Yesterday I returned from a week in Chile where I spoke at the Fifth Conference on Environmental Law (V Jornadas) sponsored by the University of Chile’s Center for Environmental Law (Centro Derecho Ambiental or CDA). Every two years the University of Chile’s CDA holds one of the most outstanding environmental law conferences in the world. This year’s theme was “Environmental Law in Times of Reform.” I spoke at the opening of the conference on Wednesday October 27, following an opening address by Maria Ignacia Benítez Pereira, Chile’s Minister of the Environment.
Chile is upgrading its environmental laws by replacing a relatively weak and decentralized system with a new and more powerful federal environmental agency that will have responsibility not only for pollution control, but also for management of protected areas. In fact, the minister indicated that the Environment Ministry may become the largest agency in the entire Chilean government. Even the election of a new and more conservative government, which took power in March 2010, has not slowed down the progress of environmental reform. In fact, the government of Sebastián Piñera is said to have speeded up the process of reform. It was striking to hear the praise the new environment minister heaped on her predecessor, Ana Lya Uriarte, who is now a professor at the CDA. Environmental protection seems to be such a priority for Chile that there is bipartisan support for strengthening the country’s environmental laws. After some of the first public demonstrations in Chile organized through Facebook and Twitter, President Piñera surprised environmentalists by agreeing to cancel a new coal-fired powerplant in northern Chile.
I was delighted to be reunited with Carlos SIlva, a former student of mine, who has become the chief prosecutor for the Chilean Environment Ministry. My wife, who is responding well to chemotherapy, accompanied me on the trip and we had a wonderful time visiting the places we used to hang out at while waiting for our daughter’s adoption to be approved. We also were delighted to spend an afternoon on a private tour of Almaviva winery in Puente Alto, the Santiago suburb where our daughter was born. Our luggage did not make a close connection in Miami so I had to purchase a coat, tie and dress shirt at a Santiago department store in order to look presentable for my talk. We were able to inspect the rescue capsule that was used to pull the 33 trapped Chilean miners to safety, which was on display in the Plaza Constitucion in front of the Law Moneda presidential palace. Photos of the trip are available online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci#100734.
Like China, Chile appears to be a country on the cusp between the developing and developed worlds. While Chilean courts have not been friendly to public interest environmental litigation, slow progress is being made. Last year a court finally blocked a project for having an inadequate environmental impact assessment. The government was still able to proceed with the project within a few months, disappointing many environmentalists. Another court has required a private landowner who illegally destroyed thousand-year old trees to pay compensation for ecological damages. While Chile’s emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) are small in absolute terms, they are growing rapidly as the country’s economy expands. Even though the Kyoto Protocol does not require Chile to reduce its GHG emissions, the government has pledged to reduce them. A pilot program asking Chileans in one jurisdiction to buy carbon offsets when they renew their driver’s registration received a 20% positive response. Some concern was expressed about the impact of GHG footprint labeling program in France on the export of Chilean goods to Europe.
In their presentation on environmental courts, Rock and Kitty Pring from the University of Denver noted that the Chilean government is considering establishing a national environmental tribunal. Surprisingly, they found that the primary motivation for the tribunal is coming from private industry, which is fearful that the new national environmental agency will be too powerful. The environmental tribunal would serve as a vehicle for industry to appeal decisions by the Ministry of Environment, though environmental NGOs would be allowed to appear before the tribunal as amici.
Meanwhile the Tenth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP-10) concluded in Nagoya, Japan, which some hopeful developments. The 193 countries represented at the conference committed to increase their efforts to protect endangered species and developed countries agreed to share more of the benefits of genetic resources obtained from the developing world. The parties agreed a 10-year strategy to boost protected land areas to 17% of the world and to inxrease marine protected areas to cover 10% of the oceans by 2020. Unfortunately there was less agreement on measures to increase funding from developed countries to assist developing countries in protecting habitat for endangered species.