Protecting the Cuervo River basin

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Photo: Fundación KreenPhoto: Fundación Kreen 

By Patricio Segura
Translation by George Chambers
During these tumultuous times, as the urge to step up the extraction of the Earth’s natural resources underpins government plans to revive the economy, it is refreshing to hear some positive news. A new protected area will be created, an important move given that the global climate crisis and the deterioration of local ecosystems is the result of mankind’s unbridled interference in nature. Such is the extent of our impact on nature, we ourselves seem to have become subordinates to an artificial way of life. When faced with the choice of whether or not to intervene in nature, we should always think first of not making an impact. Minimizing our impact on nature is precisely what nature-based solutions seek to avoid.
Aysén residents were jubilant when, a few days ago, the environment ministry announced that the ministerial sustainability committee had approved the creation of the “Meullín-Puye” nature sanctuary, a private area of 29,000 hectares in the Cuervo River basin. The decision was the culmination of decades of campaigning from the Aysén population to protect this pristine area, an initiative that dates back to the fight against Alumysa – a multi-million dollar project to build an aluminium smelting plant.
Formed in March 2018 in Santiago, the Kreen Foundation (Fundación Kreen) is an organization oriented toward conservation, research and raising awareness about natural spaces and biodiversity. And it was this organization that conceived the idea of creating “Meullín-Puye."
As stated by the foundation, “we are dealing with a unique ecosystem, hardly touched by humans. Lakes Yulton and Meullín are two of the few lakes in Chile where there is no recorded presence of salmonids (introduced species), allowing for large, healthy populations of native species of fish such as peladilla (Aplochiton zebra), puye gigante (Galaxias platei) and puye (Galaxias maculatus) to flourish, all of which are currently monitored for conservation reasons.” Made up of more than 2,800 hectares of wetlands, the area is an exceptionally valuable ally in the fight against climate change.
Photo: Fundación KreenPhoto: Fundación Kreen
Photo: Fundación KreenPhoto: Fundación Kreen
At the start of 2019, the Hurtado Berger family announced their intentions to create a nature sanctuary, calling on different parties across Aysén and neighbouring communities to participate in workshops to help draw up paperwork. The foundation was originally formed by sisters Madeleine and Pamela Hurtado Berger along with their father, the late Alberto Hurtado Fuenzalida, who formed part of one of the families that formerly controlled Chilean drinks distributor and manufacturing conglomerate Embotelladora Andina. The family sold their stake in 2018.
There was initial concern about the Kreen Foundation’s intentions and that they might be holding mining exploration licenses in the area surrounding the Yulton and Meullín Lakes. However, a subsequent enquiry revealed that the organization’s goal was in fact conservation –an encouraging sign coming from a private company given the State’s long history of attempting to systematically destroy what is now a protected area. For that reason it is surprising to see how Sebastián Piñera’s government has welcomed the announcement of the new nature sanctuary. During Piñera’s previous administration, all attempts were made to destroy this extensive area principally through the approval of the Energía Austral project and Cuervo River dam, whose planned reservoir would have left what is today protected land, under water.
The current Aysén regional representative of the environment ministry, Mónica Saldías, was the regional energy ministry head during Piñera’s previous administration and was a strong supporter of building the dams in the Cuervo River basin. On two occasions (in 2012 and 2013) the flooding of the area where the new nature sanctuary now stands was approved – a move that was even supported by the ministerial committee of Michelle Bachelet’s government in January 2016.
If the course of events had continued in line with the political wishes of the Piñera and Bachelet governments, there would be nothing to celebrate today. However, campaigning from local resident groups along with national and international support made the creation of this philanthropic conversation project possible. Political opportunism or not, it speaks volumes that the government has welcomed the creation of the “Meullín-Puye” nature sanctuary (which is little over a year old), an initiative sponsored by a single family. This contrasts starkly with the indifference shown by the former Piñera government to the public outcry from thousands of Aysén residents when the plans were to build a dam. People such as Peter Hartmann, Rodrigo de los Reyes, Hugo Díaz, Erwin Sandoval, Daniela Castro, Marcelo Rodríguez, the environmental public interest law firm FIMA and so many others fought for three decades to save this river basin from the clutches of mineral extraction and energy companies.
This same government, which on the one hand claims to be progressive, at the same time is currently promoting mining and salmon farming initiatives in areas of incalculable environmental value throughout Patagonia. Must we wait for another millionaire foundation to come and save the day and protect these areas for future generations?