Climate and Energy

Even Chile’s drought-hit communities rejected ‘ecological’ constitution

Despite proposals to enshrine water rights, voters in arid area of Chile said ‘no’ to new constitution, heavily defeated in a recent vote
<p>Mural in La Ligua, Petorca province, with a message in favour of the approval of Chile&#8217;s new constitution. The region is one of the most affected by the drought, but, as in most of the country, rejection won (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)</p>

Mural in La Ligua, Petorca province, with a message in favour of the approval of Chile’s new constitution. The region is one of the most affected by the drought, but, as in most of the country, rejection won (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

The valleys of Petorca province in central Chile are currently filled with green shoots. Soon, yellow flowers will grow all around and line the road that links the town of the same name with others beyond. It has rained in recent weeks and spring is on the horizon. “But it doesn’t last long – after a month it’s all brown here,” says Sandra, a 50-year-old head of household, who lives at the edge of the town.

“When I saw the results of the plebiscite, I felt like I had lost a loved one that we could no longer save,” she explains. She still does not understand why in this commune – as in the rest of the country – people chose to reject the proposed new constitution on 4 September.

What are ‘sacrifice zones’?

Areas in Chile in proximity to environmentally degrading or polluting industries, where mostly poor communities experience chronic socio-economic problems and health issues.

Petorca is known as one of Chile’s “sacrifice zones” because of the chronic water emergency faced by its inhabitants. The Petorca River basin that supplies the area is currently suffering its worst drought in 700 years, according to a study published in 2020.

In addition to its rising temperatures and low rainfall, Petorca is another typical example of unequal water access in the country: here, extensive plantations of avocado and other fruit trees – largely destined for export – exploit the water, while thousands of residents depend on distribution from water trucks to wash their clothes and vegetables, and for sanitation.

dried up riverbed in mountains
The exposed riverbed of the dried-up Patorca River, Chile. The river’s basin is experiencing its worst drought in 700 years (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

The articles of the proposed constitution enshrined water as a “non-appropriable common good”, guaranteed the human right to water and ensured its reasonable use. This would seem likely to have brought favour for its approval within this community, but 56.1% of its voters said otherwise.

Sandra knows the area and its dynamics, and like other residents, she names fear as one of the reasons for the election result. “There are many bosses here, there is fear of losing one’s job, of voting for something that could go against one’s interests,” she says. She refers to the landowners in this province – a handful of powerful land-owning families who have concentrated the water rights granted by successive governments for use in their plantations, and are among those primarily responsible for contributing to the water shortages affecting the area.

gabriel boric in profile and a microphone
Read more: What challenges face Chile’s new ‘environmentalist’ government?

Olga is a street vendor in Petorca. She says she is mainly concerned with getting to work everyday in order to pay her rent, and that she has not taken much interest in the new constitution. She doesn’t like the current president Gabriel Boric either, which is why she voted “Reject”. But there is one thing she says is clear to her, and that is that in Petorca powerful landowners are “stealing” the water for agricultural operations. “If you walk up the hill, you will see that there are tunnels in the riverbed, that’s where they take the water,” she says.

Sergio voted “Approve”, but says he did not have much time to pay attention to debates on the constitution. He too works all day, at one of the mining companies in the area. He says there was misinformation, and ignorance: “It was important to inform, and the local mayor’s office didn’t do that. They had to convene the neighbourhood council, talk to the people of the town who live more isolated, to coordinate and bring the community together.”

Ignacio Villalobos
Ignacio Villalobos, the mayor of Petorca, said criticism directed at communities such as his is “unfair” (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

The mayor of Petorca, Ignacio Villalobos, an independent, received criticism after the plebiscite, when messages of contempt for the commune went viral on social networks, driven by what many saw as a contradiction between its vote and its realities. “I feel it is unfair to blame Petorca for this debacle, and I have come out to defend my community,” he says. He admits that “there are sectors that want to maintain their privileges”.

Mrs Rosario sells clothes at the fair in the Plaza de Armas in Cabildo, to the south of the town of Petorca. She tells us of her conviction that “the poor are going to be poorer and the rich richer, no matter how they make the constitution”. She expected this result in the plebiscite, as everyone around her voted Reject. “It’s not because it was well or badly written. People voted ‘no’ because of the state of the country,” she says, adding: “I regret having voted for this president.”

Graffiti with the words aprove and reject in Spanish
As the constitution plebiscite neared, slogans sprayed on walls in La Ligua, Petorca province, showed the divides between the Approve (apruebo) and Reject (rechazo) sides (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

She, like many other residents consulted, names housing – a proposed fundamental right that the state would have played a more active role in guaranteeing – supposed limits on inheritance of pensions, and the concept of plurinationality, which she says would have divided Chile, as her reasons for rejecting it. Some of these were not in fact proposals of the new constitution, but were the focus of the Reject campaign.

