Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with Rodrigo Mundaca, Agronomist and National Spokesperson of the Defence Movement for Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection (MODATIMA), an organisation established in 2010 in the Chilean province of Petorca, in the Valparaíso region, to defend the rights of farmers, workers and local people. Since the 1990s, the region has been affected by the massive appropriation of water by agribusiness in collusion with the political establishment.
What is the main environmental issue in your context?
The main problem is water. We live in a territory characterised mainly by the monoculture of avocado, the production of which requires huge amounts of water. Water is in the hands of large producers who have dried out our territory and compromised the lives of our communities. Ours is an extreme case: Chile has entirely privatised water, which means that theft is institutionalised. Chile has clearly prioritised extractive industries over the rights of communities to water.
The privatisation of water sources in Chile dates back to the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973 to 1990. The 1980 Constitution enshrined the private ownership of water. This was maintained, and even deepened, following the democratic transition, since sanitation was also privatised. The privatisation process of sanitation began in 1998, under the administration led by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, a Christian Democrat. Nowadays, people in Chile pay the highest rates in Latin America for drinking water, which is owned by large transnational corporations. Overall, the Suez group, Aguas de Barcelona, Marubeni and the Ontario teachers’ pension fund administrator from Canada control 90 per cent of the drinking water supply.
Right now, President Sebastián Piñera’s government is auctioning off rivers. Piñera came into government with a mission to underpin the legal certainty of water rights ownership, and his cabinet includes several ministers who own rights to water use, the most prominent of which is the Minister of Agriculture, Antonio Walker Prieto. This minister and his family own more than 29,000 litres per second, which is equivalent to the continuous water supply used by approximately 17 million people.
Is it as simple as someone owning the rivers and being able to prevent others from using the water?
Yes, the 1980 Chilean Constitution literally states that the rights of individuals over water, recognised or constituted in accordance with the law, grant their bearers ownership over it. In 1981, the Water Code established that water is a national good for public use but also an economic good. Water ownership was separated from land ownership, so that there are water owners who have no land and landowners who have no water. It is the state’s prerogative to grant rights for water use. These rights fall into two categories: water rights for consumption use and water rights for non-consumptive use, for example for generating electricity. In the first category, 77 per cent of the rights are held by the agricultural and forestry sector, 13 per cent by the mining sector, seven per cent by the industrial sector and approximately three per cent by the health sector. As for the rights for the use of water that is not consumed, 81 per cent are in the hands of an Italian public-private company. The owners of exploitation rights can sell or lease water use in the marketplace.
In 2018, the Piñera administration proposed a bill aimed at providing legal certainty to perpetuity to private owners of water and introducing water auctions. Currently, 38 rivers in Chile are being auctioned off; basically, what the state does is auction off the litres per second that run through a river. While this occurs in some territories where there is still water, areas accounting for 67 per cent of the Chilean population – some 12 million people – have become water emergency areas. Our region, Valparaíso, is a zone of water catastrophe due to drought. This is unheard of: while such a large population has serious difficulties in accessing drinking water, the state is auctioning off rivers.
What kind of work do you do to promote the recognition of access to water as a right?
For more than 15 years we have made visible the conflict over water in our territory. Although we originated in the Valparaíso region, from 2016 onwards our organisation has worked nationwide. We fight at the national level for water to be regulated as a common good. The right to water is a fundamental human right.
Our original strategy was to kickstart the struggle for water, render the conflict visible and bring debate to parliament about the need to repeal private ownership of water, despite our lack of confidence in the political class that has the responsibility to make the law and watch over its implementation.
In 2016 we took an important step by putting forward an international strategy that made it known throughout the world that in our province the human right to water was being violated in order to grow avocados. We were featured in a German TV report, ‘Avocado: Superfood and Environmental Killer’, in several articles in The Guardian describing how Chileans are running out of water and in an RT report in Spanish, ‘Chile’s Dry Tears’, among others. Last year Netflix dedicated an episode of its Rotten show to the avocado business and the violation of the human right to water in Chile. We have had a positive reception. In 2019 alone, we received two international awards: the International Human Rights Prize awarded by the city of Nuremberg, Germany, in September, and the Danielle Mitterrand Prize, awarded by the France Libertés Foundation, in November.
Another thing we do is develop activists and leaders. We have long-term training programmes and do ongoing work to develop theoretical and political thinking. We also mobilise. In the context of the widespread protests that started in Chile on 18 October 2019, we have made our demands heard. Clearly, although at the national level the main demands concern the restitution of workers’ pension funds and improvements in education and health, in some regions further north and further south of the capital, the most important demand concerns the recovery of water as a common good and a human right.
In addition to mobilising, our work on the ground involves more radical actions such as roadblocks and occupations. Among direct actions carried out on the ground are the seizure of wells and the destruction of drains. Some local grassroots organisations seize wells owned by mining companies, resist as long as they can – sometimes for 60 or 70 days – and divert the water to their communities. In places where rivers no longer carry water, groundwater has been captured through drains, works of engineering that capture, channel and carry all groundwater away. Some communities destroy the drains that transport water for use by agribusiness such as forestry companies. Such actions of resistance have increased since the start of the social protests in October 2019.
