New Constitution Would Declare Chile a Plurinational State

Civil Society, Democracy, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Regional Categories, TerraViva United Nations

Indigenous Rights

A Mar. 3 plenary session of the constitutional convention of Chile, where in long working days its members are drafting a new constitution, which must be completed by Jul. 4 at the latest. On Feb. 17, they approved by a large majority the new definition of Chile as a regional, plurinational and pluricultural State. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

A Mar. 3 plenary session of the constitutional convention of Chile, where in long working days its members are drafting a new constitution, which must be completed by Jul. 4 at the latest. On Feb. 17, they approved by a large majority the new definition of Chile as a regional, plurinational and pluricultural State. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

SANTIAGO, Mar 9 2022 (IPS) – Chile could change the course of its history and become a diverse and multicolored country this year with a “plurinational and intercultural state” that recognizes and promotes the development of the native peoples that inhabited this territory before the Spanish conquest.


By 112 votes in favor and 32 against, the constitutional convention approved this proposal which now forms part of the draft constitution that Chilean voters will approve or reject in an August or September referendum.

“The current Chilean constitution and the previous ones make no mention of the words Indian, native…indigenous peoples, or original peoples. Nothing. They are erased from the constitution because they were made invisible socially, culturally, economically, politically and militarily.” — Domingo Namuncura

The constitutional convention is debating and drafting a new constitution which is the result of the work of 155 constituents – half men and half women, with 17 indigenous members – elected by popular vote in October 2020 who began the task on Jul. 4, 2021. They have until Jul. 4 to finish their work.

In the country’s last census, in 2017, 2.18 million Chileans self-identified as indigenous people.

In other words, 12.8 percent of the 17.07 million inhabitants of Chile at that time (today the population stands at 19.4 million) were recognized as belonging to one of the indigenous peoples distributed throughout this long narrow South American country: the Mapuche (the largest native group), followed by the Aymara, Rapa Nui, Diaguita, Atacameño, Quechua, Colla, Kawesqar and Yagan.

Domingo Namuncura, a Mapuche social worker and professor at the Catholic University of Valparaíso, told IPS that “we are facing a very important historic event. The declaration of a plurinational State has always been a dream of the indigenous peoples of Chile.”

The creation of the constitutional convention was the response to months of protests and social unrest in 2019, the repression of which tainted the second term of right-wing President Sebastián Piñera, a businessman who had already governed the country between 2010 and 2014, and who will be succeeded as of Mar. 11 by the leftist Gabriel Boric, winner of the December elections.

Chile has been governed since 1980 by the constitution imposed by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), who used legislation to put in place a neoliberal and authoritarian economic and political regime, which democratic governments have only been able to partially dismantle since 1990.

The result is a country with a dynamic economy based on exports of mining and agricultural products, but with one of the most unequal societies in the world, which was at the basis of the 2019 demonstrations, as was the failure to fulfill promises of change, such as a new constitution, the reform of the educational system or improvements in social rights.

Mapuche Indians living in the metropolitan region. Data from 2021 indicate that the Mapuche, Chile's largest indigenous people, number 1.8 million, followed by the Aymara (156,000) and the Diaguita (88,000). CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Mapuche Indians living in the metropolitan region. Data from 2021 indicate that the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous people, number 1.8 million, followed by the Aymara (156,000) and the Diaguita (88,000). CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Arguments of the constituents

No previous Chilean constitution has mentioned indigenous people and their rights, by contrast with other Latin American constitutions that have emerged since 1980. And the only precedent of declaring a “plurinational state” is that of neighboring Bolivia, which did so in its 2009 constitution.

“The current Chilean constitution and the previous ones make no mention of the words Indian, native…indigenous peoples, or original peoples. Nothing. They are erased from the constitution because they were made invisible socially, culturally, economically, politically and militarily,” said Namuncura.

Adolfo Millabur, Chile’s first Mapuche mayor, elected in 1996 in the southern town of Tirúa, resigned from his post to become a member of the constitutional convention, to occupy one of the seats reserved for Mapuche representatives. He maintained that “if Chile is transformed and defines itself as a plurinational state, what changes is its democratic vocation.”

“By acknowledging the peoples that lived here prior to the creation of the Chilean State, a collective actor is given value. Different forms of relations should begin to be established, especially in the area of political definition and participation,” he told IPS.

