November 12, 2022


The Sacrifice Zone

Mining communities in the wake of Chile’s constitutional referendum

In September 2022, 62 percent of Chilean voters rejected the country’s proposed new constitution.1 The defeat took many by surprise—the demands to rewrite the existing charter had been loud and seemingly unanimous. For followers of Chile’s extractive industries, however, the results were less surprising. In fact, they reflected deep and long standing tensions at the heart of the country’s green energy transition.

At the crux of these tensions is the mining industry. Chile is the largest producer of copper in the world, and the mining industry as a whole employed 289,284 people between July and September 2022. Although mine workers only account for 3.2 percent of the national workforce, jobs are highly concentrated in a few regions.2 Toxic, polluted, and exploitative, it has nevertheless provided employment and growth for surrounding communities.3

Chile’s miners know that non-renewable resources are unsustainable in the long run, but they also fear that plant closure and industry conversion will leave them worse off. While the constitutional draft offered an impressive set of labor and environmental rights, it neglected to present them with a secure economic future. Among other lessons, the rejection of the constitution reveals the complexities of transitioning away from a neoliberal economy which has left many clinging to jobs that, while dangerous and environmentally harmful, offer financial stability for otherwise forgotten workers. The results of the plebiscite cannot be entirely understood without returning to the history of the mining industry, which is characterized by violence, dispossession, and loss.

The constitutional debate

Chile’s current constitutional charter was written during the Pinochet Dictatorship (1973–1990) and approved in a fraudulent referendum in 1980. It is known for its obstacles to reform and for its neoliberal framework, especially regarding social rights. By reducing the role of the state in the economy and society, the constitution encouraged the privatization of social security funds, education, and health care services. Many also consider it illegitimate—a legacy from a government known best for its massive violation of human rights. Indeed, the constitution carries the signature of a regime that, according to official human rights reports, killed or disappeared nearly 3,000 people and imprisoned about 38,000 for political reasons. 

Though a 2005 reform eliminated some of the most authoritarian clauses, like the appointed senators for life that allowed General Augusto Pinochet and other members of the Military Junta to have a seat in Congress, controversies over the document continued.

When massive social protests, known as the Estallido Social, took Chile by storm in October 2019, political parties called for a constitutional referendum. Addressing the illegitimacy of the country’s primary legal framework offered an avenue through which  to respond to the social, economic, and political grievances of the largest protests since the return to democracy. 

In October 2020, more than 78 percent of voters supported rewriting the constitution and electing a constitutional convention. The convention elected in May 2021 included an equal number of men and women, representatives of indigenous nations, and a large number of politically independent representatives. Following a year of deliberations, their final draft was presented to the country on July 4, 2022. 

The new constitution offered comprehensive social, labor, environmental, and human rights, decentralized power, and established gender parity—addressing many of the demands Chileans had voiced for years. Its labor rights promises included the right to decent work, fair salary, unionization, strike, and collective bargaining. It promised a comprehensive public social security system that could have also covered those performing unpaid domestic and care work. Environmentally, it  was hailed as an “ecological constitution” that “says nature has its own rights, meaning that it can legally be protected.” 

But in September 2022, nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the proposal. There had been some indication of opposition throughout the process: controversies had tainted the work of the convention, the return of compulsory voting brought five million new people (a 40 percent increase) to the polls, and it had been accused of carrying unrealistic ambitions. In some cases, it was also a vote of protest against President Boric, who assumed power in March 2022, and in favor of concrete measures to overcome the economic recession and high inflation rate. 

From the perspective of the country’s workers, a crucial factor was that despite its impressive set of rights, the constitution did not offer concrete solutions to meet people’s everyday needs. The overwhelming opposition of workers in Chile’s extractive industries perhaps most clearly embodies these contradictions. In Calama, the country’s mining capital, 70.64 percent of residents rejected the draft—despite living in a region where pollution has had long-term consequences on people’s health. Workers in this region recognized a grounding of good principles, but saw few tangible changes proposed. Though the draft constitution offered to bury Pinochet’s neoliberal legacy, it is also true —as Javier Auyero has argued for the case of Argentina—that people had learned how to maneuver within the existing political-economic and bureaucratic system.4 In a time of economic crisis, many chose certainty over vague radical change. 