The struggle for water is a radical one because it erodes the foundations of inequality. The origin of the major Chilean fortunes is the appropriation of common goods, basically water and land. President Piñera’s fortune is no exception.
Have you faced reprisals because of your activism?
Yes, because of our strategy to give visibility to the conflict over water, several of our activists have been threatened with death. That is why in 2017 Amnesty International conducted a worldwide campaign that collected more than 50,000 signatures to demand protection for us.
Between 2012 and 2014, I was summoned 24 times by four different courts because I denounced a public official who had been Minister of the Interior under the first administration of President Michelle Bachelet (2006 to 2010). As well as being a leading Christian Democratic Party official, this person was a business owner who diverted water toward his properties to grow avocado and citrus. I reported this in 2012, during an interview with CNN, and that cost me 24 court appearances over two years. I was finally sentenced, first to five years in jail, which were then reduced to 540 days and then to 61, and finally our lawyers managed to put me on probation. I had to show up and sign on the first five days of each month. We also had to pay a fine.
We have been attacked and threatened with death many times. In November 2019, an investigation published on a news site revealed that we were being targeted by police intelligence surveillance. However, in response to an amparo appeal – a petition for basic rights – against the police, in February 2020 the Supreme Court issued a ruling that the surveillance to which we are subjected does not violate our constitutional rights. This is Chile in all of its filthy injustice.
Government behaviour has always been the same, regardless of the political colour of the incumbent government. All governments have reached agreements to keep the private water model because it is business, and one that is highly profitable for the political class. When they leave their positions in government, former public officials go on to occupy positions in the boards of the companies that appropriate the water.
Did you join the global climate mobilisations of 2019?
In Chile we have been mobilising since long before. In 2013 we had our first national march for the recovery of water and land, and from then on we have mobilised every year on 22 April, Earth Day. We also demonstrate to commemorate World Water Day on 22 March. We have been on the move for a long time. Chile is going through a social, environmental and humanity crisis. We face the need to safeguard human rights that are essential for the fulfilment of other rights. The human right to water is a basic precondition for people to be able to access all other rights.
We have also been mobilised for a long time to denounce that Chile’s development model is extremely polluting and deeply predatory. We have privatised marine resources: seven families own all of Chile’s marine resources. Our country has five areas of sacrifice, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries. These are in Colonel, Huasco, Mussels, Quintero and Tocopilla. The areas of sacrifice are not only an environmental problem but also a social problem; they discriminate against the poorest and most vulnerable communities. They are overflowing with coal-fired thermoelectric plants and, in some cases, with copper smelters. There are 28 thermoelectric plants: 15 of these are US companies, eight are French, three are Italian and two are owned by domestic capital. The population in these areas has endured the emission of toxic gases and heavy metals for decades. We have been mobilising in these areas for years in defence of common natural assets.
Have you engaged in international forums on the environment and climate change?
Yes, I have been involved several times. In 2014, before I was convicted, I went to Paris, France by invitation of several European civil society organisations to attend a forum on human rights defenders, where I spoke about the private water and land model. In 2018 I was invited to a global meeting of human rights defenders at risk, held in Dublin, Ireland. That same year I was also invited to a regional meeting of human rights defenders that took place in Lima, Peru.
We have also been involved in intergovernmental forums such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In 2019, Chile was going to host the COP 25, and the global mobilisation for climate throughout the year had a tremendous echo in Chile. Obviously neither the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum, planned for November, nor COP 25, scheduled for early December, could be held in Chile, because the government was completely overwhelmed by the popular mobilisation that began in late October, and because it responded to this with systematic human rights violations.
Several of our members were at COP 25 in Madrid, Spain, and were able to speak with the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón and with some officials of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Shortly after this meeting we had a meeting in Chile with Baltasar Garzón, the judge who prosecuted former dictator Pinochet and had him arrested in the UK. Garzón was very impressed with the water model and the stories our activists told him. Also recently we met with the delegation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) during their visit to Chile. We met with Soledad García Muñoz, the IACHR Special Rapporteur on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights, and presented an overview of the Chilean situation and what it means to live deprived of water.
Do you think that forums such as the COP offer space for civil society to speak up and exercise influence?
I have a critical opinion of the COP. I think that in general it is a fair of vanities attended by many presidents, and many ministers of environment and agriculture, to promise the world what they cannot fulfil in their own countries. The main greenhouse gas emitting countries have leaders who either deny climate change, or are talking the talk about climate change but don’t seem to have the intention to make any change in their country’s predatory economic behaviour. The countries that are most responsible for climate change and global warming are currently the main detractors of the COP.
However, the summits do offer a space for civil society, from where it is possible to challenge the powerful, speak up about the climate injustice that affects the entire planet and promote the construction of a new development model that is viable and economically competitive while also socially fairer and ecologically healthier. But for that we need new paradigms: we cannot continue to think that there are unlimited development prospects on a planet that has finite natural resources.
Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Ed. note: For more information on the threats and trends facing environmental activists, see the 2020 State of Civil Society Report