Partnering with Chile to Engage Communities. Muy Bueno!

By David Kluesner

Exhausting. Exciting. Rewarding. and “Moving!”

I’ve used those words many times in responding to “How’d the trip to Chile go?” Our EPA Region 2 team, myself, Melissa Dimas and Wanda Ayala, definitely had moments of “why did we agree to do this?” as we developed a State Department-funded two-day public participation training course coordinated with the Chilean government as part of fulfilling U.S. environmental obligations under the U.S.-Chile Free Trade Agreement. Months of preparation, a 12 hour flight and airport nightmares, left us nothing short of exhausted upon arrival in Santiago in late March.

Santiago’s vibrancy, its southern California climate and friendliness relieved the stresses of launching a new course in a country 5,000 miles away. Muchas gracias to our new friends Rachel Martinez with the U.S. Embassy, and Juan Pablo and Felipe, with the Chilean Ministry of the Environment. Their enthusiasm and support were key to pulling off a successful course designed to help Chile expand public participation in projects impacting the environment. Chile’s military and political past has, perhaps, left them with a tendency to strictly apply their public participation laws and uncertainty among the students in our class over how, when and where to go beyond the mandates. Exciting to think that we could be a part of expanding the conversation, giving a voice to those who need to be heard the most.

Thirty students attended, mostly from Chile’s Ministry of the Environment, some from their Forest Service. Environmental impact studies on hydroelectric dams and mines are a big part of their work, with much interest in finding new ways to ensure greater representation and fairer treatment of indigenous populations. Melissa’s experience with public participation in Central America was used to demonstrate ideas about new forms of outreach. Wanda’s rich, New York Puerto Rican personality and candid advice got the students engaged in competitive class exercises. I shared key messages on public participation that have served me well over the past 20 years of involving the public in site cleanups. It was very rewarding to see their interest in possibly using our advice to more effectively engage communities.

One other thing about Chileans. A “measly” 4.2 earthquake during class doesn’t faze them. Advice from our students when the floor started moving during class: “If you see us run, then you run, otherwise, go on to the next slide.”

The local press also ran a story on the workshop.

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