1990 rule.
While it establishes "the right to live in an environment free of pollution," all sides acknowledge priority has been given to private enterprise, which enjoys strong legal protection and has largely self-regulated.
Health Minister Enrique Paris told Reuters a better balance needed to be found between health and industrial development and job creation. The new constitution help would "clarify" the situation, he said.
However, as Chile battles to revive an economy stricken by the coronavirus, many citizens and business leaders say safeguarding jobs and productive industries is critical.
Fitch ratings agency said Chile's constitutional transition could stall investment, citing possible changes to environmental policies and stricter company regulation.
In Huasco, a sacrifice zone in northern Chile that is home to mining and power plants, some residents are concerned that existing plans to close coal-fired thermoelectric facilities by 2040 could be brought forward if an opposition bill before parliament is approved.
"These companies caused a lot of damage but we see now that we are going to be out of work," said Daniel Diaz, a longtime environmental activist who sits on Huasco's municipal council.
OUT WITH THE OLD
The health risks of sacrifice zones were highlighted in mid-2018 when hundreds of people were hospitalized in the Quintero-Puchuncavi area for symptoms that health authorities said were caused by toxic gas leaks.
The towns are home to 15 heavy industries in a four square-mile radius, including copper smelting and refinery operations run by state miner Codelco, an oil terminal run by state energy firm ENAP, and a thermoelectric plant operated by private firm AES Gener.
Codelco and AES Gener declined to comment.
Chile's Supreme Court last year ruled the government was ultimately responsible for contamination in the area. Environment minister Carolina Schmidt in January said strengthened emissions limits had reduced pollution alerts by 58% in less than a year and asked for forgiveness in Congress for what families in sacrifice zones have endured.
"People living in these areas have been exposed to pollution," she said. "They don't trust the state and they are right."
Chile's environmental regulator blamed ENAP for the 2018 incident, though a court is yet to rule. ENAP denies any responsibility.
The company told Reuters it would respect any changes under a new constitution in addition to implementing its own $350 million environmental plan.
The environment ministry declined to comment.
Chile's former environment minister Marcelo Mena-Carrasco said the need to slow the impact of climate change would have to be reflected in the future charter.
These would include rebalancing residents' and businesses' access to water in the drought-hit nation and safeguarding Chile's glaciers, an important barometer of climate change, he said.
Research led by Sandra Cortes, from the Public Health Department of Chile's Catholic University, found the risks of dying from cerebrovascular diseases and lung cancers among residents of Huasco and Tocopilla - sacrifice zones near northern Chile's mining regions - were several times higher than the national average.
A new constitution must guarantee universal healthcare to help residents who at present rely on overcrowded and patchy services, she said.
Claudia Fuentes, head of decarbonization projects for NGO Sustainable Chile, said tackling pollution required sweeping regulatory change, beyond the constitutional reform.
Chile's 30-year-old environmental framework ignored pollutants such as arsenic or volatile organic compounds, both substances found by government investigators to be at elevated levels in Quintero-Puchuncavi.
"That means that pollution does not officially exist, so you can't complain about it or demand action," she said.
(Reporting by Natalia Ramos, writing by Aislinn Laing; Editing by Tom Brown, Dan Flynn and Alistair Bell)