A history of failed closures

Like refineries and plants, mines and their associated plants inevitably shut down because of increasing costs, depletion, accidents, or environmental issues. Throughout Chile’s history, failed shutdowns and company restructurings have left communities strangled. Each shutdown has left behind a trail of poverty, unemployment, and toxic waste. As a result, communities feel abandoned by the very governments that lined their pockets with the sacrifices of miners’ and their families. 

During the first half of the twentieth century, the long nitrate crisis expelled thousands of workers and their families, creating a landscape of ghost towns throughout the Atacama Desert. When chemical fertilizers displaced nitrate, employers reduced production and laid off the workforce. Unable to find work in the area, most workers and their families were forced to migrate. Later, the economic crisis of the 1980s closed down large factories, many of which never reopened—or when they did, their labor conditions were far worse than before. Alejandra Brito Peña has argued that these closures were particularly traumatic because they took place under a violent military dictatorship. In the 1980s, the social costs of the closures were almost always passed to local communities; the government offered little or no support for avoiding economic decline. Locals remember the shutdowns as a form of harsh dispossession, and these memories continue to color their political decisions.5

Coal mining communities have paid particularly dearly for the economic transition of the 1990s. When the Empresa Nacional del Carbón (National Coal Company, or ENACAR) announced the end of mining in the southern coastal city of Lota in 1997, it was far from a surprise. Lota symbolized a long history of miners’ labor struggles. For generations, miners there had extracted coal from below the ocean floor, a dangerous job that claimed thousands of lives. But by the 1960s, low productivity, low ore quality, and high costs rendered the company insolvent. This worsened with declining investment and modernization during the 1970–1980s. With the return of democracy in 1990, ENACAR was deemed too expensive and inefficient to survive. 

In preparation for closure, ENACAR designed a transition program which included early retirement, incentives for the re-hiring of coal miners by local companies, and workforce retraining programs. But in practice, these commitments could not generate good and stable jobs. Chile’s neoliberal prosperity was based on precarious employment and the privatization of social rights, leaving workers and their families without a safety net to protect them from unemployment, old age, sickness, or disability. Twenty-five years later, Lota is one of the poorest communities in the region. Its history demonstrates that shutting down a mine or industrial complex without a solid commitment to creating good-quality jobs only traps communities into cycles of poverty.6 

The sacrifice zone

The memory of these experiences is compounded by developments in Chile’s mining industry in the months before the constitutional vote. In June 2022 CODELCO, Chile’s state-owned mining company and one of the largest copper producers in the world, announced the closure of a smelter in Ventanas, an industrial complex located on the central coast of Chile. While the closure was justified on environmental grounds, citing the plant’s high sulfur dioxide (SO₂) emissions, it was also guided by rising and unsustainable maintenance costs.  

The Ventanas industrial complex dates back to the early 1960s, when President Jorge Alessandri inaugurated a copper smelter, refinery, and thermoelectric plant. Built to support the needs of small and medium-size mines, they were considered the country’s most outstanding achievements. The complex expanded in the following decades, attracting both public and private capital. In 2005, due to financial problems, ENAMI sold the smelter and refinery to CODELCO. 

Today, there are sixteen plants in a stretch of three miles around the bay, including an oil refinery and three thermoelectric stations. But though the complex once symbolized industrial modernity and state capitalism, today, it is known for environmental degradation and labor conflicts. 

Though the plants have always been polluters, activists began to mobilize against their environmental impacts after the return to democracy in the early 1990s. Their attention—and, consequently, that of the public—has focused on the SO₂ emissions of the smelter and the coal-fired thermoelectric plants, which caused high rates of cancers and other diseases among the local population. Thirty years of environmental laws, inspections, legal conflicts, and resolutions have ensued.

In 1993, ENAMI approved a decontamination plan to reduce SO₂ emissions, limit the amount of arsenic, and commit to submitting monthly reports. The resolution failed: environmental authorities declared the area a “saturated zone” the following year, signaling that pollution had exceeded all acceptable levels.7 These problems continued. In 2011, the emissions caused a severe case of poisoning in a nearby elementary school, La Greda. Children began fainting in class, with some experiencing long-term health problems. Greenpeace called it the “Chilean Chernobyl.” 