Lawyer Tiare Aguilera, a member of the constitutional convention from the Rapa Nui people, believes that “the most important thing is to reach the referendum with a citizenry that is informed about plurinationality and its implications.”

In her view, “through plurinationality, our country will finally be able to advance towards reparations for the native peoples of Chile.

“There is a great deal of ignorance among the public. If we correctly inform and educate the public about their meanings and implications, we believe that the changes in the definition of the State will be understood,” she told IPS.

The facade of the old National Congress, where since July 2021 the members of the constitutional convention have been debating the new form of State that will govern Chile starting this year, if the draft constition is approved in a referendum. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

The facade of the old National Congress, where since July 2021 the members of the constitutional convention have been debating the new form of State that will govern Chile starting this year, if the draft constition is approved in a referendum. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Jaime Bassa, a member of the constitutional convention who was its vice-president until January, said “the normative proposals approved in commissions and in the plenary on plurinationality speak to us of a sense of reality, of accepting ourselves in legitimate diversity and coexistence, of recognizing our historical roots, of valuing ourselves based on our cultural identity.

“In comparative experiences, plurinationalism and multilingualism have brought about interesting cultural changes that have led to innovative and sustainable development alternatives,” he told IPS.

In his opinion, “the growth and development model we are moving towards within the framework of the constituent process that is underway should promote ethics and inter-territorial solidarity, care for the environment and sustainability, as foundations for political equality, and to ensure collaborative, resilient contexts of respect for rights that allow us to broaden and deepen our democracy.”

Bassa said the constitutional convention “is working on a proposal for a plurinational and decentralized legislative power in which there is equality, which would give rise to representation for the different territories, that would participate in the process of law-making, effectively representing the peoples and nations that coexist within the State.”

The regulation approved on Feb. 17 states that “Chile is a regional, plurinational and intercultural State made up of autonomous territorial entities, within a framework of equity and solidarity among all of them, preserving the unity and integrity of the State.”

According to Namuncura, who was the first Mapuche to serve as a Chilean ambassador, to Guatemala, “Chile has always been plurinational because it is constituted on the basis of different native populations that were already in this territory and that joined as native peoples or nations, by force or otherwise, in the construction of the national State.

“From the Aztec, Mayan, Inca and Mapuche cultures, before the arrival of the Spaniards, America was already a plurinational continent populated by more than 1,200 indigenous nationalities that were formed many centuries ago,” he pointed out.

The convention is also discussing other norms for indigenous peoples, such as their own courts of justice in coordination with the national justice system, a parliament with indigenous representation and a regime governing natural resources located in their territories.

Representatives of the Mapuche, Lonko and Machi peoples take part in the raising of the flag in the Plaza de Armas in Vilcún, 700 km south of Santiago, in one of the many events held in Chile every Jun. 24, declared a national holiday for We Tripantu (new sunrise), the Mapuche New Year. CREDIT: Mirna Concha/IPS

Representatives of the Mapuche, Lonko and Machi peoples take part in the raising of the flag in the Plaza de Armas in Vilcún, 700 km south of Santiago, in one of the many events held in Chile every Jun. 24, declared a national holiday for We Tripantu (new sunrise), the Mapuche New Year. CREDIT: Mirna Concha/IPS

Business leaders unhappy

This process is of great concern to the business leaders grouped in the Confederation of Production and Commerce (CPC), whose board, headed by Juan Sutil, met several times with Mapuche representative Elisa Loncón, who was president of the convention until January, and her successor, María Elisa Quinteros.

The CPC was behind numerous Popular Standards Initiatives seeking to include its positions in the debate. It invited everyone to support these initiatives “that defend the values of freedom of thought and free enterprise,” among others, in order to achieve “a robust democracy” with public-private collaboration.

The CPC gathered 507,852 signatures and was able to submit 16 initiatives with its views on the constituent process. Three of them have already been rejected: “Free enterprise”, “Economic model, freedom of entrepreneurship and promotion of small and medium-sized enterprises”, and “Water for all”. One more is still being processed: “Towards sustainable mining for Chile”.

Business leaders have raised the tone of their opposition to the convention, which they accuse of distancing itself from the real Chile and from the work for a constitution for all.

