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Chile has turned a new leaf. Instead of focusing on economic expansion at all costs, the government is advocating sustainable economic growth. Today environmental protection and the interests of indigenous groups are being taken into consideration. On 18 March 2022 negotiations will continue in New York for a new treaty to protect the high seas. Chile has proven that capitalism and conservation are not mutually exclusive.

Chile’s native communities have been fighting to conserve their heritage. The Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous population, have for years advocated conservation. In their native language of Mapuche, Mapu means land. In the Mapuche ‘cosmovision’ their land is considered an intangible and immaterial ‘metaphysical’ good to which they have a strong bond. By decimating Chile’s native forests, private corporations have been infringing on Mapuche territory for years. In a recent paper “Mapuche cosmovision and territorial rights: An interdisciplinary approach to understand the conflict of Wallmapu, Chile”, Ranjeeva Ranjan, Alexis Castillo and Karla Morales have shown that industrial expansion has also led to “habitat fragmentation, loss of native forest, biodiversity reduction, [and] water availability.” Native plants, essential for Mapuche traditional medicine, are disappearing and so is the Mapuche identity.

Rich in natural resources, Chile has one of the highest reserves of natural gas, oil, copper, coal, forests and arable land in the world. In the past, these reserves have been exploited with no regard to the environment. This overexploitation has been devastating to biodiversity and has impacted the indigenous population in Chile. According to 2021 report of the Department of Public Politics of the University of Chile, deforestation, deep seabed mining, overfishing and overconsumption of natural resources, together with climate change, have put much of the wildlife, continental waters and its species at considerable risk. While this overextraction has endangered marine animals and plants, and more than 30 000 hectares of farmland have been lost in the past seven years, as a result of poor farming practices and logging. It is estimated that between 20 and 25 hectares of native forest are cut down per year with alarming environmental consequences.

Regarding environmental protection, Chile has a legal framework in place which its government has however not adequately implemented. As a matter of fact, Chile’s development has always prioritized economic growth over environmental protection. This, in turn, has increased Chile’s dependency on foreign corporations and interests. An example of this is the firewood and charcoal industry, which is crucial to Chile’s economy. The unchecked nationwide expansion of this industry has endangered native forests, fauna and flora, which are crucial to aboriginal culture such as the Mapuche.

NGOs, such as the AIFBN (Agrupación de Ingenieros Forestales por el Bosque Nativo or Association of Forest Engineers for the Native Forest), have provided the missing environmental impact assessments, which confirm the inadequacy of Chile’s environmental policies. The AIFBN also highlighted the controversial Decree Law No 701. This Law, a legacy of the Pinochet era, permits deforestation of native forests for monoculture plantations, which leads to the reduction of water resources and to water contamination. Much of Chile’s countryside has turned into dry wilderness within less than a decade because of such laws.

Only recently has Chile put legal safeguards in place to mitigate the disastrous consequences of corporate exploitation and greed. The first notable example of such action is the protection of the undersea kelp forests in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest of its kind in Chile. It is situated in the southern part of Chilean Patagonia. Over USD one million have been awarded to the aboriginal Kawésqar community that resides in the native territory bordering the region of Magallanes. This unique initiative of the Chilean government is a recognition of native communities and their struggle against biodiversity loss.

Because of their ancestral knowledge, the Kawésqar indigenous community has taken the lead in protecting and strengthening one of the biggest and most concentrated kelp forests in the world. Studies have shown that kelp algae are essential not only for the survival of life below water, but also for sustaining life on land. Kelp forests reduce the effects of climate change by absorbing and storing CO2. Protection of these forests will also help mitigate the consequences of overfishing and reduce poor fishing practices.

With more than 4000 kilometers of coastline, Chile is playing a leading role in the negotiation of a new UN treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, or BBNJ areas (the high seas). On 18 Mach 2022 the negotiations for the Intergovernmental Conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (General Assembly resolution 72/249) will continue in New York.

In April 2021 former President Sebastián Piñera suggested the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the submarine Salas and Gomez mountain ranges in the South Pacific. Chile is part of a group of 14 countries including Australia, Canada, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Norway, Portugal, Fiji, Jamaica and Palau which have agreed to manage 100% of the oceans under their national jurisdictions sustainably. This entails no over-fishing, no illegal fishing, re-establishing depleted fish populations, stopping plastic waste and managing agricultural runoff.

Chile’s push to implement the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) is another remarkable example of its commitment to preserve its unique nature and biodiversity. The UN Secretariat issued a first draft of the GBF on 5 July 2021. This draft is expected to lead to the adoption of a new post-2020 GBF during the UN Biodiversity Conference taking place in May 2022, in Kunming, China. The GBF has been dubbed the ‘Paris Agreement for Nature’. It will protect at least 30% of land as well as marine ecosystems through 2030. This agreement is of fundamental importance for Chile, Latin America and the rest of world.  As underlined by Waldemar Coutts, Director of Environment and Marine Issues in the Chilean Foreign Ministry, striving for a sustainable conservation of nature requires joint efforts of states and concrete actions.

Chile has been balancing economic growth with biodiversity and cultural heritage conservation. Whereas in the past it has been an either-or decision, policy makers today have turned a new leaf and are listening to those voices who advocate sustainable economic growth which incorporate environmental protection. Chile has proven that capitalism and conservation are not mutually exclusive.

Pictures: Featured image – Backlit Kelp Forest © Canva/MarcoAMazza, image gallery © Angeladora Novi
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