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Air Pollution Threatens Chile's Indigenous Communities

Air pollution in Chile causes 127,000 emergency health situations and more than 4,000 premature deaths – especially amongst the low-income citizens and the indigenous communities every year.

To tackle this problem, in 2014, the Government launched a specific programme in the centre-south region of the country to substitute 200,000 firewood heaters with more energy-efficient heaters. In this regard, new gas, paraffin and wood pellet-based heaters are being used. This regulation has reduced air pollution rates and emissions for ‘’urban elites.’’ However, unfortunately, indigenous peoples still suffer the devastating effects of air pollution in Chile.

“We have seen the effects and the benefits of atmospheric decontamination plans that we did not notice in previous years due to drought and bad ventilation conditions,” said Marcelo Mena, former Minister for the Environment of Chile.

Many residents who live in the cities think that this solution is an ideal alternative since it is cheap and reduces air pollution (albeit for a short time). However, it should be remembered that firewood is impractical and pollutes the air. The transfer of pollution to places outside the city centre also has consequences that will violate the right to life of Indigenous Peoples. In addition to all these, not all alternative products used are biodegradable and sustainable.

For example, using paraffin is a powerful threat to health and the environment. The burning of candles emits pollutants into the air, and paraffin wax, made by petroleum refining, is a common substance in candles. Paraffin consists mostly of hydrocarbon ranging from 30 to 44 carbon atoms long. Many experts declared that paraffin is not biodegradable since, in most forms, it leaves behind a residue in the environment after it has burned. Additionally, paraffin is considered a carcinogen and is linked to critical health problems, such as lung cancer and pancreatic cancer.

For this reason, using paraffin as a cheap fuel affects health and puts the lives of many citizens at risk. In addition, paraffin, which contributes tremendously to the increase of environmental pollution, threatens the Indigenous Peoples, who are fed by the "power" of pure and clean nature because it pollutes nature hazardously.

The recent developments in the city centres have had positive results for the citizens. However, this is not the same for the Indigenous Peoples: since Indigenous Peoples live in communities abiding by their own traditions, the pollution creates a highly unfair mechanism towards them. As we have seen during the pandemic we are in, Indigenous Peoples face great difficulties and obstacles both in reaching the vaccine and receiving adequate treatment. These ancient peoples, who live in harmony with nature, have significant problems in properly benefiting from health services. Moreover, being alone with factors that poison nature, such as air pollution, puts these people in a vulnerable position.

Closing thoughts

Although various practises have been introduced and new regulations have been made to prevent air pollution from past to present in Chile, it is possible to say that the most important driving force in the continuation of pollution is the significant income inequalities among citizens. Unfortunately, the fuels and elements used by the underprivileged and low-income citizens cause an increase in the rate of air pollution. Consequently, vulnerable communities, especially Indigenous Peoples, cannot cope with this problem alone, so they experience critical health problems and even lose their lives. The regulations put into practice by the Chilean Government in 2017 to prevent air pollution offer a short-term solution because although citizens with low income can get cheaper services with these regulations, the products used still have to be "burned". This situation increases the rate of air pollution. Furthermore, it directly targets the Indigenous Peoples, who live in harmony with nature. In the light of all these, it can be said that the Government must go to new regulatory arrangements by offering more sustainable and cleaner solutions but making sure that every citizen can reach these solutions.


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