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by Alex CacciariSantiago Times
December 13th, 2007

Leaders of the Chilean environmental movement spoke out Wednesday against the National Environmental Commission’s (CONAMA) support of the government’s monitoring of environmental NGO campaigns. This comes after the Chilean daily La Tercera disclosed last Friday that Chile’s National Intelligence Agency (ANI) has increased oversight of environmental campaigns against three of the country’s most controversial environmental undertakings – the Aysén dam, the Pascua Lama gold mine, and Celulosa Arauco’s (CELCO) proposed waste duct into the sea.

Various environmental activists have claimed that ANI’s methods include unnecessary measures like espionage and infiltration (ST, Dec. 10, 11). They are particularly upset by CONAMA’s support of the ANI investigation.

Director of Greenpeace Chile, Rodrigo Hererra, commented on CONAMA’s position Wednesday. “ANI’s report has very grave implications for freedom of expression in the environmentalist movement,” he told the Santiago Times. “I absolutely reject CONAMA’s support of their investigation. It is clear that CONAMA has no idea what methods the ANI is using.”

Lucio Cuenca, director of the Latin American Observatory on Environmental Conflicts (Olca), said that his organization – which campaigns against the Pascua Lama gold mine among other things – has been monitored by ANI since 2005 and has had negative experience with ANI’s questionable investigation tactics.

“It is legitimate within a democracy for the government to gather information on organizations,” he said. “It is not legitimate to deny people their liberty, intimidate them, and intervene in their civic participation as ANI has done.”

Cuenca said he was dissatisfied, though not entirely surprised, that CONAMA supports ANI’s investigation. He called on CONAMA to better fulfill its role as a facilitator of public opinion in projects affecting the environment.

CONAMA Director Ana Lya Uriarte has defended the ANI investigation. Her spokesperson, Jaime Ugalde, said,
“It is necessary that in the democratic system that there exist investigation into the operations of organizations. But that does not necessarily imply infiltration or unnecessary persecution of said organizations.”

When asked about ANI’s supposed intimidation tactics, Ugalde said, “CONAMA does not have information that infiltration is one of the methods that ANI is employing. But if it is, then that is an issue that has to do with security, and should be left to the Ministry of the Interior. CONAMA does not have an opinion (on these allegations).”

CONAMA’s support of the investigation comes as the organization aims encourage more civic participation in its Environmental Impact Evaluation System (SEIA).

Urirate has launched a series of workshops set to last four months with the intention of surveying Chileans’ perception of the SEIA. Preliminary findings show that the general public believes there is not enough consideration of public opinion in CONAMA’s evaluation processes.

Uriarte says the survey of public opinion of the SEIA is part of a larger effort to restructure CONAMA to incorporate more avenues for the public to influence new projects.

But environmentalists are still dubious of CONAMA’s commitment to public participation. As Cuenca said, “CONAMA’s role should be to support free expression and ensure that people have all the information necessary to take part in the environmental impact evaluation process. But they do not do that. Instead, CONAMA misinforms the public by withholding necessary information on a given project.”

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