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Social and environmental issues



Income inequality


Chile is widely hailed as one of South America’s economic success stories and the strong economic growth did reduce poverty over the past couple of decades, yet income is still divided extremely unequally. The wealthiest 10% of the population take the lion’s share of national income – over 40% - while the poorer 10% receive a mere 1% of it, making Chile the second most unequal society in South America after Brazil. Another rift in society is marked by access to pure drinking water, a normal feature of daily life for 99% of urban Chileans, but only for half of those living in rural areas.




Chile's main environmental problems are the pollution of its air, water and land, and deforestation. Pollution from industry and transportation is especially acute in urban centers, where the population has doubled over the last 30 years.


Air pollution


The Santiago conurbation, choking in bus and truck diesel fumes and home to half of the country’s industry, was ranked the second most polluted city in Latin America after Mexico by Science magazine a few years ago. Because Santiago sits in a basin between the coastal range and the Andean crests, smog engulfs the city during most of the dry winter months. Attempts at imposing alternative driving days for private vehicles have made little difference, and the congested public transportation system contributes to unpleasant levels of noise pollution.


A different form of air pollution affecting Chile’s southernmost parts is the increased ultraviolet radiation caused by the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctica. The main effect on humans is a higher risk of skin cancer, so travelers to Patagonia and Antarctica should wear high-factor sun block, especially during the Antarctic spring, from September to December.


Water and land pollution


While Chile has made the best of its natural resources, turning itself into a leading exporter of fish, fresh fruit and copper, it has done so without much regard for conservation, so the country’s rivers and lakes are contaminated by sewage of domestic, agricultural and industrial origin. For instance, it is estimated that only 70% of waste water is treated in Santiago, and the Mapocho river, which runs across the capital, is terribly contaminated, even though a number of wastewater processing plants are under construction.


The central valley may be a bread basket but at a price: fruit growers use copious amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, which filter through to table water. Salmon farming operations, also a booming sector in the Lake District and in Patagonia, disperse salmon waste, antibiotics and other contaminants into streams, while fish escaping from commercial farms are said to colonize rivers and supplant native species. One of the worst offenders is the mining sector, also one of Chile’s leading industries. While copper smelters spew away, gold mines use cyanide which is extremely toxic for humans, livestock and wildlife. Large Canada- and U.S.-based mining corporations are increasingly seeing their operations being disputed by environmental activists, like in the Palena region.


The mining industry also happens to be a greedy one in terms of energy needs, which indirectly puts a heavy strain on natural resources. Endesa, Chile’s largest utility company, has plans to invest massively in hydroelectricity and indeed, constructing power stations that take advantage of the rivers rushing down from the Andes would be a reliable way to deal with the regular power shortages. However, plans to build dams on the Río Bío Bío and the river Futaleufú have already led to raging battles with indigenous activists, who point out that the dams would run afoul of indigenous laws. Another plan, the ambitious proposed HydroAysen project, which requires damming two of Patagonia’s most pristine rivers, the Pascua and the Baker, would flood rare temperate rainforests and some of Patagonia's best ranching lands. The proposed 2000-km high-voltage transmission line north towards Santiago would also create a clear-cut through beautiful forested areas. Conservation groups are campaigning against the damming projects, arguing that they pose a considerable threat to the million-dollar tourist industry, which needs the area’s white waters and pristine parks. Find out more by visiting the site of Futafriends, which aims to preserve the Futaleufú valley from environmental damage:




Forests cover roughly one fifth of Chile’s surface, but excessive logging and the resulting soil erosion are a problem. Also, the figures (15 million hectares of forested lands) do not reflect the fact that native trees are losing to commercial plantations of eucalyptus and Monterey pine. Also remember that many parts of Chile are bathed in a dry, Mediterranean climate and suffer from forest fires, o take extra caution when lighting a camping stove or fire within a park.


Threats to the environment also translate into attacks on the natural habitat of local wildlife. Among the Chilean species considered endangered are the South Andean huemul (a type of white-tailed deer), the tundra peregrine falcon, the puna rhea (an ostrich-like flightless bird), the Chilean woodstar (the smallest bird in Chile, of the hummingbird family), the ruddy-headed goose and the green sea turtle. Also endangered are four types of freshwater fish and more than 200 plant species.

Here are some related tips to help plan your trip to Chile: Chilean wine, Shopping in Santiago, Traveler’s Checks, Rock Art, Economy, Communications and Media , Chile Facts, Wiring Money, Chile by numbers and When to Go to Viña del Mar.

06 Jul 2009

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