The disastrous episode transformed Chile’s language for environmental disasters and their impact on low-income communities. According to Luis Espinoza Almonacid, after La Greda, environmental activists and NGOs started describing Quinteros Bay as a “sacrifice zone,” a term originally coined in the United States in the 1970s to describe areas that are low-income and disposable.8 Meanwhile, the smelter and refinery workers who died of cancers and other complications became known as “green men” because of the impact of chemicals on their bodies. By now, people simply live what Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt call “toxic lives”: “a chronic, silent and creeping conditioning that is inseparable from life’s ordinariness.”9

After the announcement of the plans to close the smelter, CODELCO workers staged a wildcat strike. They defended the industry and their jobs, arguing that CODELCO should invest in making the plants sustainable. Clinging to the economic nationalism that has influenced their union history, they also supported the role of the public company, arguing that the closure would diminish the state’s role in the mining sector. The strike lasted forty-eight hours and while it did not mobilize all company workers, it sent a strong message to the nation and sparked fears about the economic costs of shutting down the country’s most important industry.

Few Chileans outside of the COLDECO workforce supported the strike, and the media quickly labeled it a selfish walkout to protect high-paid jobs without consideration for the health of community members. In ongoing negotiations between the company and labor unions leading up to the referendum, the government has reassured workers that they would not be abandoned. But in a country with a history of job precarity, weak labor protections, and rising informality, the workers know that they should be skeptical of these promises.

Extractive communities at the crossroads

In Calama, Lota, and Ventanas, as in other mining communities, workers voted against the constitution. While the new labor and environmental protections might have benefitted them, they were skeptical. In the context of neoliberal precarity, mining offers better, although dangerous, income than other work. As Marco Gandarillas writes in the case of Bolivia, workers are placed in the impossible position of either defending their jobs or protecting their communities from environmental damage.10 In this case of Chile, these concerns build on a history of sudden and traumatic closures which have periodically left communities devastated in their wake. 

There is no question that a transition to a low-carbon economy is urgently needed to confront climate change, and that transition will require closing and restructuring many industries. If this transition is to be truly just and democratic, however, it must account for the historical memories and experiences of easily forgotten workers, who have been repeatedly burdened by radical economic shifts. For Chile’s extractive workers, job creation ought to be at the center of the agenda.11

  1. Electoral resources for the 2022 plebiscite are available at the Servicio Electoral de Chile (SERVEL), 

  2. Statistical information about Chile’s labor market is available at the Instituto Nacional de Estådística (INE)

  3. Mauricio Folchi, “La Insustentabilidad Del Boom Minero Chileno: Política y Medio Ambiente, 1983-2003,” Ecología Política, no. 26 (2003): 23–49.

  4. Javier Auyero, Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina  (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).

  5. Alejandra Brito-Peña, “Memoria Colectiva y Construcción de Territorio: Auge y Despojo de Una Cultura Industrial. Los Casos de La Fábrica Textil Bellavista-Tomé y La Carbonífera Schwager En Coronel (1970-2007),” Izquierdas, no. 42 (October 2018): 1–29,

  6. Juan Carlos Rodríguez Torrent and Patricio Medina Hernández, “Reconversión, Daño y Abandono En La Ciudad de Lota,” Atenea (Concepción), no. 504 (2011): 147–76,

  7. Ministerio Secretaría General de la Presidencia, “Ley 19300: Ley Sobre Bases Generales Del Medio Ambiente,” March 1, 1994.

  8. Luis Espinoza Almonacid, “Para una lectura a las zonas de sacrificio desde las zonas del no-ser,” in Cuestionamientos al modelo extractivista neoliberal desde el Sur: Capitalismo, territorios y resistencias, by Cristian Alister et al. (Santiago: Ariadna Ediciones, 2022), 133–54.

  9. Manuel Tironi and Israel Rodríguez-Giralt, “Healing, Knowing, Enduring: Care and Politics in Damaged Worlds,” The Sociological Review 65, no. 2_suppl (July 2017): 89–109,

  10. Marco Gandarillas Gonzáles, “Extractivismo y Derechos Laborales: Dilemas Del Caso Boliviano,” in Empresas Transnacionales En América Latina. Análisis y Propuestas Del Movimiento Social y Sindical., ed. Juan Hernández Zubizarreta et al. (Universidad del País Vasco; Hegoa; Observatorio de Multinacionales en América Latina, 2013), 218–32.


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