Environmental Issues in Chile

Chile faces a multitude of environmental issues, both urban and rural, including air, water, and noise pollution, garbage disposal, wildland conservation, and soil degradation. According to a study by the nonprofit Fundación Terram, the mining, fishing, and forestry industries are major environmental culprits.

The official environment agency is the Comisión Nacional del Medio Ambiente (Conama), which reports directly to the president. Many conservationists, though, consider it weak and incapable of withstanding industry pressures.

View from the mountains overlooking a river snaking through the valley
Photo © Kim Logan, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

While Chile has an impressive roster of national parks, reserves, and monuments, covering a remarkably large area, it has been criticized for not doing more to conserve environmentally significant areas close to population centers, especially when conservation conflicts with established economic interests such as forestry and mining.

The main conservation agency is the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf, National Forestry Corporation), which manages the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Silvestres Protegidas (Snaspe, National Protected Areas System). The latter is due to become an autonomous Servicio de Biodiversidad y Áreas Protegidas (Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service). Within Snaspe, Chile has three principal categories of protection: parques nacionales (national parks), reservas nacionales (national reserves), and monumentos naturales (natural monuments). In addition, Chilean law allows the establishment of private natural reserves (reservas naturales privadas or santuarios de la naturaleza), which are growing in number and importance.

Other Environmental Issues in Chile

Air Pollution in Chile

One of Chile’s most intractable problems is air pollution. In 2001, the journal Science ranked Santiago as the Americas’ second most polluted city after Mexico City; in a more recent survey it came in third in the world, after Beijing and New Delhi.

Like Los Angeles (California), Santiago lies in a basin between the coastal range and high mountains that block the dispersal of pollutants from smokestack industries and automobile emissions, and dust from unpaved streets and roads outside the central city. Rain washes some pollutants out of the sky, but the long, dry summer and the stagnant autumn air often result in heavy haze.

Air pollution in Santiago, Chile. ©Lisandrotrarbach, Dreamstime.

Except in summer, there are weekday restrictions on vehicles without catalytic converters. Still, when the Lagos administration placed limited restrictions on vehicles with catalytic converters on truly extreme days, rightist politicians and automobile owners protested vociferously.

Residents of the wealthy eastern suburbs argue that their new vehicles pollute less than older automobiles and buses used by other commuters. While not entirely false, this argument overlooks the congestion created by numerous private vehicles, which increases the time that internal combustion engines spend idling.

The new Transantiago public bus system has gotten the worst diesel-polluting offenders off the streets, but clumsy implementation has driven some commuters back to their cars. Other antipollution measures include bus-only lanes on the Alameda, the city’s major thoroughfare, and some other streets, as well as higher-quality, lower-sulfur diesel fuel.

Even the countryside is not free of pollution. Agricultural burning is widespread and summer forest fires are common, especially in the heartland’s dry Mediterranean climate. In mining areas such as Chuquicamata, Pacific westerlies billow toxic clouds across the desert. In the Sur Chico, the main source is ash from firewood, used for heating and cooking even in cities the size of Temuco.

In far southern Chile, depletion of the Antarctic ozone layer has exposed both humans and livestock to summer ultraviolet radiation. The austral ozone hole is a global problem, but Chileans suffer the consequences of its aerosol-triggered deterioration.

Water Pollution in Chile

Most municipalities have sewer systems, but wastewater treatment is inconsistent. Rivers, lakes, and oceans themselves can become open sewers.

Current legislation, though, requires Santiago to become the first Latin American capital to treat all its wastewater, and a major project to reclaim malodorous Río Mapocho has begun. More than half of the country’s industry is in Santiago, and additional legislation requires private factories to draft wastewater management plans and implement them within a few years.

River Mapocho in Santiago de Chile, ©Matyas Rehak, Dreamstime.

Non-metropolitan industries such as agriculture, forestry, and mining also contribute to the contamination of streams and seas. Many commercial fruit growers rely on far more chemical fertilizers and pesticides than necessary to augment their flourishing exports, while pulp mills pump toxic waste into the rivers. Salmon farming causes chemical runoff problems in the Sur Chico and Patagonia.

Noise Pollution in Chile

Antique diesel buses are not the nuisance they once were, but 18-wheel trucks are still a problem. Other contributors include cars and motorcycles with inadequate mufflers, “personal watercraft” on otherwise placid lakes, and public performances of amplified music.

