Chile: Economic Interests Out-Muscle "Green" Policies

NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs, August 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Chile: Economic Interests Out-Muscle "Green" Policies


[The following article by Hugo Godoy is reprinted with the permission of Noticias Aliadas in Lima, Peru. It appeared in the July 1, 2002, edition of Latinamerica Press.]

When President Ricardo Lagos took office in March 2000, he promised stronger measures to protect Chile's environment. Now, however, critics charge that his government has been easing environmental regulations as part of a policy that puts economic growth ahead of all other considerations.

Shortly after taking office, Lagos announced that he would take a firm stand on environmental issues and dictated a series of measures.

One, Health Ministry Decree 594, reduced maximum allowable metal and chemical emissions by 20%. The ministry also set standards requiring the food industry to label any products containing transgenic (genetically modified) ingredients.

Pressures from industry, however, have blocked the implementation of these measures and the approval of others.

Decree 594 was to have taken effect in April 2000, but its application has been postponed repeatedly by government officials under pressure from industry associations and metalworking businesses.

Late last year, the food industry managed to convince officials to postpone the new labeling requirements for products containing transgenic ingredients.

The backpedaling from the environmental and development policies originally proposed by the governing Concertacion Democratica coalition was sealed in June 2001 when Lagos named Jorge Rodriguez, a commercial engineer, as head of the Ministry of Economy and Energy. Rodriguez announced that environmental issues were "instrumental, but not key."

Rodriguez took the post amid a controversy regarding the use of petroleum coke, or petcoke, a high-carbon byproduct of petroleum refining used as a low-cost industrial fuel.

In Chile, mining companies and other industries have begun to use petcoke. Use of the substance is banned or restricted in other countries, on grounds that it is a hazardous pollutant. The European Union (EU) prohibits its use under certain conditions. Chile, however, permits its use under the same conditions.

The Ministries of Health and the Economy faced off over the issue. Health Ministry officials opposed it, saying that their studies showed that it would pose a health risk. Rodriguez, meanwhile, argued that the country should use "all kinds of fuels...especially inexpensive ones" like petcoke.

In the end, after modifying the allowable concentrations, Lagos authorized the use of petcoke by industries in Regions II and III, in northern Chile, as of last October.

The substance is being burned by thermoelectric plants such as Guacolda and Norgener in northern Chile and will soon be used by the state-owned Corporacion Nacional de Cobre (CODELCO) in operations there, said Manuel Baquedano, director of the nongovernmental Instituto de Ecoglogia Politica (IEP).

Rodriguez's actions--including authorization of the use of petcoke and construction of the Central Hidroelectrico Ralco on indigenous lands along the upper Bio Bio River (see NotiSur, 2002-03-22)--have led the nongovernmental Red Nacional de Accion Ecologista (RENACE) to demand his resignation and a radical change in the government's environmental strategy. …

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