by Erin Wright
Santiago, the bustling capital of Chile, has been praised as “cosmopolitan, energetic, sophisticated and worldly” city that is home to two out of every five Chileans and is “on the cusp of a modern-day renaissance.”
Yet last week, one day after Chile and Mexico played to a 3-3 Copa América draw, the Chilean Environment Ministry, citing high levels of air contamination, declared a “pre-emergency” in the country’s largest city — ordering 300,000 vehicles off the road and forcing 800 factories to close for the day.
The popular image of the world’s smoggiest sites, with everyday people hiding behind surgical masks on streets with near-zero visibility, typically involves Asia (a preconception that is not altogether inaccurate). Life expectancy for the 1.2 million residents of Ahwaz, for instance, is the lowest in Iran, says the World Health Organization, citing national policies heavy on industrialization and light on environmental regulations.
But on the other side of the world, it is Santiago — revered for its national parks and natural reserves and as a place where wildlife conservation is a watchword — that stands as one of the most polluted capitals in Latin America.
Not that this crisis developed overnight. As The New York Times reported back in 1992, “during the 17-year military rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, economic growth was pushed at all costs, creating a political atmosphere in which concern for the environment did not exist . . . Chile . . . emerged as the most robust and stable economy in Latin America [but] now faces the dilemma of choosing between the daunting cost of cleaning up — imperiling [its] economic growth in the process — and the daunting cost of not cleaning up.”
Santiago lies in a valley hemmed by the Andes to the east and the Chilean Coastal Range to the west, and that serves to trap smog seemingly right above its rooftops. A 2010 GlobalPost article quoted a study that found that “almost 20,000 people suffer pollution-related illnesses” every year there.
Five years later, little has changed. With the BBC reporting that Santiago is experiencing its driest winter since 1968, the city on Monday morning declared an environmental emergency. It was the country’s first in 16 years, according to Reuters, and this time, more than 900 industries were temporarily shuttered and about 40 percent of the city’s 1.7 million cars sidelined.
But the key word turned out to be “temporarily.” By Monday evening, per the Associated Press, city leaders had declared the air quality sufficiently improved and lifted the order.
Under different circumstances, so quick a turnaround might have raised eyebrows, if not complaints, but the Copa América had finally come to town after a 24-year wait — in futbol-mad Latin America, this is a big deal. The nearly month-long event is the oldest continental competition in the world. Winning it not only bestows regional bragging rights on the victors but does so before a global audience.
In 2010, Bleacher Report wrote that the 2007 tourney, held in Venezuela, drew a “television audience of 530 million people in Latin America” and four billion from 185 countries worldwide. As host, Chile stands to net $50 million in tourism revenue alone, according to Luis Felipe Céspedes, minister of Economy, Development and Tourism.
So, while Santiago’s 7 million residents were cautioned against participating in outdoor activities, the Copa América will go on, despite health officials’ warning that the air pollution isn’t expected to improve during the week.
Wednesday, in fact, marks the beginning of the knockout round, with Chile facing reigning champion, Uruguay, under conditions that are likely to mirror those that prompted Monday’s alert.
Santiago Mayor Claudio Orrego Larraín — who blamed the pollution spike on political protestors who lit barricades on fire — told the Colombian newspaper El Espectador that he hopes the smog levels will go down for the big match but that “the Copa América is an international commitment for Chile, so it won’t be suspended.”
Given such steadfast assurances, it’s unlikely that the mayor or any other official has read a UPI article published in March on the subject that stated, in part: “[W]hile air pollution has long been blamed for heightened rates of heart disease . . . two new studies suggest smog levels are linked to inflated instances of stroke and anxiety.”
Players, however, don’t seem very concerned over the health dangers to themselves or their fans. Diego Godin, Uruguay team captain, said in the AP report that he and his teammates are “100 percent involved in soccer” and nothing else.
“That topic we see on the television,” he said, “we aren’t talking about it.”
Soccer fans would say that despite the circumstances, Godin has his priorities straight. After all, the smog will be hovering over downtown Santiago for many weeks to come. For the foreseeable future, then, winning the cup is the only official goal.