Solid Waste Management in Chile

Poor solid-waste management also contributes to air pollution and health problems, not to mention its aesthetics—at Lampa, on Santiago’s northern outskirts, productive farmland is disappearing beneath unregulated dumping. Chile also has many informal rubbish dumps.

Despite disposal problems, city streets are relatively clean even if, in the course of Chile’s rush toward “development,” disposable beverage containers and other undesirable packaging have proliferated.

Metropolitan residents produce an average of one kilogram of solid waste daily, and recycling is limited: At the end of 2008, less than 15 percent was recovered, but authorities hope to increase that to 25 percent within a decade. The big culprit, though, remains mining; 99 percent of Chile’s solid waste comes from that sector.

Energy in Chile

Energy shortages are the factor that most threatens to derail the economy. The southernmost Magallanes region has crude oil in small amounts only, so the country must purchase nearly everything on the international market. It has a little more natural gas (recent discoveries in remote Tierra del Fuego are promising, but unlikely to satisfy the shortfall); neighboring Bolivia and Argentina have ample supplies but are politically unreliable.

Chile has some sustainable energy resources, primarily hydroelectricity, but projects such as damming the Río Biobío have not come close to satisfying growing demand. The remaining potential hydroelectric sites—continental Chiloé’s Río Futaleufú and Aisén’s Río Baker—are remote and would involve serious environmental disruption, but they may well be developed.

In the Sur Chico, which lacks natural gas infrastructure, many households in cities the size of Temuco (population about 250,000) and Valdivia (150,000) still use firewood for domestic heating and cooking. This is theoretically sustainable, but it brings serious air pollution problems. After Santiago, Temuco probably has the worst air quality of any Chilean city. Alternative energy sources have not yet been seriously explored even though the northern deserts, where the mining industry is the major user, have almost unlimited solar potential. The Patagonian steppes of Aisén and Magallanes have wind power potential; a new wind farm has recently appeared on Coyhaique’s outskirts.

Deforestation and Soil Conservation in Chile

According to Conaf, the country possesses 13.4 million hectares of native forest, 3.9 million of which enjoy government protection as part of the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Silvestres Protegidas (Snaspe, or National System of Protected Wild Areas). The remaining 9.5 million hectares are in private hands, 80 percent of whom are small or medium-size landowners. Most of these forests are in southern Chile.

Native forest conservation is a hot-button issue for Chilean activists, who have led successful opposition to the Cascada Chile wood chip project in Region X (Los Lagos), which was canceled in early 2001, and a similar effort by the U.S.-based Trillium Corporation in Region XII (Magallanes).

Trees felled and burned in southern Chile. ©Tifonimages, Dreamstime.

According to the industry-oriented Corporación de Madera (Corma), 90 percent of the wood arriving at Chilean factories comes from forest plantations and only 10 percent from native forests. This figure is misleading, though, in that many eucalyptus and Monterey pine plantations have replaced heavily logged native woodlands. Moreover, 70 percent of the 10 million cubic meters of wood used annually for heating and cooking in Chilean households comes from native forests.

Some foreign environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, question free trade agreements because they believe Chile’s environmental legislation, particularly on native forests, to be weak. In late 2008, Congress passed a Ley de Recuperación del Bosque Nativo (Native Forest Recovery Law) designed to provide economic incentives for owners of native forest properties, promote sustainable harvest with subsidies, and discourage nonnative plantations, but many environmental advocates are dissatisfied with the details.

Wayne Bernhardson

About the Author

Wayne Bernhardson first traveled to Patagonia in 1979, visiting both Chile and Argentina as far as Tierra del Fuego, “the uttermost part of the earth,” and has returned to the region almost every year since 1990. He also spent a year walking, sailing, and flying around the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) and had the pleasure of revisiting them to research this book. He owns an apartment in Buenos Aires, near the Palermo botanical gardens, and spends four to five months in the “Southern Cone” countries every year.

Wayne earned his PhD in geography at the University of California, Berkeley, but abandoned academia for a perpetual Latin American road trip that many university faculty envy. He is the author of Moon guides to Argentina and Chile, and has written for magazines and newspapers including Trips, the San Francisco Chronicle, the American Geographical Society’s Focus, Business Traveler, Dupont Registry Tampa Bay, Postcards, National Geographic Traveler, Latin Trade, and Travel Holiday. He often gives lectures on destinations he covers in his books.

When not in South America, Wayne resides in Oakland, California, with his wife, María Laura Massolo, their daughter, Clio Bernhardson-Massolo, and their Alaskan malamute, Malbec (named for Argentina’s signature red wine).

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