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COP25 Is Perpetuating a Culture of Impunity for Human Rights Violations

By ignoring the persecution of environmental defenders in Chile and elsewhere the UN is setting a dangerous precedent.

Climate activists protest COP25 at the Feria de Madrid exhibition center in Madrid, Spain, on December 11, 2019.

The austral spring of 2019 marked a historical watershed in the history of Latin America, with a series of popular mobilizations in several nations denouncing economic inequality and environmental injustice. Of particular intensity is the popular uprising in Chile that was used to justify the last-minute relocation of the United Nations climate summit, COP25, from Chile to Madrid, Spain.

In an effort to save face before the international climate elite, the Chilean government announced the accelerated closure of a number of outdated and dirty coal-burning power plants, reducing the anticipated retirement for two plants from within the next 10 years to within the next five years, and the closure of two other coal powered plants that had not been slated for closure until 2040. This announcement was welcomed, especially by the communities living on the fence lines of these facilities. Yet it did little to placate a mobilized populace experienced with the injustices of a predatory economic system based on extractivism that condemns many to living in highly polluted sacrifice zones.

Having been subjected to a neoliberal economic laboratory forced on their communities literally at gunpoint during a 17-year military dictatorship, followed by 30 years of further entrenchment of markets-based policy, grassroots Chilean social movements are well-versed in the brutal metrics of the markets. They consider market-based approaches to climate policy such as “cap and trade,” forests and nature marketed as offsets to polluters, and carbon credits for hydroelectric dam development to be illegitimate, unjust and ineffective for addressing climate change. Such a strong and articulate consensus rejection of neoliberalism is not the message that the UN is eager to elevate during the current exceptionally market-centric COP25 meetings.

Bizarrely, in spite of the COP25 relocation to Madrid, Chile managed to retain the “presidency” of COP25, even as violent repression of legitimate rights to protest have been forging a bloody trail across the country. Chilean President Sebastian Piñera is not even attending the meetings he symbolically presides over. The UN — by going along with the charade, ignoring the Chilean people’s demands for justice and encouraging precisely the markets-based approaches that are being challenged — sends a dangerous message: In seeking to address the climate crisis as an urgent “emergency,” current and legacy human rights abuses and destruction of native ecosystems and threats to public health are to be ignored, and the dogged adherence to the wrongful notion that markets can deliver justice and fix the climate will remain at the fore of UN climate decision-making.

Mapuche on the Front Lines

Front and center to street protests demanding massive political and economic change in Chile have been the demands for justice from (and for) the Mapuche people, a resilient Indigenous people who have over the decades been subjected to a never-ending industrial onslaught on their communities, families, culture and spiritual practices. This industrial invasion of Mapuche territory has been carried out by many sectors, not the least of which is the monoculture exotic tree species plantation model designed to provide raw materials for an export-oriented pulp and wood products industry, and increasingly for biomass-based electricity generation, which is providing a crucial “greenwashing” of the industry.

A quick look at some of the social, political and environmental tragedies associated with the pulp and wood products industry in Chile reveals how the UN’s COP25, by ignoring these realities on the ground and even promoting false solutions such as offsets from biomass energy facilities, is perpetuating a cruel culture of impunity.

Planting Poverty in an Impoverished Landscape

One of the most destructive legacies of the monoculture plantation model has been the replacement of native ecosystems with massive plantations of exotic tree species across the landscape, resulting in a near-complete loss of biodiversity from native forests with some of the highest levels of endemism on the planet. The replacement of the bosque nativo chileno with the infamous “green desert” of eucalyptus and pine plantations is devastating to both natural and human communities alike. The voracious thirst of industrial plantations presents great risks to people and native species, as available water is rapidly depleted by fast-growing trees covering millions of hectares of land. Indigenous communities find themselves without water for even the most basic of household tasks. On top of that, the exotic tree species plantations are like patches of napalm spread across a landscape that is increasingly threatened by wildfire, resulting in massive firestorms such as those that ravaged Southern Chile early in 2017.

