Scientists and activists meet to discuss threats and challenges for Chilean Patagonia

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By Kurt Castro
 
This past Friday, July 26, the Patagon Journal seminar "A Sustainable Future for Patagonia" was held at the auditorium of Fundación Espacio Telefónica in Santiago. The event brought together scientists and experts from various disciplines to confront and anticipate the threats and challenges for Chilean Patagonia in the years and decades to come.
 
The Patagonian region has been called one of the six “hotspots” on the planet in urgent need of conservation, but like the rest of the world, industry continues to target the natural resources of the region. As well, the new "Patagonia Parks Route” has been strongly promoted in Europe and North America by the Chilean government, and while it is certain to boost tourism in the region that translates into greater economic opportunities for many, without planning or foresight it could destroy the “goose that laid the golden eggs.”
 
In this context, participants in attendance at the auditorium and through live streaming on the Patagon Journal Facebook page joined the experts in what the magazine says will be the beginning of a dialogue that they will regularly convene on these issues in the coming months and years, and not just in Santiago but throughout Patagonia.
 
The event began with Nicolo Gligo, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis at the Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Chile, who gave the keynote address. "The Magellanic steppe is a territory that has been exploited, attacked and deteriorated by the indiscriminate logging of forests, interventions in protected areas and fires. In the past 30 years, sheep farming has declined by 33 percent,” he said. Gligo also spoke of the "inefficient state" that today has to deal with multiple threats in the zone such as the highly destructive effects of beavers on the island of Tierra del Fuego and the expansion of the salmon industry throughout Patagonia's canals and fjords, among other issues.
 
 
Keynote speech: Nicolo Gligo, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis of the Institute for Public Affairs of the University of Chile. Photo: Christopher CarrascoKeynote speech: Nicolo Gligo, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis of the Institute for Public Affairs of the University of Chile. Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
In particular, Gligo highlighted the mining sector. "The Mina Invierno project is an aggression that should never have been allowed in Magallanes. It is an atrocity that in the 21st century there is open-pit mine, it is an inconceivable aggression in a country that wants to be carbon neutral by 2040. This, somehow, some way, must stop,” said Gligo, who for nine years was also coordinator of the Environment and Development Unit for the United Nations in Latin America. Additionally, he spoke of activities that retain economic surpluses in the area such as sustainable tourism and the fishing sector, unlike the extractivist industry that destroys the area's biodiversity and landscape, exports its products and profits, and leaves nothing behind for local communities.
 
Gligo concluded by pointing out that 40 years ago there was concern about the same issues that threaten the Patagonia region today, but with one main difference: environmental problems are much worse. Gligo emphasized that there must be major changes to achieve a sustainable future, adding that "the challenge for Patagonia is going to be much greater because its ecosystems are much more fragile than in other regions."
 
Tourism planning and overcrowding
The first panel sought to address the question: “The Route of Parks and the coming tourism boom: how will it affect Patagonia and how can we orient it toward sustainable tourism?”
 
Jorge Moller, director of the Chilean non-profit Regenera and board member of the Global Council for Sustainable Tourism (GSTC), analyzed the tourism carrying capacity of places such as Torres del Paine and Cochamó. "Rather than attracting tourists,” he said, “we have to take care of where we are going to take those tourists." Providing an analysis of several statistics, he said: "The government currently invests 12 million dollars in promotion, but it must also start investing in tourism planning for the 6 million tourists and counting that descend upon the region annually," he added. Without such planning, Moller warned of the dangers of overcrowding that already has negatively affected many popular destinations around world, giving examples such as Machu Picchu and recent fatal accidents at the summit of Mount Everest.
 
 
Jorge Moller, director of Regenera, and board member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Photo: Christopher CarrascoJorge Moller, director of Regenera, and board member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
Moller also argued that tourism businesses should bet on "moving from luxury tourist offers to offering a unique natural experience," giving as an example the case of Robinson Crusoe in Chile, as well as nations such as Australia and New Zealand. In turn, he expressed the "urgent need to certify the operations of adventure tourism businesses” in a country that for six straight years has won the award for “South America's Leading Adventure Tourism Destination” at the World Travel Awards.
 
Trace Gale, an American sustainable tourism researcher who works for the Coyhaique-based Patagonia Ecosystem Research Center (CIEP), also added that "in the protected wilderness areas of Aysén there is tremendous concern for overtourism” given the sustained and significant growth already seen in tourism in Chile as well as other South America countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay. "If things are going to change, radical changes have to be made," she said.
 
 
Trace Gale, researcher-in-residence, Sustainable Tourism Department, Patagonia Ecosystem Research Center (CIEP). Photo: Christopher CarrascoTrace Gale, researcher-in-residence, Sustainable Tourism Department, Patagonia Ecosystem Research Center (CIEP). Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
From the recently formed group Amigos de los Parques de la Patagonia (Friends of Parks of Patagonia), María José Hess, communications director of the organization, focused her presentation principally on "tourism as a result of conservation". She noted that although Chile's park system has added five new national parks in Patagonia over the past year, the budget for Conaf (Chile’s park service) declined by 20 percent in 2019. In fact, Hess showed statistics pointing to Chile as one of the 10 countries in the world with the least investment in biodiversity conservation relative to its annual national income. Chile is the ninth worst, according to the list she presented, right after Eritrea in Africa and even several spots below war-torn Yemen.
 
