How Indigenous Communities in Chile can Inspire Global Action on the Circular Economy

June 22, 2022


Located off the southern coast of Chile, the Isla Grande de Chiloé is renowned for its natural beauty, rich in biodiversity and indigenous culture. The island is now fast rising to be a global pioneer in the circular economy where products are designed for durability, reuse and recyclability, and materials for new products come from old products -- a new way of creating value, and ultimately prosperity. On an official visit to Chile, the Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Achim Steiner met with local communities in Chiloé that are rolling-out much-needed solutions to waste management.

Steiner visited the Curaco de Vélez recycling centre on the island, which is recycling and repurposing solid waste not only for soil to cultivate food, but also to make other products such as furniture or household utensils. The centre, which is supported by UNDP, the Ministry of Environment of Chile and Luxembourg, is also engaging local recyclers, many of them women, creating new jobs and livelihoods. The centre is an example of a sustainable economic model in which local recyclers are recognized as part of the formal workforce with social protection -- incorporated as part of a new production value chain. Steiner was accompanied on the visit by the Minister of Environment of Chile, Maisa Rojas; UNDP’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Luis Felipe López-Calva; and UNDP Resident Representative in Chile, Georgiana Braga.

“The efforts of Indigenous Peoples and local communities in Chile to advance the circular economy demonstrate how many of the macro-level shifts that need to take place are already flourishing at the grassroots-level”, said Steiner. “We now need to translate this approach from the local to global level -- boosting climate action and the protection of the environment and advancing progress across the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Currently, the majority of organic waste in Chile goes to growing landfills. Therefore, the Government of Chile has set an ambitious target in the country’s National Organic Waste Strategy, which aims to harness citizen action to help Chile recover 30% of its organic waste by the end of this decade.

"We believe that the treatment of organic waste is much more important here because we are an island,” said José Luis Bórquez, local coordinator of the Curaco de Vélez recycling centre. “Taking garbage out of the island has a tremendous cost, and that same cost can be invested here in projects like this one.”

Local and Indigenous communities, like those in Chiloé, have deep-rooted ancestral and cultural knowledge when it comes to circularity and innovative local solutions. Including their voices, cultures and traditions meaningfully is vital to climate action, the protection of the environment and advancing the circular economy. Marking Chile’s National Day of Indigenous Peoples, Steiner met with the presidents of five indigenous communities on the island and participated in a traditional Trafkintu (seed exchange) ceremony where he emphasized the need to safeguard the customary rights of communities. This is particularly important given that Indigenous peoples are stewards of one-third of Earth.

“As we face ‘code red’ for people and planet, the traditions, knowledge, wisdom, and solutions of Indigenous peoples are needed more than ever,” said Steiner.  “Crucially, the pioneering efforts of countries like Chile can now inspire bold new action to revive the health and wellbeing of people and planet -- in every corner of the globe.”