Santiago, Chile – A United Nations climate conference was moved to Spain amid continuing unrest in Chile, but that did not stop local environmentalists from moving forward with their alternative 10-day event.
More than 100 environmental organisations launched their parallel conference in Chile’s capital Santiago on Monday, day one of the official COP25 conference in Madrid.
Residents of drought-impacted communities and other grassroots groups held a protest Monday morning in the plaza that has become the epicentre of demonstrations in Santiago against inequality and injustice over the past six weeks.
Barbara Astudillo did not show up empty-handed. She travelled 172km (107 miles) south to Santiago from Cabildo, her home community in the drought-stricken Petorca region, carrying animal bones, which she arranged and affixed to a tall stick in the plaza.
“We have had water problems for more than 15 years,” Astudillo told Al Jazeera.
Climate change has affected rainfall patterns and glaciers in different parts of the country, but that is not the root problem in Petorca, said Astudillo. Water is privatised in Chile, and extensive avocado plantations in Petorca are using most of it, she said.
“Water is a human right,” she said. “The UN says that water is a human right. But that has never existed here.”
Trucks deliver water to Cabildo residents, but it is not enough and sometimes the quality and quantity cause sanitary problems, said Astudillo. Small-scale farmers in the region raise cows and goats for cheese, but their animals are dying of thirst.
“I brought these bones to represent them,” she said, holding the staff of bones amid the protest in the plaza.
Access to water and land have always been the central issues for Modatima, the Movement for the Defence of Access to Water, Land and Environmental Protection, according to Rodrigo Mundaca, the movement’s spokesperson. Water was privatised during the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and Modatima has been fighting for the right to water ever since.
“It is related to the model of dispossession,” Mundaca, who was awarded the Nuremberg International Human Rights Award in September, told Al Jazeera.
“Chile’s development model is extractivist,” he said. “There is a vision of development that sees natural resources as infinite.”
Modatima is one of the many organisations participating in the parallel climate conference in Chile.
“The social crisis is also an ecological crisis,” Civil Society for Climate Action notes on its announcement of the ten-day gathering in Santiago, where a people’s forum and other parallel events are also taking place this week.
Mass protests against structural inequality began nearly two months ago in Chile and marches, rallies and other actions continue on a daily basis all over the country. At least 26 people have been killed amid the unrest, and thousands have been detained and wounded.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera initially deployed the military and later called for peace and unity. But government measures related to wages, pensions and a new constitution have fallen short of the demands of protesters, many of whom have been calling for Pinera’s resignation.
‘We want environmental justice’
Chile was set to host the COP25, but Pinera backed out late last month amid ongoing protests and spates of arson and looting. More than 20,000 delegates are now gathered in Madrid to discuss climate change and how to combat it.
Pinera is not attending the COP25, but he sent a video message Monday.
“It hurts not to be in Madrid today, but I feel it is my duty to be in Chile confronting the hard times we have been experiencing,” he said, also conveying his belief that the COP25 will be a leap towards a healthier planet.
Climate change is a real problem, but it is also used by the government to hide the structural roots of environmental problems and unequal resource distribution, said Eduardo Acuna. He came to the protest downtown Monday from just north of Santiago, where he and other residents are organising to push for official designation of local wetlands as a protected area.
“Millions of people have marched, including in this Plaza of Dignity,” Acuna told Al Jazeera, referencing the new name given to the plaza by protesters.
“This is the moment for change,” he said. “We want environmental justice.”