Chilean voters resoundingly reject a new ‘ecological’ constitution

To the dismay of many scientists in Chile, voters resoundingly rejected a draft constitution that would have had major impacts on research, environmental policies, and Indigenous rights. Sixty-two percent of voters said “no” during a referendum yesterday on the new charter, which would have steered the country sharply leftward.

“I’m still a bit shocked,” says Olga Barbosa, an ecologist at the Austral University of Chile who supported the new constitution. “There’s still so much fear of change.”

Last month, more than 1200 scientists signed a letter calling for approval of the draft, which proposed granting rights to nature and sentient animals and charged Chile’s government with taking action against the climate and biodiversity crises.

Not all scientists approved, however. Manuel Rozas, chief scientific officer of Kura Biotech, a company headquartered in Patagonia, says the new constitution would have strengthened academic science but its economic and political reforms would have caused too much uncertainty and driven away investors who could help grow Chile’s research-based industries.

Chilean President Gabriel Boric has said he would be meeting with party leaders today to discuss what happens next. For now, the country’s current constitution, adopted in 1980 during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, remains in force. But proponents of the new version hope the debate of the past year will spur changes anyway. On climate and environment, as well as gender parity, “There’s no turning back,” Barbosa says. “I’m happy that this served as a push for change.”

The road to a new constitution began in 2019 after massive, nationwide protests triggered by a hike in public transit fares led to calls for a major political, social, and economic overhaul in Chile. In 2020, nearly 80% of Chileans voted in favor of scrapping the 1980 constitution and creating a new one from scratch. An elected constitutional convention was charged with drafting it.

That group, composed of 155 nonpoliticians—including several scientists—was dominated by the left. The 388-article draft it produced called for a new economic order that would create a more egalitarian society, gender parity across government and institutions, legalized abortion, and universal health care. It would also have established Chile as an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country.” At least 11 Indigenous groups would have been recognized as “nations” within Chile and granted autonomy.

The proposed constitution also guaranteed scientists freedom of research and ordered the state to stimulate, promote, and strengthen the development of scientific and technological research. (The current constitution says almost nothing about research.)

Scientists contributed to several parts of the draft. For example, the Ecological Society of Chile helped devise protections for native biodiversity, says Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist at the University of Antofagasta and a member of the constitutional convention.

Both sides of the political spectrum supported many of the provisions on science, says Nicolás Trujillo Osorio, a philosopher of science at the Diverse Science Studies Center at Andrés Bello National University. But the proposal as a whole was too radical for most Chileans. Many voters opposed the drastic political and judicial reforms, including Indigenous autonomy, the elimination of the Senate, and the right for presidents to run for a second term.

Mining, agricultural, and energy companies, which use about 80% of Chile’s water, had lobbied against the draft constitution as well, which guaranteed access to water as a human right and mandated the creation of a new water agency. Disinformation and lies also played a role in the defeat, including the claim that the new constitution allowed abortion even in the final months of pregnancy. (It did not specify such terms.)

Scientists supportive of the proposal acknowledge that it had its flaws, as did the path that led to it. The process was rushed from the start, says Adriana Bastías, a biochemist at the Autonomous University of Chile, Santiago, and president of the Chilean Network of Women Scientists. Few citizens had time to review the 170-page document. Trujillo Osorio says concepts such as the “rights of nature” were too vague and its meaning and implementation mechanisms should have been better explained. “Having a good constitution is not enough,” he says. “We also need an informed citizenship.”

Ayelen Tonko Huenucoy, a physical anthropologist at the Chilean National Museum of Natural History and a member of the Kawésqar, an Indigenous people in Patagonia, says she supported the draft and applauded the focus on science and Indigenous rights but says many communities, including her own, were not properly consulted, or not at all. That created distrust, she says.

Still, Tonko Huenucoy says it’s essential that the country restart the constitutional reform process and come up with a more thought-out proposal. Rozas agrees. “We should have a shorter, more agile constitution,” he says, “one that endures over time.”

Although she regrets the outcome, Dorador Ortiz says participating in the constitutional convention was “a great experience. … There are few instances where you can talk about science and knowledge in the political context thinking about the future of the country.” Indeed, Bastías sees the active participation of scientists in the process as a silver lining. “The scientific community learned that it should get involved in important political issues in the country,” she says. Now that the effort has failed, “We need, without a doubt, a deep analysis, with self-criticism and humility.”

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