The plantation model was one of the priorities of the Pinochet dictatorship, which acted in collusion at a high level with the most powerful economic conglomerates of the Chilean aristocracy to rapidly expand the number of hectares dedicated to plantations. The social and economic impacts on affected communities have been (and remain) severe, as the physical expansion of the plantations relied heavily on dispossessing campesino and Indigenous communities of their land, in many cases through usurpation. Many communities found themselves confronting forced migration, even at gunpoint, resulting in desperate poverty as people were forced to abandon their rural homes and desperately seek new ways to survive in unfamiliar urban environments. Some communities were relocated to live on greatly degraded land holdings, only to be subjected to water scarcity and toxic contamination from the industrial practices typical in the management of exotic tree species plantations surrounding their precarious settlements.

Police Violence, Political Prisoners and Militarization of Territory

After many decades of documented human rights violations by the authorities, evidence shows indiscriminate use of police and military force to intimidate dissenting voices, criminalize activism challenging contemporary and legacy land rights violations, and even, in several cases, condemn community leadership to incarceration. Unmentioned at the COP25 in Madrid is the Kafkaesque manner in which Chile has persecuted environmental defenders, providing a stark contrast between claims to global environmental leadership and the existence of numerous political prisoners languishing in Chilean prisons. The nearly permanent persecution of Indigenous and campesino voices in communities impacted by the plantation model relies on criminalization of community leadership.

In the case of Alberto Curamíl, a political prisoner who was awarded the 2019 Goldman Environmental Prize, incarceration depends on the fabrication of criminal charges to politically punish activists who have successfully impeded the expansion of extractive industry. In Chile, says Curamíl’s defense lawyer, Rodrigo Román, “there is a political problem of permanent violence executed by the state.” During an interview outside of the courtroom in the southern city of Temuco where Curamíl is being tried, Román told Truthout that “ever since the first day of his imprisonment in August 2018, we have signaled that there are political reasons to judge him, to keep him deprived of his freedom, but there are no criminal or legal reasons (for him to be imprisoned).”

Even more disastrous histories are being woven by the violence of the plantation model. Though ignored at COP25, unforgotten by the popular mobilization in Chile are the unarmed Mapuche activists who have lost their lives during police actions. The walls of cities across Chile carry the spray-painted names of the fallen activists, names like Camilo Catrillanca, who was assassinated by Chilean security forces in late 2018, and whose death at the hands of the police was covered up by top-level Chilean politicians, including the current president. The militarization of Indigenous territory in the south of Chile is a case study of how the state security apparatus is being used as an extension of corporate control of the land base that was acquired through usurpation and forced removal. An end to the militarization of Mapuche territory is a fundamental climate justice demand of social movements in Chile, yet this demand is ignored at a COP25 that is seemingly more interested in protecting a global corporate economic status quo than it is in responding effectively to the increasingly dire threat of environmental degradation and global climate change. By failing to effectively elevate the persecution of environmental defenders in the very nation that is “presiding” over the meetings, COP25 is engaged in a perpetuation of a culture of impunity for human rights violations.

Pollution Trading

The United Nations takes the climate injustice even further in colluding directly with the corporations responsible for the expansion of plantations, by promoting the dangerous falsehood that burning biomass in electricity generating infrastructure at massive pulp plants is somehow climate-friendly, and qualifies for registering carbon credits for sale under the auspices of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM is an oft-criticized element of the now ancient Kyoto Protocol and was an early development in legitimizing the use of “offsets” as a means of addressing climate pollution. In this instance, the United Nations is not only being silent in the face of documented human rights violations and environmental damage, it is actually stepping in to provide direct “green” cover to one of the three companies that control the Chilean plantation sector. Celulosa Arauco y Constitucion (Arauco) is a transnational pulp and paper monster, with a long history of abusing people and the planet. By allowing Arauco to use the UN carbon offsets platform to traffic in credits generated from bioenergy facilities that are part of destructive pulp plants plagued by environmental and social conflicts, the UN aids Arauco in avoiding accountability to local communities or international human rights and environmental justice organizations.

