To the dismay of many Chilean scientists, voters vehemently rejected a proposed constitution that would have had major implications for research, environmental policies and indigenous rights. Sixty-two percent of voters said ‘no’ in a referendum yesterday on the new charter, which would have pushed the country sharply to the left.
“I’m still a bit shocked,” says Olga Barbosa, an environmentalist at the Austral University of Chile who has backed the new constitution. “There is still so much fear of change.”
Last month, more than 1200 scientists signed a letter asking for approval project, which proposed granting rights to nature and sentient animals and tasked the Chilean government with taking action against the climate and biodiversity crises.
However, not all scientists approved. Manuel Rozas, scientific director of Kura Biotech, a company headquartered in Patagonia, says the new constitution would have strengthened academic science, but that its economic and political reforms would have caused too much uncertainty and driven out investors who could help developing Chilean research-based industries. .
Chilean President Gabriel Boric said he would meet with party leaders today to discuss what happens next. For now, the country’s current constitution, adopted in 1980 under the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, remains in force. But proponents of the new version hope that the debate over the past year will spur changes anyway. When it comes to climate and environment, as well as gender parity, “there is no turning back,” Barbosa says. “I’m glad it served as an incentive for change.”
The road to a new constitution began in 2019 after massive nationwide protests sparked by a hike in public transport fares led to calls for a major political, social and economic overhaul in Chile. In 2020, nearly 80% of Chileans voted to scrap the 1980 constitution and create a new one from scratch. An elected constitutional convention was charged with drafting it.
This group, made up of 155 non-politicians – including several scientists – was dominated by the left. The 388-article draft he produced called for a new economic order that would create a more equal society; gender parity in government and institutions; legalized abortion; and universal health care. It would also have made Chile an “ecological nation” and a “plurinational country”. At least 11 indigenous groups would have been recognized as “nations” in Chile and would have obtained their autonomy.
The proposed constitution also guaranteed freedom of research to scientists and directed 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 project. For example, the Ecological Society of Chile has helped design protections for native biodiversity, says Cristina Dorador Ortiz, a microbiologist at the University of Antofagasta and member of the constitutional convention.
Both sides of the political spectrum have supported many provisions on science, says Nicolás Trujillo Osorio, philosopher of science at the Diverse Science Studies Center at National University Andrés Bello. But the whole proposal was too radical for most Chileans. Many voters opposed drastic political and judicial reforms, including native autonomy, the elimination of the Senate, and the right of presidents to run for a second term.
Mining, agricultural and energy companies, which use around 80% of Chile’s water, had also lobbied against the draft constitution, which guaranteed access to water as a human right and mandated creation of a new water agency. Misinformation 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. (He did not specify those terms.)
Scientists in favor 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 have had time to examine Document of 170 pages. Trujillo Osorio argues that concepts such as ‘rights of nature’ were too vague and that its meaning and implementation mechanisms should have been better explained. “Having a good constitution is not enough,” he says. “We also need 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 of Patagonia, says she supported the project and applauded the emphasis on science and indigenous rights, but says that many communities, including his own, have not been properly consulted, if at all. This created mistrust, she says.
Still, Tonko Huenucoy says it is essential for the country to reinvigorate the constitutional reform process and come up with a more considered proposal. Rosa agrees. “We should have a shorter, more agile constitution,” he says, “a constitution that lasts over time.”
Although she regrets the outcome, Dorador Ortiz says attending 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 has learned that it needs to get involved in the important political issues of the country,” she says. Now that the effort has failed, “we definitely need a thorough analysis, with self-criticism and humility.”