Environmental activism: A case study of Valdivia’s Angachilla wetland

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Angachilla wetland. Photo: Miguel BustosAngachilla wetland. Photo: Miguel Bustos 

By Dr. Marcela Márquez García
Márquez is a postdoctoral researcher at Centro de Humedales Río Cruces of Universidad Austral de Chile.
Translation by Patrick Nixon
Humanity is currently facing enormous socio-environmental challenges on a global scale, including climate change, pollution and land degradation. These factors are causing a number of problems and leading to conflicts in different parts of the world. They are forcing different communities to make fundamental changes to the way they live and to develop innovative approaches to protecting their ecosystems in the knowledge that our survival as a species depends on it.
When people take action collectively to protect the environment, they engage in the civic and political life of their communities and work with others to protect a natural area. They become environmental advocates and stewards and organize activities like volunteer trash cleanups and community gardens. Taking collective action for the environmental promises to have a much greater impact than taking action individually.
Valdivia has a tradition of collective environmental action, where its residents have repeatedly fought to preserve and protect the surrounding urban wetlands from the threat of industry and urban development. In 2004, wood pulp company Celulosa Arauco sparked controversy when it inaugurated a new plant in Valdivia, which was found to be emptying untreated chemicals and waste into the Cruces river and caused an ecological disaster leading to the death of hundreds of native black swans. The incident emboldened the local environmental protection movement and led to the implementation of Law 21.202 that creates and protects urban wetlands.
Numerous community groups in and around Valdivia work tirelessly to protect natural areas, such as the Angachilla wetland, which was recently declared a Nature Sanctuary and Urban Wetland under Law 21,202. These local organizations organize multiple activities including: environmental cleanups; ecological restoration; construction and maintenance of nature trails with signposting and other infrastructure; cultural activities; and educational workshops to raise awareness amongst the community of the importance of protecting wetlands (photographic safaris, festivals etc). In this way, the local community has managed to reclaim what was formerly a public, and illegal, landfill and transform it into an urban nature reserve. These same groups have been pressuring the authorities to declare different areas as Nature Sanctuaries and Urban Wetlands and to protect them from current or future threats of urban development.
Environmental groups have been at loggerheads for over 15 years with proponents of a project that would see an urban bypass cut through the wetland. In recent weeks, there has been some indication that the opposing parties might enter into dialogue and attempt to find common ground to end the stalemate. The key to good conflict resolution is to have absolute clarity on what both sides want (why they want or do not want the highway to pass through the Angachilla wetland) as well as any specific interests involved. There may be multiple reasons why one party wants the project to go or not go ahead: substantive reasons (what matters most to people), procedural reasons (how people want to be involved), and psychological reasons (how people want to be treated). Delving deeper into what underlies these competing positions, could help both parties find common ground and assess alternative solutions to the conflict. Dialogue and creative thinking are key to finding a joint solution and lasting agreement.
Faced with the threat of climate change and drought, it is imperative that we protect and restore aquatic ecosystems. The local residents near the Angachilla wetland have understood that and been working to that end for years. With few resources, and relying only on their own convictions, these people have succeeded in creating an urban park for everyone to enjoy and protecting a crucial watershed for the city. Their voices deserve to be heard and taken into account when decisions are being made that affect their community. Their important work needs to be recognized and supported by the authorities, the scientific community and the general public.
The story of the Angachilla wetland clearly illustrates the power of collective environmental action and how working together empowers local resident groups to influence the course of environmental disputes and to become agents of change. Angachilla is undoubtedly a remarkable case study, which should become an example for the country as a whole.

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