Arauco, with the help of the UN, has been able to make the biomass-generating infrastructure at their giant and destructive pulp facilities built at Nueva Aldea and outside of Valdivia into a carbon casino revenue stream, blatantly running roughshod over climate science and a basic sense of decency. It was the opening of the Valdivia pulp plant in 2004 and subsequent effluent pollution to neighboring wetlands that resulted in the now legendary massacre and forced migration of the iconic black-necked swan population downstream from the Valdivia pulp mill. That Arauco has won a revenue stream by generating carbon credits from the burning of biomass at the Valdivia pulp mill to allow polluters to offset their climate damage is offensive to anyone with the most minimal common sense and inclination toward environmental justice.

Chilean activists also describe how the new MAPA project (Modernization and Extension of Arauco Mill) proposed by Arauco actually hides the development of a massive new 200 megawatt biomass-based thermoelectric plant as a “green” cornerstone of a humongous pulp plant expansion. Adding insult to injury, activists fighting the proposed expansion have revealed how the financing of debt for investment in the pulp plant expansion is reliant on future revenue stream from sales of carbon credits related to the new bioenergy plant. In other words, the UN carbon offsets platform is integral to financing the expansion of an export-oriented pulp facility that is fully reliant on a plantation model that is devastating Indigenous communities and permanently condemning millions of acres of land to a sterile, short rotation clearcutting plantation-based production model. This contradiction between word and deed is captured succinctly by Miguel Melín, a spokesperson for the Mapuche Territorial Alliance (Allianza Territorial Mapuche), when he describes how plantation companies like Arauco “that prey on the environment, that expropriate and steal water, are financiers and funders” of COP25. In fact, continues Melín, “they are the ones that provided financing for this conference to originally be organized in Santiago.”

Through these statements from Chilean activists on the ground who participated in this independently produced video, Chile offers a warning to the world about the dangers of “natural climate solutions” being promoted at COP25.

Statement from Chile to the UN Climate COP25: No “Natural Climate Solutions”! from Global Justice Ecology Project on Vimeo.

Propaganda and Public Perception Management

Ultimately, one of the most disturbing outcomes of the promotion of the plantation model is the way language on climate and forests is twisted into an Orwellian knot of half-meanings and untruths. The climate offset platform newspeak of “green” bioenergy qualifying as climate “action,” and the subsequent role that the United Nations stamp of approval on the plantation model plays in perpetuating impunity, provide hard evidence for the extractive industry’s leveraging of climate discourse as a tool for propaganda. The promotion of bioenergy as a climate solution is directly exploited by the economic beneficiaries of the plantation model to “manage” public perception about the real social and environmental costs imposed on communities. It is, for instance, terrifying to think that in the year 2019 we are still, after decades of effort, clamoring for a commitment from the UN to come to terms with the science that a “plantation is not a forest.” The unwillingness of the UN to take these basic steps when it comes to climate and forests is a dramatic example of how the co-optation by extractive industry of the climate discourse under the tutelage of the UN, as the Chilean plantation model case reveals, is directly playing into the hands of the plantation-based industries, perpetuating their destruction of ecosystems and abuse of communities under the guise of “helping to solve” the climate crisis.

As COP25 draws to an end and the markets-centric focus of discussions at the meetings take center stage, the view from Chile is that the UN climate process is setting a new standard in normalizing unspeakable destruction at the expense of social and ecological justice. Such is the drastic degree to which the realities on the ground in Chile, the current “president” of COP25, are being ignored.

The cries by COP25 stakeholders regarding the imperative for “increased ambition” and the “urgency to act” are rendered hollow when the UN continues to make use of the urgency to provide a “green” escape route for an industry that is destroying cultures, ecosystems, watersheds and the global atmosphere. We must ask ourselves: Are the UN climate talks more about protecting polluters than they are about protecting people and the planet? Unfortunately, sober analysis leads one to conclude that the oft-clamored-for climate emergency is being aggressively leveraged at COP25 to protect first and foremost transnational corporate interests, allowing human rights violations to be ignored and further entrenching false solutions, resulting unarguably in the perpetuation of a cruel culture of impunity.

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