Eco-Activists Try to Find a Political Niche in Chile

When a US company threw in the towel on a huge timber project slated for a vast virgin forest in Chile's Tierra del Fuego, the chief executive minced no words on who was to blame.

Robert Manne, head of Washington-based Trillium Corp., laid the setback at the feet of "a few radical ecologists" selfishly blocking progress for thousands of Chileans. What Mr. Manne apparently failed to notice is that Chile's environmentalists are not marginal but mainstream. If opinion polls can be believed, they enjoy a level of acceptance and admiration that places them above all other categories of leaders in public esteem.

Their goal now, environmentalists here say, is to move beyond public admiration to genuine public involvement. "This will be necessary if we are to give Chile not just occasional victories ... but a new form of sustainable development," says Manuel Baquedano, director of Santiago's Ecological Political Institute.

But environmentalists and government officials alike say developing such a consciousness won't be easy in a country of strong individualist tendencies, where many consumers are just beginning to taste the fruits of economic growth.

The very favorable image enjoyed by Chile's environmentalists would be noteworthy anywhere, but it is astonishing for a country whose impressive, export-based economic growth over the past decade has depended on exploiting natural resources. More than 80 percent of Chile's exports are in mining, forestry, fishing, and agriculture.

It is because of the heightened sensitivity that such an economic concentration encourages that Chile stands at the forefront of a slow but rising tide of environmentalism in Latin America, environmentalists say.

"In terms of some of the battles we've won, we can compare ourselves to the movement in the US," says Fernando Dougnac, a prominent environmental lawyer in Santiago. "Considering our economic level it is even spectacular, but that doesn't mean we are a strong movement yet," he adds. "It does mean we are stronger, or farther along, than other countries of Latin America."

In Chile, environmental issues command high interest because they crystallize a central question of national life: Is the country's high growth is worth the environmental degradation it has left in its path? The debate has made a quest for "sustainable development" the rallying call of environmentalists, corporations, and the government.

Growing awareness

The roots of Chile's environmentalism can be traced back to the mid-1980s, says Sara Larran, a prominent ecologist and director of Santiago's "Chile Sustentable" organization. "Very quickly, bays were being polluted by fish meal production, fishermen were seeing native species disappear, native forests were being cut and replaced with eucalyptus plantations, and air and water pollution increased," she says. "You began to see ... regular people getting involved because of the effects they were suffering." Or if they weren't directly involved, they were developing a sense of admiration for those who were. "We aren't a lot of people, but we have a lot of support," says Ms. Larran.

According to Larran, it was not until a March 1997 Supreme Court ruling against Trillium's environmental provisions that the government began to look at the movement a little differently. "Before that ruling we were all radical green extremists," she says. "But suddenly the government woke up to our public legitimacy and saw we could not be disregarded." One result, she says, is that environmental legislation that had foundered without regulations since 1993 abruptly got all provisions in place within a week of the Trillium ruling.

But do these victories mean that many of Chile's 14 million people are really environmentally minded?

Need for responsibility

"There is considerable awareness of environmental deterioration, but it's not connected to a broad sense of individual responsibility," says Rodrigo Egaa, executive director of the National Environmental Commission (CONAMA). "We've had a rapid development of all types of environment-related organizations," he adds, but "I still have my doubts" about whether Chile has a real environmental movement.

More than 150 organizations belong to a National Environmental Network - RENACE, which also means "rebirth" - knitting together organizations ranging from wild river defenders, fishermen, and air pollution monitors, to Indian rights activists, antimilitarists, and women's groups. The variety of interest groups waters down the environmental focus and confuses the public, says Mr. Egaa. "I think it weakens the development of a public environmental consciousness." But environmentalists disagree. "One of our strengths is certainly the network we've developed," says Mr. Baquedano. "We're demonstrating that we're not just about conserving a species of flower or bird, but involving a broad range of people in changing the way we live."

Dougnac insists a "consciousness" is growing: First, because Santiago's severe air quality problem confronts many Chileans on a daily basis, but also because children and adolescents are increasingly in tune to environmental challenges. One result is that corporations increasingly want to show their "green" side, he says.

Still, Chile has a long way to go before environmentalists, government, and business are working together, Baquedano says. Industries "still see us as a rock in their shoe," he says, and "the government doesn't want to address the issue with us because it would ultimately mean a redefinition of the country's concept of development."

While that may be true, Baquedano and Egaa echo each other on what Chile needs to advance in its environmental awareness. RENACE plans to encourage a public debate on sustainable development during next year's presidential campaign.

And Egaa? "We need a national debate," he says. "How do you grow, reduce poverty, and safeguard the environment? What kind of development do we want?" he adds. "On all of these issues, we still have a lot of work to do."

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