Former Senator Antonio Horvath: A champion for Patagonia (1950-2018)

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Former Senator Antonio Horvath, a strong advocate for Patagonia and defender of the environment, died today after a lengthy battle with cancer over the past year.
  
As a foreign correspondent, and later as editor of this magazine, I had the great fortune to get to know Horvath over the years. A warm and generous person, the last time I interviewed him in Coyhaique, a short meeting in a cafe turned into several hours including a drive around town and a visit to his home before he made sure I got to the airport on time. 
 
A political independent, Horvath represented the Aysen region for nearly three decades, first as a diputado, and from 1994 to January 2018 as a senator. Whenever there was an environmental issue, Horvath was out front in Chile's congress seeking to forge new and better laws. For several years, he was head of the Senate environmental comisison, and a key leader of the so-called "Green Bench" of envrionmental parliamentarians. He fought the HidroAysen dam project, and instead proposed that Chile move with greater speed toward harnessing its considerable renewable energy potential. Among other environmental efforts as a senator, he co-sponsored legislation to conserve native forests and ban the use of genetically modified seeds.
 
As a Patagonian since moving to Aysen in 1976, he also became a regional advocate. He came to appreciate the unique, special cultural and natural characteristics of Patagonia and sought formal government backing toward requesting UNESCO designation of the entirety of Chilean Patagonia as a World Heritage area. 
 
Holding a masters degree in civil engineering and the environment from Purdue University in the United States, perhaps his proudest accomplishment was his work in charge of the construction of the Carretera Austral from 1976-89. This ambitious project carved a southern highway through virgin nature in an effort to improve Patagonia’s connections with the rest of Chile. But it also became a tourist destination in itself for its route through magical and beautiful scenery.
 
Patagon Journal sends its deepest condolences to former Senator Horvath's family and friends.
 
Below, my interview with Senator Horvath published in Issue 6 of the magazine (Winter 2014) about his master work, the Carretera Austral, and a range of other topics. 
 
LANGMAN: How did you end up living in Patagonia? 
HORVATH: My parents always had a close relationship with nature. In our summers we would go camping.  I began to notice that the city of Santiago was increasingly aggressive. I studied engineering and fine arts and did my thesis on engineering problems with ice, snow and frost. I always found that in road building there is a combination of art and engineering, I went to southern Chile for work and loved the place.
 
The stretch of the Carretera Austral from Coyhaique to Tortel is beautiful, but what happens if they build too much there?
Yes, its like a road in a park. We have talked more than once about giving it legal protection, which makes sense with a region like Patagonia. The engineer has a mindset that when a road is bigger and straigher it is better. But that is fatal to an area that is  fragile and that has so much natural and cultural value. It is an issue, and it has been gradually introduced into the technical specifications of the contracts and conscience of the people.
 
Unfortunately, scenic roads like, for example, Camino Ensenada just outside of Puerto Varas are being flooded with tourism development.
That's not the model we want. This is not something where the bureaucrats decide everything -- the people have to participate in those decisions. They need to get agreements among fishermen, tourism businesses, conservationists and communities, among others, and make a land-use zoning plan that is based in law. Then, nobody can do something different afterwards, unless the group meets and zoning is made smaller. We are actually right now at the point of giving such zoning plans legal status, and this will mean that nobody can do whatever they want on the Carretera Austral, for example.
 
 
 
 
The positive side to roads like the Carretera Austral is they give access to remote and unknown places, but they also increase threats to natural areas.
A road is always just a tool. In the case of the Carretera Austral it has become an attraction in itself. Construction on the road began in 1976, and in 1978  a group of us came together to start the publication Trapananda, so that more people and academics would appreciate what this would mean. The roads were coordinated with Conaf (Chile’s park service) so they could make interpretive trails. We have a lot of parks in Chile, but on paper. Conaf is an institution that puts a lot of pride into what it does, but it does not have enough power nor resources. An example is Bernardo O'Higgins Park,  an enormous park that has just one park ranger. That is not caring for, nor appreciating, nor producing all the potential services that parks can give.
 
So, a key issue then is enacting new land-use policies in Chile.
The previous government tried to put in a new land-use zoning system,  and today it is in question because it let's mega projects be part of the system. We are obviously against that because they are fatal. Hidroaysen is the spearhead for at least 10 more dam projects. The Aysen river, Cisnes, Figueroa, Palena, Futaleufu, a network of large mega projects that, if Hidroaysen were to go forward some day, would cause a domino effect. Each has its own transmission line. They can not go on the same towers, which means Patagonia would be transformed into an electric guitar even though we know that there are alternative solutions with energy distributed closer to the production and consumers. We don’t need the big companies deciding our energy policies.  This is a system that needs deep changes to allow renewable energies to flourish.
 
You are pushing for re-nationalizing water in Chile, how would that work?
There are several constitutional amendments that have been proposed. I presented a reform that includes integrated watershed management. An example is the Futaleufu River, we want conservation and tourism and that everything is compatible with that. This is a nationalization of water with a procedure. In other words, if someone has water rights you can’t go and take them away, but you can say, look, your water rights here are impossible to exercise because it is an area that is protected for tourism or we do not want a dam.  
 
 
      
 
 
What about creating a special form of protection for rivers with high conservation and tourism value, something akin to the Wild and Scenic Rivers system in the U.S.?
With Robert Kennedy Jr., who comes to Chile a lot to visit the Futaleufu, and his Riverkeepers organization we are looking at putting several rivers of Patagonia under that type of legal protection in Chile. The issue is having a strong legal basis because, for example, the previous Bachelet government tried by administrative decree to declare some rivers as having “protection interest,” but then the Piñera government reversed this decree. So, this is something that must have a continuity over time.
 
What happened to the Aysen social movement?
I believe they achieved 20 to 25 percent of their 11 original demands. I have known this movement since its birth and there was a good chance to resolve historic debts between Chile and Aysen. Those debts generated a spark that exploded, and the past regional government was too authoritarian. Instead of sitting at the table, talking and dialoguing to achieve solutions they sent the special forces to crush the rebellion. That exacerbated the mood. But behind all this there were 11 demands that were completely solvable. The results, despite past government propaganda, are not so visible. But the region showed that it is capable of uniting and sacrificing for important issues.
 
You were a member of former President Piñera’s center-rtight poltiical party, what happened?
In the 2010 presidential election there were two alternatives: Piñera and Frei Ruiz-Tagle. Piñera had showed an openness to environmental issues but a few months after taking office he turned his back on the environmental movement. I then became an opponent as he failed to meet the commitments he promised in his campaign. Before the party was about to kick me out I resigned.
 
What kind of development model do you want in Patagonia?
It is a special place in the world and deserves a special status. We are now trying to get Patagonia declared a part of the patrimony of humanity with official recognition by the United Nations as a World Heritage area.  Such a place requires a decentralized system with a land-use zoning plan. We've done the math and in the economic sphere its worth far more to protect Patagonia than all of the mega projects combined. That is the path we all must push toward – to properly value what we have ecologically and culturally.
 
The lifestyle in Patagonia is different.
It is, and it has a deep philosophy. Here the distances are measured in hours and the old saying in Patagonia "he who hurries wastes his time" is not a sign of laziness rather signifies that things here have their own rhythm.
 
That lifestyle is in danger?
Always. The centralized system is not just in Chile but throughout the world, and there are social protests over this well aware that the planet can not not stand much more abuse. We can not continue on this path.