 
Maria Jose Hess, project director, Friends of Parks of Patagonia. Photo: Christopher CarrascoMaria Jose Hess, project director, Friends of Parks of Patagonia. Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
The panel closed with Tatiana Sandoval, president of the Agrupación de Turismo del Valle Cochamó (Cochamó Valley Tourism Group), whose objective is "the creation of a collaborative park that guarantees a constant and friendly flow of visitors, the healthy management of its natural and cultural resources, and the conservation of its assets, forests, water, glaciers, flora, fauna and permanent work over time." She spoke of Cochamó Valley's success in sustainable tourism planning, where local business owners have banded together to achieve conservation in this popular tourism area even though it has had zero support from the local government. “We don’t have Conaf, we’re not a protected park, but when there is will, you can do something,” she said.
 
 
Tatiana Sandoval, president, Agrupación de Turismo del Valle Cochamó. Photo: Christopher CarrascoTatiana Sandoval, president, Agrupación de Turismo del Valle Cochamó. Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
Panel 1: The Route of Parks and the coming tourism boom: how will it affect Patagonia and how can we orient it toward sustainable tourism? Photo: Christopher CarrascoPanel 1: The Route of Parks and the coming tourism boom: how will it affect Patagonia and how can we orient it toward sustainable tourism? Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
Other threats
The second panel of the seminar began with the architect and director of the eco-group CODEFF Aysén, Peter Hartmann, who spoke of the Aisén Reserva de Vida coalition, which works on the implementation and promotion of eco-development projects that are coherent with local tourism. This organization has promoted diverse initiatives in the Aysén region, such as land-use zoning and a regional energy policy. Hartmann also spoke of the coalition’s victories over megaprojects like HidroAysén and Alumysa, which had a clear lesson: "When communities unite, get energized, they can do what they set out to do, but you have to work for it."
 
Gino Casassa, a glaciologist and head of the Glaciology and Snow Unit of the Ministry of Public Works of Chile, presented the work of their office which studies and monitors the behavior of glaciers and the high mountain range through 38 glacier-weather stations and five shelters located in strategic areas for the overall monitoring of ice masses. "Glaciers are relevant for a number of reasons: Chile has almost 80 percent of all glaciers in South America, and 80 percent of those glaciers are concentrated in Patagonia," he added, noting that there is currently bad news for glaciers, the rate of melting continues to accelerate due to climate change.
 
 
Peter Hartmann, director, Aysen Reserve of Life Coalition. Photo: Christopher CarrascoPeter Hartmann, director, Aysen Reserve of Life Coalition. Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
Gino Cassasa, glaciologist and head of the Glaciology and Snow Unit of Chile's Water Agency. Photo: Christopher CarrascoGino Cassasa, glaciologist and head of the Glaciology and Snow Unit of Chile's Water Agency. Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
Agustín Iriarte, former director of wildlife for the Chilean Agricultural and Livestock Service (1991 - 2005) and author of books such as the Guide to the Field of Mammals in Chile and the Carnivores of Chile, stated that the number one threat to Patagonian fauna are the exotic, invasive species, which have been introduced mostly in Argentina and spread to Chile. The biologist noted that "the mink is by far the biggest invasive species." Iriarte said he has gone several times to the Aysen region to ask for support in controlling the mink, and nothing ever happens. "I asked – what are your priorities? – to which they replied: ‘world-class tourism’. There it is, I replied: [because of the mink] birdwatchers don't go to Aysén because there are no longer any birds, there's nothing. Once we set traps and captured eight mink in a single day. It's terrible, today they are coming to the Biobío region, and there is a population in Tierra del Fuego and in Aysén they cover almost the entire region.”
 
Juan Carlos Cárdenas, executive director of the marine protection group Centro Ecocéanos, spoke of the consequences of the salmon farming industry in Chile. "When we look at the impacts in Magallanes, the potential impacts have to be looked at from the lens of what has happened in Chiloé. In Chiloé, after 20 years of intensive production of salmon, it has become the second largest export area worldwide of this product, yet it is one of the three poorest regions of Chile.”
 
 
Panel 2: In the context of climate change, and continuing pressure from demands for growing economic development, how can Patagonia ensure that it preserves and conserves its globally rare wild places, maintain its unique way of life and build a sustainable future? Photo: Christopher CarrascoPanel 2: In the context of climate change, and continuing pressure from demands for growing economic development, how can Patagonia ensure that it preserves and conserves its globally rare wild places, maintain its unique way of life and build a sustainable future? Photo: Christopher Carrasco
 
 
But Cardenas indicated that the main impact due to salmon farming is the tremendous decline in water quality and said that the definitive solution is that the aquaculture industry needs to exit the Patagonian coast altogether and move its facilities on land. "The salmon farming industry is like bread for today and hunger for tomorrow. And the hunger has already begun," he said. "Because they are automating all their processes and reducing their workforce, as well as despoiling the environment."
 
A beginning
Patagon Journal has already begun followup to the seminar. To get involved, join this recently formed Facebook group here. And you can see the complete video (split in two parts) on the Patagon Journal YouTube channel here.
 
   
 
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