Reject triumphs in sacrifice zones

The commune of Petorca was one of the many “sacrifice zones” that led the way in the first plebiscite of 2020, where Chile voted to begin the process of changing the 1980 Constitution. It was seen as a way out of the political crisis that gripped the country in 2019.

Carolina Vilches
Carolina Vilches, from the Movement for the Defence of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (Modatima) was elected to the convention tasked with drafting Chile’s new constitution (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

In order to draft the new document, the Constitutional Convention, an assembly of 155 representatives from across the country, was elected. In Petorca, Carolina Vilches was chosen, while Rodrigo Mundaca, one of the best known activists in the Movement for the Defence of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (Modatima), won the governorship of Valparaíso, the region in which Petorca is located.

The second plebiscite, a mandatory vote, was held on 4 September to approve or reject the drafted constitutional text. Five million more people turned out, compared to the 2020 plebiscite. There are strong suggestions that the vast majority of these new voters – both in Petorca and in Chile as a whole – opted for Reject.

“One of the problems was that the compulsory vote was only at the final stage, meaning that a large number of people who were disconnected throughout the process were forced to vote for a constitution they did not know or to which they did not feel politically connected. So, out of doubt or misinformation, they preferred to reject,” says Carolina Vilches.

field with plantations
Plantations in Petorca province. Communities accuse large landowners and agricultural operations of ‘stealing’ water in the arid region (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

Vilches is a spokesperson for Modatima, where she has been involved for more than 10 years. Once her work with the Constitutional Convention was over, she spent two months campaigning throughout the region, but it wasn’t enough.

She welcomes us into her house after dark, and a large yellow moon overlooks the hill. She is still drafting the statements she was asked to make by some newspapers. “The sad thing is that now that Reject has won, they say that there is no water problem,” Vilches laments. “This is the idea they are installing, that water ownership is not a problem. But it is.” It is unavoidable in the landscape of Petorca, where the intense green of the avocado crops ends in sharp, straight lines, flanked by earthy hills, merely dotted with bushes.

Sara Larraín, director of the NGO Chile Sustentable, agrees. “A contingent [of the electorate] that had not been participating in politics, that traditionally does not participate and is not interested in political participation, took part. It is a section that is much more sensitive to media campaign messages, and which also had little chance of knowing the content,” she says.

Many who were disconnected throughout the process were forced to vote on a constitution they did not know or to which they did not feel politically connected

According to an analysis by Plataforma Telar, disinformation accompanied the constitutional rewrite from the beginning of the process, although the volume of false information, especially on social networks, increased considerably in the final leg of the campaign.

“When Petorca rejects the water solution in the constitution, or the communities with the largest indigenous population reject the recovery of land for indigenous peoples, it reveals that there is a lack of information, due to a disinformation campaign,” says Sara Larraín.

a person cleaning a beach
Read more: The complex energy transition of Chile’s ‘sacrifice zones’

The environmental sphere, in Chile and abroad, showed great support for the “ecological” constitution, but it was rejected in the territories where it matters most. As in Petorca, in the towns of Quintero, Puchuncaví, Coronel and Tocopilla – other areas of concerted socio-environmental conflicts in Chile – the Reject option prevailed by a large majority.

“These are territories that associated environmental issues with the Constitutional Convention. The issue is that the constitutional process addressed many other issues beyond the environment, and this perhaps touched another nerve and other sensibilities that begin to explain the result,” says Felipe Irarrázaval, a researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES) in Santiago.

There were other issues that weighed on the campaign, says Irarrázaval, such as housing – and associated fears generated – and the political system. “The lesson for the environmental world,” he says, “is that they have to have an agenda for these groups that will eventually vote in a possible new plebiscite. Broad political agendas and greater sensitivity.”

The next steps

With the text of the Constitutional Convention rejected, the 1980 Constitution remains in force – a legacy of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship that enshrines water as a tradable commodity in the market. Gabriel Boric’s government is pushing to begin the process anew, with a new convention and another plebiscite. The decision, however, rests in the hands of the country’s congress.

Whether or not this new process is realised, in Petorca, the struggle for the right to water will continue, and is likely to remain the primary issue for its inhabitants.

Mural saying "Veronica Vilches steals our water" in Spanish
A message on a wall in Petorca accuses Veronica Vilches, the leader of a local water committee who has denounced large companies for their water usage, of herself “stealing our water” (Image: Elena Basso / Diálogo Chino)

This is the warning of Veronica Vilches, leader of the Rural Drinking Water Committee of San José de Cabildo. She is a water defender who has denounced the theft of water by large agricultural companies, in collusion with local and national politicians.

“They have threatened me, they have burned my car, the police have come to my house to say that I was stealing water for my community and Amnesty International had to intervene, but there is no need to panic,” explains Veronica, who a few months ago received a third death threat. “We have to continue on this path, so that the province of Petorca will one day have water with the three Cs: calidad, cantidad y continuidad.”