“I am concerned that the constitution that is being drafted is not generating the proper balances and will not be a constitution that takes into account the sensibilities of all Chileans,” said Sutil.

Those sensitivities, he said, are especially from “a minority sector, which could be the center right, the right and even people from the center within the convention itself who are not being taken into consideration at all,” he told a local radio station.

“Chile is much more than what the constitutional convention reflects. The correlation of forces is very different in the real Chile than what is happening in the convention,” he argued.

According to Sutil, criticism of the convention is widespread and “this is bad not only because it jeopardizes the process, but also because it jeopardizes the future of the country from an institutional point of view, and from the point of view of its development and growth.”

Forestry companies own approximately 1.9 million hectares in an enormous area in the south, across three of the country’s regions. A significant part of these hectares are the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.

Catalina Marileo and Luis Aillapán, a Mapuche couple, stand in front of their home in Puerto Saavedra in the central Chilean region of La Araucanía. They have been among the many members of native peoples tried under an anti-terrorism law inherited from the dictatorship for acts such as, in their case, opposing the military for building a road on their land. Now Chile could be declared a plurinational State. CREDIT: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Catalina Marileo and Luis Aillapán, a Mapuche couple, stand in front of their home in Puerto Saavedra in the central Chilean region of La Araucanía. They have been among the many members of native peoples tried under an anti-terrorism law inherited from the dictatorship for acts such as, in their case, opposing the military for building a road on their land. Now Chile could be declared a plurinational State. CREDIT: Marianela Jarroud/IPS

Precedents of a truth commission

The Historical Truth and New Deal with Indigenous Peoples Commission, created by then president Ricardo Lagos in 2001 and composed of 24 members with cross-cutting representation, found that 500,000 hectares were awarded to indigenous peoples between 1884 and 1929. This was verified after reviewing 413 titles issued in that time span.

The purpose of the Commission was to “correct the historical invisibility of native peoples, recognize their identity, repair the damage done to them and contribute to the preservation of their culture.”

In its final report, in 2003, the Commission proposed a hundred measures. In the area of land, it called for protecting lands belonging to indigenous peoples, demarcating and titling ancestral lands of native communities, and establishing a land reclamation mechanism.

Regarding natural resources, it proposed recognizing the indigenous peoples’ right of ownership, use, administration and benefit, the preferential right in State concessions, and the right of use, management and conservation.

So far, the greatest gesture by the State for the mistreatment of indigenous peoples was made by the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, who as president of Chile (2006-2010 and 2014-2018) apologized in June 2017 to the Mapuche in a solemn official act for “the errors and horrors” committed against them.

Namuncura believes that a pending task is “to reach a political agreement with the large forestry companies so that a part of these lands, which today are their property, are returned to the indigenous peoples through a long-term political and financial commitment, with the possibility of considering the value of this restitution.”

The wording already approved for the first draft will now be analyzed by the Harmonization Commission, which will ensure “the concordance and coherence of the constitutional norms approved by the plenary.”

The version that emerges from that process will be voted by the plenary which, by two thirds, will define the text to be voted on by all Chileans in the referendum.

  Source

Homeless Camps, a Reflection of Growing Inequality in Chile

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Regional Categories

Development & Aid

On Cerro 18, above the affluent municipality of Lo Barnechea, in the coveted eastern sector of Santiago de Chile with a stunning view of the valley and the Andes Mountains, 300 families live in five camps or irregular settlements, many without water, electricity or sewage. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

SANTIAGO, Dec 10 2021 (IPS) – Camps made up of thousands of tents and shacks have mushroomed in Chile due to the failure of housing policies and official subsidies for the sector, aggravated by the rise in poverty, the covid-19 pandemic and the massive influx of immigrants.


“Three years ago we were about to be evicted and when my children would head off to school they never knew if our little house would be there when they got home. One morning we were going to school and the carabineros (militarized police) were coming. Many times I had to go home early from work. It was chaotic, difficult and distressing,” Melanni Salas told IPS during a visit to the site.

Salas, 33, presides over Senda 23, one of the five camps that bring together 300 families who occupied public land in Cerro 18, in the municipality of Lo Barnechea, on the east side of Santiago. They have been building shacks with wood and other materials within their reach, which they are gradually trying to improve.

