Interview: Marcelo Mena, Chile's Environment Minister

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Editors Note: The following is from Issue 15.
It’s not common to see a governmental minister bike 15 miles (24 km) to work - each way - every day.  For most people, the position’s stringent demands would likely make finding time to bike at all very difficult. But Marcelo Mena, Chile’s environment minister, tries to embody his green way of thinking. For a long time now, he fights every day to keep pedaling, in part to promote biking as a means of alternative transportation for cities like Santiago that suffer from high air pollution. Mena also owns a hybrid car and his house has photovoltaic panels to take advantage of solar power.
Mena unabashedly is proud to call himself an environmentalist and he walks the walk. Prior to becoming an environmental minister (he was promoted from deputy environment minister earlier this year), he earned a PhD in environmental engineering from the University of Iowa, and was the director of the Andres Bello University Center for Sustainability Research. He received the NASA’s Group Achievement Award in 2005 for his work in improving air quality forecasts in Chile.
Mena recalls that one of his most cherished moments leading Chile’s Ministry of the Environment occurred in March when American conservationist Kris Tompkins visited their offices. Some 200 people were there to greet Tompkins with thunderous applause when she walked through the front door of the building. Tompkins was there to iron out the details of her donation of 407,625 hectares of private parkland to form part of a new network of 17 national parks in Chilean Patagonia that will cover a total land area greater in size than Switzerland. “It is of the most ambitious land conservation projects in the world,” said Mena. “I’m really proud that I got the chance to be a part of that.”
In June, Mena also participated in the United Nation’s Oceans Conference in New York, where he committed to making Chile also a world leader in marine conservation by the end of the current center-left Michelle Bachelet government in March 2018. Now home to more than 950,000 square miles of protected marine area, Chile is already leading the way after last year’s creation of the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, a 185,000 square mile expanse that protects the San Ambrosio and San Félix Islands, and is the largest marine protection area in Latin America. Moreover, in May, they Chile established a marine park at Cabo de Hornos and Diego Ramírez Islands that encompasses 6,200 square miles.
Patagon Journal: What is the importance for Chile of hosting IMPAC?
Mena: It gives us a lot of pride to be the first developing country to host this very important conference. It caps off a four year stint of multiple creations of marine protected areas and a very active international agenda by Chile on ocean conservation issues. We’ve been working with the U.S. with the Our Ocean conference and we’ve been pushing other countries to go forward on more protected areas. On the diplomatic level, we’ve been supporting the recognition of ocean conservation in the climate change frameworks.
Currently around 13% of Chile’s marine environment are in marine protection areas. Are there plans to expand on that?
Mena: What we have done up to now is focus on the big chunks in pristine locations such Juan Fernández, Cape Horn and Easter Island. Our challenge will be to create protected areas closer to where there are more activities, closer to continental Chile, and that will require a longer discussion with different extractive interests: fishermen, local coastal communities, others.
Will Chile strive to meet the World Conservation Congress recommendation of 30% of oceans to be protected in marine protection areas?
Mena: Yes, I think we should strive for that. With some of the collective actions we’re looking into an even higher number as we move past Aichi [Biodviersity Targets], because we also know, like the Kyoto Agreement for climate, that it’s not enough. We had the Paris Agreement to replace that one, same goes here. We should be looking into higher conservation goals, especially considering the high level of depletion of marine resources globally.
In Chile, about 60% of fisheries are overexploited right now.
Mena: For many decades we have had fishing restrictions in place, and however critical one may be of Chile’s fisheries policies, we actually have one of the more progressive systems in place. Our quotas are determined by science and based on sustainability. And that’s why we see more and more fishing communities in Chile looking at conservation as an opportunity, because they know that if you overfish it be harder for future generations to continue with fishing.
What else do you think needs to be done to protect marine life along the coast?
Mena: I think decreasing CO2 emissions is important to reduce the amount of ocean acidification. Also, we need to be looking into strengthening our emission standards so nutrients that are discharged into the ocean can be decreased. Finally, we need to curtail the amount of plastic bags and plastic bottles that are used and disposed of, particularly in coastal cities.
What can be done about plastics in Chile?
Mena: We need to look into getting rid of disposable bottles and use a returnable bottles deposit system. And we need to curtail the use of plastic bags, they are pervasive and are very efficient at making it into the ocean. Chileans use almost a bag and half per person per day, and that’s a lot of plastic bags. Finally, we don’t have the waste management practices that really prevent the trash from getting out into the ecosystems. And since we have one of the largest coasts in the world--we’re among the top 5 coastal countries in the world-- we really have a high responsibility to reduce the amount of trash that gets into ecosystems.
There will soon be a network of marine protection areas for Patagonia. Why is Patagonia particularly important to protect?
Mena: Before the Bachelet government, the amount of protected areas in the Magallanes region was very low compared to other regions. And if you compare the amount of terrestrial conservation versus ocean conservation, there is also a big gap within the Magallanes region. Patagonia is one of the most pristine ecosystems in the world. It’s where a lot of productivity starts, where you have all these different nutrients traveling up Chile’s Pacific coast in the Humboldt Current. It is important for carbon sequestration. We have been working with private NGOs, such as Wildlife Conservation Society and National Geographic, and they have been showcasing how important these ecosystems are and have helped us with the scientific background needed to justify these conservation areas.
Perhaps the biggest threat to the Patagonian coast is the salmon farming sector. How will you tackle that and create more marine protection areas in the region?
Mena: There are many lessons to be learned from the salmon farming industry experience. One lesson is that we need better regulations. We have recently improved regulations in terms of the density of farming and having more resiliency to our fish kills due to algal blooms, such as early warning systems. That said, Chile is no Silicon Valley. We have a thriving renewable energy industry and are developing other new added value industries, but meanwhile we are a country with an economy that has a lot of natural resource extraction. So, we need to come up with the most sustainable ways of doing that. I think a balance between better regulations in aquaculture and higher conservation is a good way to make both work.

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