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How Decarbonization is Affecting Labor and Land Rights in Latin America.

  • Essay
  • Jun 19 2023
  • Phillip Paiement
    is an Associate Professor in Jurisprudence at Tilburg Law School (the Netherlands) conducting research on transnational environmental and climate litigation. This research is funded by the European Union (ERC STG TransLitigate 101039648). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or ERC. Neither the European Union nor the ERC can be held responsible for them.

(Translated from Spanish: “In Chile there are neither privileged persons nor groups. In Chile there are no slaves, and anyone that sets foot on its territory will become free. Men and women are equal before the law.” – Article 19(2) of the Political Constitution of the Republic of Chile)

Throughout 2019 and 2020, Chile’s Ministry of Energy entered into a series of agreements with private energy companies that aimed to facilitate the decarbonization of the country’s energy sector. These agreements were made without any input from the labor unions that represented workers in power plants or other impacted infrastructures, such as the port facility that was being used for transferring coal to the electricity plant in Tocopilla. Facing the risk of unemployment amid the closure of coal-fired electricity plants, labor unions filed an administrative appeal against the Ministry’s “Energy Sector Decarbonization Plan,” as well as the decrees issued in its subsequent implementation. 

The unions claimed that the Ministry’s Plan failed to uphold the rights of laborers and thus fell short of the government’s obligations related to the “just transition” to a decarbonized energy sector. After the unions’ appeal was first rejected by Chile’s Court of Appeals, the case was then heard by the Supreme Court of Chile, which issued its decision in August 2021. The Supreme Court decision, which was one of the first high court rulings on labor rights amid the Chilean energy transition, ordered that the Ministry of Energy must develop a plan in consultation with workers and labor unions for retraining workers affected by decarbonization. The goal was, according to the Court, “to ensure that the transition towards an environmentally sustainable economy occurs while also protecting the rights of workers who have seen their labor rights threatened.” In other words, a just transition cannot only pursue the decarbonization of Chile’s energy sector. It must also secure the well-being of laborers affected by the closure of coal-fired electricity facilities, both directly and indirectly.

The ruling forewarns of the political and legal conflicts on the horizon of just energy transitions and “green deals” all over the world. While climate deniers and “Carbon Majors”  —the roughly 100 corporations responsible for more than half of all emissions—have been the principal opponents of climate justice movements, the actualization of energy transition policies poses new confrontations as renewable energy corporations emerge as new profit-seeking actors looking for business opportunities in a favorable political landscape. 

Take the case of Mexico. In Oaxaca, a dispute is ongoing between the Unión Hidalgo Zapotec community and Électricité de France, who hopes to construct a wind turbine farm on the community’s lands. In both Chile and Mexico, the interests and well-being of the communities most affected by both the national policies and private infrastructures of the energy transition are forgotten, as capital is rapidly redirected from carbon to renewable energy infrastructures. While energy companies receive the support of public authorities and capital investors in overcoming the challenges and obstacles of a just transition to green energy, laborers and community landowners are faced with long-term, detrimental impacts to their livelihoods. Excluded from involvement in public decision-making, they understandably turn to the courts in the hopes of drawing attention to the many injustices of decarbonization.

Cynics may try to suggest that the labor unions and Zapotec community are akin to climate deniers; that they are seeking the postponement of climate action in order to extract as much profit as possible from existing carbon-based energy systems. But to make such a comparison is to ignore the injustices taking place in the green energy transition. Their legal mobilizations question why vulnerable communities must carry the burden of the transition through long-term impacts on their wages and land. The impact these court decisions have on their livelihoods carries all the more weight when viewed in light of the tremendous profits that energy companies—both carbon and renewable—continue to earn year in and year out. As much as we ought to fear the authoritarianism of climate denial, the legal struggles of laborers in Chile and Indigenous communities in Mexico draw attention to the injustices that are all too likely to occur if policies of “immediate decarbonization at all costs” are pursued. Moreover, the very notion of “at all costs” hides the fact that “stranded assets” and the capital investments of oil and gas companies are already being generously compensated to facilitate the transition to renewable energy. All the while, the very same marginalized communities are often the least capable of shifting their resources and expertise to meet the private-public demands of the energy transition. They are, therefore, the most exposed to its risks—an exposure that is thoroughly structured and facilitated by law. As such, the courts are poised to play an essential role in overseeing challenges to the distribution of privilege; a vital matter in the politics of our just transition.




    An aerial view shows the brine pools and processing areas of the Soquimich (SQM) lithium mine on the Atacama salt flat in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, January 10, 2013 REUTERS/Ivan Alvarado.



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