The threat of eviction ceased at the start of the covid pandemic, but the shadow still hangs over their heads because the municipality “built us a septic tank and gave us gifts for Christmas, but has said nothing about housing,” she said.

The community activist previously lived for 19 years as an “allegada”, the name given in Chile to people or families who share a house with relatives or friends, in overcrowded conditions. In 2016 she occupied the land where she and her husband Jorge built the precarious dwelling where she now lives with her three children aged 15, 13 and five years old.

“This used to be a garbage dump and now it is clean and there are houses,” said Salas. “Mine gets a little wet inside when it rains because it is made of wood and because of the strong wind. But I have drinking water, electricity and sewerage thanks to my mother-in-law who lives further up. The neighboring family has neither water nor sewage. They are a couple with three children and one of them, Colomba, was born a week ago.”

She explains that her neighbors “use the bathroom at their brother’s place who lives nearby, but during the pregnancy she went back to her mother’s house.”

In the camps people cook, wash, sleep and live together, observed by passers-by who have become accustomed to this new urban landscape. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

In the camps people cook, wash, sleep and live together, observed by passers-by who have become accustomed to this new urban landscape. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Hundreds of homeless tents now line the main avenues of Santiago de Chile.

Explosive situation

“Every day more than 10 families come to live in an encampment in Chile,” says Fundación Techo Chile, a social organization dedicated to fighting against housing exclusion in the cities of this South American country.

The problem is also seen along the avenues and in the parks where hundreds of men and women set up tents to sleep, cook, wash and live together in full view of passers-by who have become accustomed to the scene.

In the last two years, the number of families living in 969 of these camps with almost no access to water, energy and sanitation services has increased to 81,643, a survey by the Fundación Techo Chile found.

In Chile, the term “campamentos” or camps has also come to refer to slums or shantytowns known traditionally as “callampas”, such as the one where Salas lives, which are built on occupied land and consist of houses made of light materials, although the neighborhoods are sometimes later improved and upgraded, but still lack basic services.

These slums are mainly in Santiago and Valparaíso, 120 kilometers north of the capital, in central Chile. But they are also found in the northern cities of Arica and Parinacota and the southern city of Araucanía.

They are home to 57,384 children under the age of 14 and some 25,000 immigrants, mostly Colombians, Venezuelans and Haitians. “Today, families live there who six months or two years ago were ‘allegados’ living in overcrowded, informal, precarious or abusive conditions. That is what is understood as a housing deficit,” Fundación Techo Chile’s executive director, Sebastián Bowen, told IPS.

“The 81,000 families living in camps are the most visible part of the problem, but the housing deficit, covering all the families who do not have access to decent housing, exceeds 600,000,” he said.

The State provides some 20,000 social housing solutions each year, a figure that is highly insufficient to meet the current need.

According to Bowen, “if we want to solve the problem of the camps, we must structurally change our housing policy to guarantee access to decent housing, especially for the most vulnerable families.”

This explosion coincided with the social protests that began in October 2019 and with the arrival of coronavirus in the country in March 2020.

According to the National Socioeconomic Characterization Survey (Casen), 10.8 percent of Chileans currently live in poverty, which means more than two million people, although social organizations say the real proportion is much higher.

Chile, with a population of 19 million people, is considered one of the most unequal countries in the world, as reflected by the fact that the 10 percent of households with the highest incomes earn 251.3 times more than the 10 percent with the lowest income.

View of some of the houses in Cerro 18, a shantytown where 300 families live, most of them without even the most basic services. In what used to be a garbage dump, on the hillside of one of the wealthy neighborhoods of the Chilean capital, they have built their houses using scrap wood and waste materials. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

View of some of the houses in Cerro 18, a shantytown where 300 families live, most of them without even the most basic services. In what used to be a garbage dump, on the hillside of one of the wealthy neighborhoods of the Chilean capital, they have built their houses using scrap wood and waste materials. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

The new constitution holds out hope

Benito Baranda, founder of the Fundación Techo, an organization that now operates in several Latin American countries, believes that the housing policy failed because it focuses on “market-based eradication, forming housing ghettos on land where people continue to live in a segregated manner.”

