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Regulatory Science in a Developing State: Environmental Politics in Chile, 1980-2010


Between 1980 and 2010, the Chilean state regulated the environment to meet local demands for democracy and more equitable development, as well as global demands for good governance. The 1980 constitution created a `right to a clean environment' that came to life with the transition to democracy, first with a coordinating agency in 1994 and then with an Environment Ministry in 2010. One tool above all others was expected to put Chile on a greener development path: Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA). To meet demands state capacity also grew: government staff was hired and trained, consultants and scientists were enrolled to advise the government and rules were introduced to re-organize environmental regulatory efforts. With a history of strong institutions, Chile was well placed to succeed in this effort. In many ways Chile succeeded, and in 2010 it joined the exclusive club of developed nations, the OECD. But in others it failed: environmental conflicts are frequent, large investment projects with EIA approval are on hold, and environmental institutions face a crisis of legitimacy.

Combining approaches from science and technology studies and political science, this dissertation contributes to the literature on institutions and development. It explores the EIA's transit from bureaucratic formality to object of conflict through a qualitative comparison of three controversial projects (1998-2011) in the context of science-state relations and environmental politics from dictatorship through democracy. The longitudinal comparison allows for an analysis of how ideas about the need for "more science" versus "more politics" evolved over time. The first case is the Valdivia paper and pulp mill accused in 2005 of polluting a protected wetland and producing the mass migration (and death) of black-neck swans. The second case is the Pascua Lama gold mine, where the government and the company were forced to abandon plans to remove glaciers after major social protest in 2006. The third case is HidroAysén, a project to build five mega-hydroelectric dams in the Patagonia, that received EIA approval in 2011 in a highly contested evaluation process.

Technocratic solutions to large-scale environmental problems failed on the ground in Chile. Contrary to explanations that rely on stories of capture, this dissertation argues that disagreements over credibility have undermined the Chilean state's capacity to regulate the environment. These disagreements are expressed in two related sites: the boundary between political and technical decisions and disagreements over scientists and their proper role in society. Both disputes are about different visions of the state. Many in government believe good government means the state plays the role of a neutral broker that facilitates consensus and negotiation. Such a state has no tolerance for stubborn positions like those scientists or environmentalists might adopt, but a penchant for rules and regulations - its main job, after all, is to "draw the lines on the soccer pitch". Such a state, furthermore, is unable to cope with demands for accountability and thus faces a widening governance gap.

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