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Global Economy

Chile's "victim zones" for the economy

The flowers in Katta Alonso's garden are purple, burgundy and canary yellow. They offer the pensioner a distraction. Because when she looks from her terrace towards the Pacific coast, a completely different picture emerges. 16 companies are lined up there: power plants, a cement factory and a copper smelter. "This is an economic victim zone. That means the state has built numerous factories and power plants here that are dangerous and pollute everything," criticizes Katta, who heads the local residents' association "Women in Victim Zones".

Your place Ventanas used to be an idyllic fishing village and popular seaside resort. However, 50 years ago, the Chilean state officially decided to sacrifice this area in favor of industry. Today, coal-fired power plants seem outdated because Chile has plenty of potential for renewable energy. At that time, however, they ensured a reliable power supply and are still considered indispensable today.

No environmental regulations for a long time

"Until the 1990s, there were no environmental regulations for the companies, and to this day the regulations that exist are lax," explains trade unionist Juan Peña, who has worked for the state-owned copper smelter Codelco for 32 years. He calls for investments in filter systems for a renewal of the old system.

Alonso, on the other hand, has been fighting for the closure of the factories for 15 years because they would have serious consequences for the environment and the health of the residents. "Sulphur dioxide keeps escaping from the copper smelter. In addition, our bay is contaminated with arsenic."

One of Katta's neighbors has breast cancer. 72-year-old Jimena Vegas is one of many neighbors who have been diagnosed with cancer. Katta's suspicion: The pollution from the factories is making the people in Ventanas sick. "When toxic clouds escape there, this dust scratches your throat," explains Jimena.

"More cancer cases than elsewhere in Chile"

Accidents have happened time and again in the past. After toxic substances were released, school children complained of headaches, nausea and nosebleeds – in 2011, 2018 and most recently in June 2022. At such moments, the anger of the residents in front of the factories is vented. There have been demonstrations against the factories for years.

Katta and her fellow campaigners have been fighting for years for stricter environmental regulations – especially for copper smelting. "Because statistically we register a lot more cancer cases here than elsewhere in Chile," explains Maria Teresa Almarza. Their hope was that Chile's new constitution would be adopted. This was initiated in 2019 when more than a million people took to the streets for more rights and an end to the business-friendly constitution from the Pinochet dictatorship.

Copper smelter workers against new constitution

In June of this year, freely elected citizens presented a new constitutional text. This gave people's health higher priority and provided for stricter environmental regulations. "The new constitution would finally give us more rights," said Mercedes Gonzalez. Her hope to the end was that a yes to the new constitution would mean the end of the economic victim zone in Ventanas.

But many Chileans obviously saw things differently. Above all, workers of the copper smelter rejected the draft. "I'm against the new constitution because it was written by the left – by communists. We have to take a firm hand against them," explains Carlos Castillos, who pulls up in his red jeep. Like him, a majority of Chileans voted and now rejected the draft constitution with a clear majority.

For supporters like Katta Alonso, this is a bitter disappointment. She doesn't get rid of the sight of the industrial plants so quickly. For the foreseeable future, there will probably be a gigantic industrial area on their doorstep that has so far paid little attention to people's health.

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