This policy is also based on a structure of subsidies “born during the dictatorship and which has remained in place because housing is not a right recognized in the constitution,” Baranda, now a member of the Constitutional Convention that is drafting a new constitution, which will finally replace the one inherited from the 1973-1990 military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, told IPS.

“The decision of where people are going to live was handed over to the market. Not only the construction of housing. And the land began to run out and the available and cheap places were in the ghettos,” he explained.

Baranda criticized the policy of “eradication”, “which created ghettos and generated much greater harm for people,” referring to the forced expulsions of slumdwellers and their relocation to social housing built on the outskirts of the cities, a policy initiated during the Pinochet dictatorship and which crystallized social segregation in the capital.

According to Baranda, “in the last four governments there has been the least construction of housing for the poorest families.”

Baranda was elected to the constituent assembly in a special election in May and proposes “to generate a mechanism that will progressively reduce the waiting times for housing, which today can stretch out to 20 years.”

Twenty-story buildings, where each floor has 50 17-square-meter apartments, are called "vertical ghettos" and are inhabited mainly by immigrants. These ones are located in the Estación Central neighborhood, along Alameda Avenue that crosses Santiago de Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Twenty-story buildings, where each floor has 50 17-square-meter apartments, are called “vertical ghettos” and are inhabited mainly by immigrants. These ones are located in the Estación Central neighborhood, along Alameda Avenue that crosses Santiago de Chile. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Privatization of social housing

Isabel Serra, an academic at the Diego Portales University Faculty of Architecture, believes that “the housing issue in Chile will be solved in some way through family networks…There is a lot of overcrowding here and small families are becoming the norm,” she told IPS.

According to Serra, the mushrooming of camps “clearly has to do with the influx of immigrants and this has grown especially in cities that are also functional or productive or extractivist hubs.”

She criticized the subsidy policy because these “are transferred to the private sector and what they do is drive up housing prices… and most of them are not used because they are not in line with the price of land and housing.”

“A highly financialized private market has made housing a tool for economic speculation…investors have decided to put their funds into the real estate market,” she said.

The problem has already reached the 155-member Constitutional Convention, which has been functioning since Jul. 4 and has a 12-month deadline to draft the new constitution, which must then be ratified in a plebiscite.

In September Melanni Salas and representatives of eight organizations met with Elisa Loncón, president of the Convention, to present her with the book “Constitution and Poverty”, which includes proposals to guarantee the right to housing.

“I hope they include this in the new constitution. The proposals were made by 25,000 excluded people…this document seeks to ensure that we are not left on the sidelines as always,” the community organizer explained.

A human right

Baranda said “in the constituent assembly we are working to get this enshrined as a right and to get the State to assume a leading role, not in the construction of housing itself, but in determining where people are going to live and creating the land bank that people have been demanding for so long.”

“We need the policies, by making land available and expropriating property that is not owned by the State, to create housing projects in places where there is social inclusion,” he stressed.

Serra agreed that “when the issue of housing is discussed in the constituent assembly, it will have to look at how the State buys and sells land.

“Housing is a basic human right and should be enshrined in the constitution, with all the parameters that are established for decent housing,” she argued.

Serra also called for “modernizing the instruments and the institutional framework dedicated to the provision of housing” because, she said, “currently the role of housing provision is clearly played by the market.”

She said it would require “a great deal of political will because land issues in general are political issues, very difficult to implement because there are many economic interests involved.”

Celia “Charito” Durán lives in the Mesana camp on Mariposas hill in the port city of Valparaíso, along with 165 other families, and counting.

The municipality delivers 3,000 liters of water per week to each house, using tanker trucks.

Durán said, however, that the priority is access “because if there is no road, we are cut off from everything: firefighters, water, ambulances.”

In Mesana there is no sewage system, only “cesspools, septic toilets and pipes through which people dump everything into the creek,” she told IPS by telephone.

On the hilltop the wind is very strong and every winter roofs are blown off and houses leak when it rains.

Durán, 56, has lived there since she was 37. She is confident that a solution to the social housing deficit will come out of the constituent assembly, after participating in meetings with Jaime Bassa, vice-president of the Constitutional Convention.

“We have the hope and expectation that the right to housing will be included. So, if tomorrow it is not fulfilled, you could go to the authorities with the right to protest about it,” she said.

