Environmental Justice in Chile
Environmental Justice through Environmental Courts? The Chilean case.
By Lisa Waegerle, 2015-07-16
In October 2014, the Environmental Court of Chile organized the 1st Inter-American Forum on Environmental Justice in Santiago de Chile. The idea behind this forum was the exchange of ideas, experiences and demands as well as a debate about the implementation of laws and institutional models relating to environmental justice in the Americas. Participants were mainly judges, lawyers and academics from across the country and worldwide. In four different panels participants discussed the different institutional models and concepts that countries in the Americas have taken to implement environmental justice, as well as projections for environmental jurisdiction (OCDE, CEPAL 2005).
What were the reasons to organize the Environmental Justice Forum in Chile?
In Latin America, Chile plays – mainly due to the environmental courts – a pioneering role in environmental legislation as it is written on the homepage of the Environmental Tribunal . The Ministry of Environment was created in 2010. Two years later, the Chilean government established three environmental courts in the North, center and South of the country, in Antofagasta, Santiago and Valdivia. This institutional creation was recommended by the OECD. These courts have jurisdiction, among others, regarding violations of environmental laws and emissions regulations, complaints for compensation suffered because of environmental damage, lawsuits against the Environmental Inspectorate, and actions against the decisions of the Committee of Ministers or the managing director of Strategic Environmental Assessment. Legal standings are, depending on the cause of action, natural and legal persons as well as the Environmental Inspectorate (Plumer Bodin 2013).
Different civil organizations criticize the environmental courts and their possibilities to achieve environmental justice in Chile. Based on procedural justice, the non-profit organization Terram Foundation believes that the distances to one of the three environmental courts are very large and expensive for the citizens who live far away from these three cities because of the overall long distances in Chile. The foundation recommends therefore courts in each of the 16 regions in Chile (Areyuna 2013).
The Observatorio Latinoamericano de Conflictos Ambientales (Latin American Observatory for Environmental Conflicts) mentions several examples on its website where the environmental courts have approved projects that definitely fail the goal to bring about environmental justice. One example is the mining project Pascua Lama. The mining company Barrick Gold was accused of having destroyed millennia-old glaciers in the north of Chile. The environmental courts have acquitted the Canadian company and although the project had been previously stopped in Abril 2013 by the Chilean court due to non-compliance with important environmental standards, for example, the purification of the poisoned water (OLCA 2015 and 2013).
The grass-roots organization Red Ecológica de Chile (Ecological Network of Chile) considered the roots of environmental injustice in Chile in the constitution. Fabián Alvarado, the president and legal representative of the network mentioned that "there will be no environmental justice in Chile without a new constitution by means of a Constituent Assembly". The actual constitution was introduced under the military dictatorship in Chile and until now only minor changes were made. "This constitution", according to Fabián Alvarado, "allows the private sector to have an economic profit, without having to think about socio-ecological aspects". Environmental justice can only be achieved through alternatives to the existing neoliberal model, for instance by improving awareness and education about regional environmental policies as well as the construction of horizontal, ethnic and gender units (Fabián Alvarado, Interview 15.07.2015).
Through a new constitution by means of a constitution assembly as well as recognition of different life-forms and social-ecological (regional) values, and not only by the implementation of environmental courts, it would be possible to come closer to environmental justice.
The event was recorded and you can still watch the stream on the web site of the Environmental Tribunal Santiago here.


Areyuna, Héctor (2013): Organizaciones critican dificultad para acceder a Tribunales Ambientales. In: Diario Uchile, Radio Universidad de Chile.
OCDE, CEPAL (2005): Evaluaciones del desempeño ambiental, Chile.
OLCA (2015): Fallo del Tribunal Ambiental reconoce que existían pruebas suficientes de destrucción de glaciares pero no condenaron a Barrick Gold.
OLCA (2013): Paralizan Pascua Lama por graves incumplimientos ambientales y multan a Barrick Gold en más de US$ 16 millones.
Plumer Bodin, Marie Claude (2013): Los Tribunales Ambietales: se completa la reforma a la institucionalidad ambiental.
Tribunal Ambiental (2015)
Image: © janez volmajer - fotolia