Cochamo Valley threatened: The debate over ZOITs

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Cochamo Valley. Photo: Benjamín FuentesCochamo Valley. Photo: Benjamín Fuentes
By Evelyn Pfeiffer
Translation by Rebecca Neal
Chile’s Cochamo Valley is an area oft compared to Yosemite National Park of the United States because of its big granite walls and wild natural beauty attracting rock climbers and ecotourists in ever bigger numbers each year. But recently a controversy has stirred there as the mayor of the nearby town of Cochamo and a Chilean businessmen Roberto Hagemann – who has been pushing for building a large-scale hydroelectric development project in the area – moved to oppose renewing special tourism protections for the popular valley.
At issue in Cochamo Valley are ZOITs, an acronym in Spanish that stands for “Zonas de Interés Turístico,” which in English means “Areas of Special Tourist Interest.”
A relatively new tool used in Chile to promote tourism, ZOITs were established in 2010 with the passage of Chile’s tourism law (20.423). The law designated twenty-one ZOITs, or Areas of Special Tourist Interest. Ten other ZOITs declared under a previous version of the law (Decreto Ley N°1.224) must meet the legal requirements of the 2010 tourism law by December of this year to continue in effect. These older ZOITs must be updated because the former system was simply a declaration which did not entail any concrete action, and there was no system to manage them.
Under the new law, ZOITs are defined as areas as “communal or intercommunal territories, or specific areas within these territories, which have particular conditions that render them attractive to tourists and which require conservation measures and integrated planning to promote private sector investment” (Art. 13). The law further states that “Areas of Special Tourist Interest shall take priority in the execution of public projects and programmes to encourage the development or this activity, and in the allocation of resources for infrastructure and material works” (Art. 17).
In other words, the tourism law sees ZOITs as prioritizing tourism as the main economic activity within their delineated areas.
In Chile’s Los Lagos Region, for example, there are seven ZOITs in different stages of development: two have already been declared (Futaleufú and Castro); three are in the declaration phase (Chaitén, Chiloé and Lake Llanquihue); and two were declared under the old rules and must be updated by the end of this year (Tenglo-Angelmó and Cochamó).
Although ZOITs are not a tool for protection like national parks, nature sanctuaries or “zonas tipicas” (a designation which protects areas in Chile of unique cultural significance), nevertheless they can enable the adoption of tools which will protect natural and cultural heritage sites. “Nature tourism depends on the conservation of nature and of local culture. Although ZOITs are not protective tools per se, they do help to manage and promote the territory as part of a public and private partnership, which indirectly protects the territory. For example, major projects must be reviewed in an environmental impact assessment carried out by the government, and this enables civic participation,” explains Rodrigo Condeza, a director of the conservation group Puelo Patagonia and longtime leader in citizen campaigns to protect Cochamó Valley and Puelo Valley.
Rocío González, executive director of Futaleufu Riverkeeper, also views ZOITs as an invaluable tool leading to conservation and sustainable tourism, and refers to her own experiences with the ZOIT in Futaelufú, which has already been declared and is now up and running: “For Futaelufú and Palena, where the conservation of the territory’s natural features is central to tourism, the ZOIT label serves as a kind of protective shield. This effort requires the political will not only of the community and of actors in the tourism sector, but especially from local, regional and national authorities. This tool can be very powerful if it is used well. In our case, it has become our main argument in defending the territory from threats and making it clear that our vision of development is closely linked to the health of rivers, ecosystems and our community,” she says.
A view of Cochamo Valley from a portaledge after a day of climbing. Photo: Puelo PatagoniaA view of Cochamo Valley from a portaledge after a day of climbing. Photo: Puelo Patagonia
In addition to the indirect benefits for conservation and further sustainable tourism, ZOITs pave the way for investment and public projects in the designated areas that lead to improvements in basic infrastructure and the quality of tourism offerings, and foster greater marketing and tourism promotion initiatives and the training of local tourism entrepreneurs in best practices.
These actions are defined jointly by the main actors in the territory, such as municipalities, residents, public institutions and private institutions. These actors establish an action plan which serves as the roadmap to define what is needed to improve tourist activity, who could help, what activities need to be carried out and who will carry them out over a set time period. These action plans are renewed every four years and are managed by a public-private governing body comprising the main actors in the territory.
The main question surrounding the ZOITs is whether their respective action plans will actually be carried out, since they must be led by the municipalities and businesspeople involved, with the government (in this case SERNATUR, Chile’s national tourism service) only providing guidance and financial support. Critics of the current ZOIT mechanism believe that this form of governance will prove ineffective and that the government ought to take a much more active role.
And what about Cochamo?
The renewal of the ZOIT in Cochamó Valley has suffered numerous setbacks. First, Cochamo mayor Carlos Soto has repeatedly requested that the area be left as it is, making him the first mayor in Chile to try and withdraw from this tool. Second, the mining entrepreneur Roberto Hagemann has acquired key pieces of land in the area, such as Campo Aventura in the La Junta sector, and has requested that all his property be excluded from the ZOIT. Hagemann’s property covers about 145,000 hectares – 37.8 percent of the “comuna” (similar to a county in the U.S.) of Cochamo – and around 50 percent of the proposed ZOIT. 
As well, Soto and Hagemann both have links to the hydroelectric megaproject Mediterráneo, and critics have accused them of wanting to get rid of the ZOIT in order to proceed with the hydroelectric project and smooth the path to any other non-tourism related economic development projects.
But the community is not letting this go without a fight. In a recent citizen consultation meeting convened in Cochamo, locals came out in droves to present historical and technical arguments countering the Hagemann effort to torpedo the ZOIT. They are moreover requesting that the entire comuna be declared a ZOIT. Along those lines, there is an online petition that as of June 4 has around 13,500 signatures.
The debate is underway, and like many conflicts in Patagonia, it has become a sort of David and Goliath battle pitting people who care about nature, enjoy the outdoors and want an economic future based in sustainable tourism versus hydroelectric, mining or salmon farming development schemes.
What places can be declared a ZOIT?
To benefit from this tool, a territory must fulfil certain conditions. For example, tourism must be one of the main activities driving economic development in the area; the area must possess natural, cultural and/or historical tourist attractions on a regional, national or international scale; and the area must be a recognized tourist destination in national or regional tourist policy and planning. The application is sent by the Regional Bureau of SERNATUR, with the strong backing of regional tourism officials or of the municipalities and relevant actors in the area.