“We want to be part of the city and not be segregated and forced to return to the camps,” Durán said.

  Source

Chilean Schools Recycle Greywater to Combat Drought

Active Citizens, Civil Society, Climate Change, Combating Desertification and Drought, Development & Aid, Editors’ Choice, Education, Environment, Featured, Headlines, Integration and Development Brazilian-style, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population, Poverty & SDGs, Projects, Regional Categories, Special Report, Water & Sanitation

Water & Sanitation

The principal of the Samo Alto rural school, Omar Santander, shows organic tomatoes in the greenhouse built by teachers, students and their families, who raise the crops irrigated with rainwater or recycled water in Coquimbo, a region of northern Chile where rainfall is scarce. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

The principal of the Samo Alto rural school, Omar Santander, shows organic tomatoes in the greenhouse built by teachers, students and their families, who raise the crops irrigated with rainwater or recycled water in Coquimbo, a region of northern Chile where rainfall is scarce. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

OVALLE, Chile, Jul 4 2019 (IPS) – Children from the neighboring municipalities of Ovalle and Río Hurtado in northern Chile are harvesting rain and recycling greywater in their schools to irrigate fruit trees and vegetable gardens, in an initiative aimed at combating the shortage of water in this semi-arid region.


And other youngsters who are completing their education at a local polytechnic high school built a filter that will optimise the reuse and harvesting of water.

“The care of water has to start with the children,” Alejandra Rodríguez, who has a son who attends the school in Samo Alto, a rural village on the slopes of the Andes Mountains in Río Hurtado, a small municipality of about 4,000 inhabitants in the Coquimbo region, told IPS.

“My son brought me a tomato he harvested, to use the seeds. For them, the harvest is the prize. He planted his garden next to the house and it was very exciting,” said Maritza Vega, a teacher at the school, which has 77 students ranging in age from four to 15.

The principal of the school, Omar Santander, told IPS during a tour of rural schools in the area involved in the project that “the Hurtado River (which gives the municipality its name) was traditionally generous, but today it only has enough water for us to alternate the crops that are irrigated, every few days. People fight over watering rights.”

The Samo Alto school collects rainwater and recycles water after different uses. “The water is then sent to a double filter,” he explained, pointing out that they have a pond that holds 5,000 liters.

The monthly water bill is much lower, but Santander believes that the most important thing “is the awareness it has generated in the children.”

“There used to be water here, and the adults’ habits come from back then. The students help raise awareness in their families. We want the environmental dimension to be a tool for life,” he said.

For Admalén Flores, a 13-year-old student, “the tomatoes you harvest are tastier and better,” while Alexandra Honores, also 13, said “my grandfather now reuses water.”

El Guindo primary school, located 10 kilometers from the city of Ovalle, the municipal seat, in a town known as a hotspot for drug sales, performed poorly in tests until three years ago.

At that time, the principal, Patricio Bórquez, and the science teacher, Gisela Jaime, launched a process of greywater recovery. They also planted trees and native species of plants to adapt to the dry environment of the municipality of 111,000 inhabitants, located about 400 kilometers north of Santiago.

Four students, ages 13 and 14, talk to IPS about how the water reuse project has made them aware of the importance of taking care of water in the semi-arid territory where they live, in a classroom at the rural school of El Guindo, in the municipality of Ovalle, Chile. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Four students, ages 13 and 14, talk to IPS about how the water reuse project has made them aware of the importance of taking care of water in the semi-arid territory where they live, in a classroom at the rural school of El Guindo, in the municipality of Ovalle, Chile. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

“The project was born because there was no vegetation,” said the teacher. Today they recover 8,000 litres of water a month. “Teaching care for the environment provides a life skill,” said Bórquez.

“Our school had the stigma of being in a place rife with drug addiction. Today in Ovalle we are known as the school with the most programs. We placed third in science,” she said.

Jaime described the experience as “gratifying” because it has offered “tools to grow and create awareness among children and the entire community about the importance of caring for water and other resources.”

Geographer Nicolás Schneider, founder of the “Un Alto en el Desierto” Foundation, told IPS that his non-governmental organisation estimates that one million litres of greywater have been recovered after eight years of work with rural schools in Ovalle.

