The resource curse argues that there would be no incentives for creating and strengthening environmental regulations in extractivist economies but, on the contrary, a more significant pressure towards laissez-faire. On the other side, ecological modernization proposes that societies improve environmental conditions due to regulatory and industrial progress, arguing that environmental protection can benefit the economy. Following the institutional development of an extractive economy such as Chile, we offer an intermediate viewpoint between these approaches, showing that neither strengthening nor weakening the environmental institutions occurs mechanistically. The national situation is better described under the idea of institutional colonization, meaning that the problem is not the presence or absence of institutional framework but how certain social groups influence the institutions’ design and operation, privileging their interests. Using as a study case the Chilean Environmental Courts, in force since 2012, and by building a quantitative database from their cases and sentences available until 2016 (N=184), the descriptive results show that: i) among the users’ profiles, environmental courts are used mainly by project’s holders; ii) the holders claim against decisions made by the public administration, such as sanctions established by the Superintendency of the Environment; and iii) communities lose their cases in a greater proportion than holders and face procedural barriers to access to justice. Hence, and although the Environmental Courts can theoretically promote better access to environmental justice, pragmatic analysis of their operation reaffirms the hypothesis that social mechanisms determine the use and function of the institutional framework.