In this arid municipality with variable rainfall, “only 37.6 mm of rainwater fell in 2018 – well below the normal average for the 1981-2010 period of 105.9 mm,” Catalina Cortés, an expert with Chile’s meteorology institute, told IPS from Santiago.

Schneider describes the water situation as critical in the Coquimbo region, which is on the southern border of the Atacama Desert and where 90 percent of the territory is eroded and degraded.

“Due to climate change, it is raining less and less and when it does, the rainfall is very concentrated. Both the lack of rain and the concentration of rainfall cause serious damage to the local population,” she said.

Innovative recycling filter

With guidance from their teachers, students at the Ovalle polytechnic high school built a filtration system devised by Eduardo Leiva, a professor of chemistry and pharmacy at the Catholic University. The filter seeks to raise the technical standard with which greywater is purified.

Duan Urqueta, 17, a fourth-year electronics student at the Ovalle polytechnic high school, describes the award-winning greywater filter he helped to build. Initially, units will be installed in eight rural schools in this municipality in northern Chile. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

Duan Urqueta, 17, a fourth-year electronics student at the Ovalle polytechnic high school, describes the award-winning greywater filter he helped to build. Initially, units will be installed in eight rural schools in this municipality in northern Chile. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

The prototype recycles the greywater from the bathrooms used by the 1,200 students at the polytechnic high school. This water is used to irrigate three areas with 48 different species of trees. Similar filters will be installed in eight rural schools in Ovalle.

The quality of the recovered water will improve due to the filter built thanks to a project by the Innovation Fund for Competitiveness of the regional government of Coquimbo, with the participation of the Catholic University, the “Un Alto en el Desierto” Foundation, and the Ovalle polytechnic high school.

The prototype was built by 18 students and eight teachers of mechanics, industrial assembly, electronics, electricity and technical drawing, and includes two 1,000-litre ponds.

The primary pond holds water piped from the bathroom sinks by gravity which is then pumped to a filter consisting of three columns measuring 0.35 meters high and 0.40 meters in diameter.

“The filter material in each column…can be activated charcoal, sand or gravel,” said Hernán Toro, the head teacher of industrial assembly.

Toro told IPS that “the prototype has a column with zeolite and two columns of activated charcoal. The columns are mounted on a metal structure 2.60 meters high.”

View of the water cleaning filter designed at the Ovalle polytechnic high school and built by a group of teachers and students with funding from the government of the region of Coquimbo, in northern Chile. Each unit costs 2,170 dollars and it will promote water recycling in the schools in the semi-arid municipality. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

View of the water cleaning filter designed at the Ovalle polytechnic high school and built by a group of teachers and students with funding from the government of the region of Coquimbo, in northern Chile. Each unit costs 2,170 dollars and it will promote water recycling in the schools in the semi-arid municipality. Credit: Orlando Milesi/IPS

The water is pumped from the pond to the filter’s highest column, passes through the filter material and by gravity runs sequentially through the other columns. Finally, the water is piped into the secondary pond and by means of another electric pump it reaches the irrigation system.

Duan Urqueta, a 17-year-old electronics student, told IPS that they took soil and water samples in seven towns in Ovalle and “we used the worst water to test the filter that is made here at the high school with recyclable materials.”

In 2018, “we won first place with the filter at the Science Fair in La Serena, the capital of the region of Coquimbo,” he said proudly.

Pablo Cortés, a 17-year-old student of industrial assembly, said the project “changed me as a person.”

Toro said the experience “has been enriching and has had a strong social impact. We are sowing the seeds of ecological awareness in the students.”

“It’s a programme that offers learning, service, and assistance to the community. Everyone learns. We have seen people moved to the point of tears in their local communities,” the teacher said.

Now they are going to include solar panels in the project, which will cut energy costs, while they already have an automation system to discharge water, which legally can only be stored for a short time.

Eight schools, including the ones in Samo Alto and El Guindo, are waiting for the new filters, which cost 2,170 dollars per unit.

Schneider believes, however, that at the macro level “water recycling is insufficient” to combat the lack of water in this semi-arid zone. And he goes further, saying “there is an absence of instruments for territorial planning or management of watersheds.”

“Under the current water regulatory framework, the export agribusiness, mainly of fruit, has taken over the valleys, concentrating water use…and the government turns a blind eye,” he complained.