Guafo Island: where two paradigms collide

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Guafo Island, a pristine paradise. Photo: WWF ChileGuafo Island, a pristine paradise. Photo: WWF Chile

By Paula Fernandez
The sale of an island located southwest of Chiloé Island, off the coast of Chilean Patagonia, has raised ire and passions in recent weeks. And the island has also become fertile terrain for the new, national debate underway in Chile over what kind of constitution this small, South American country must create so as to better protect its natural environment if a plebiscite planned for this Sunday is approved by the nation’s 18 million citizens.
At play is Guafo Island, a sacred spot for the indigenous Huilliche people and a hotspot for biodiversity. Its coastal waters host the endangered blue whales, which come to feed here with their young. The largest colony of the sooty shearwater (Puffinus griseus) birds in the world is found here, with an estimated population numbering an incredible 4 million specimens. The 214-square kilometer island, with its high mountains and cliffs, coastal Olivillo forests, and abundant marine life, is prized by scientists and conservationists and they are raising alarm. 
The controversy began to erupt when the island appeared in a September advertisement placed in the New York Times by Private Islands Inc. (, which in addition to Guafo Island is selling five other islands in Chile: Cui Cui, Lacao, Tortuga, Imelev and San Pedro. The ad featuring Guafo, which listed the island as available for purchase at US$ 20 million, sparked widespread outcry in Twitter and other social media and soon thereafter became the subject of several stories in national and international media. 
Indigenous protection
Since January, the 11 Huilliche communities in the area have been requesting the protection of, at minimum, the island's coastal areas through the initiative "Wafo Wapi, ancestral territory for conservation.” The effort is supported by the artisanal fishermen's unions of Quellón, Chiloe, and the conservation group WWF Chile. Yacqueline Montecinos, head of marine biodiversity for WWF Chile, told Patagon Journal that for more than a decade Isla Guafo has been identified as a conservation priority and as such her organization is providing their proposal with technical support. 
Their request for a Marine and Coastal Areas for Indigenous People (MCAIP) was declared admissible by the Chile’s fisheries ministry in January. But a 2017 proposal to protect the entire island, due to its ecological importance, has languished in Chile’s Congress with no success. 
Artisanal fishing is practiced by local indigenous communities. Photo: WWF ChileArtisanal fishing is practiced by local indigenous communities. Photo: WWF Chile

Historical context
Guafo Island has had few occupants throughout its history. Archaeologists have found conchales, or shell middens, on Guafo Island dating back to 3300 years ago, indicating that it was once the home to indigenous communities that later may have moved on to other islands. In 1903, a lighthouse was built by the Chilean Navy here, due to the island's strategic position. About 20 years later, a whaling plant was installed on Guafo Island, with as many as 120 workers until the plant ceased operations in 1937. 
Later, during the government of Pedro Aguirre Cerda (1938-41), the land was expropriated and his government attempted to annex the area as part of the Guaitecas Forest Reserve, but the action was revoked by Chilean President Juan Antonio Ríos in 1945.
Today, the island is owned by Chilean businessmen Paul Fontaine and Rodrigo Danús. The duo put the island up for sale after giving up on a bid to exploit the island’s coal deposits because of environmental protests and recent government moves to make the country carbon neutral by 2040.
The WWF Chile’s Montecinos recounts that in 2008 "we learned that a mining concession had been granted for coal exploitation, and ever since we have been designing a strategy to protect this place, because if such a project were one day to be activated it would become one of the greatest threats to biodiversity on the island and we still consider it a latent threat.”
The world's largest colony of the sooty shearwater birds. Photo: WWF Chile.The world's largest colony of the sooty shearwater birds. Photo: WWF Chile.

An ecological constitution
For Chilean environmental lawyer Lorenzo Soto, at the core of this conflict are existing laws in Chile which he says protect the extractive industry at the expense of the environment. “It was the 1980 constitution that liberalized the economy and led to the intensive and often mindless exploitation of our natural resources,” he says. 
Adds Soto: “The problem posed by Guafo Island is a response to the clash between the classic, dominant paradigm which forms the basis of our environmental legal system, and the new trends toward reconceptualizing what environmental conservation law should look like.”
In the former paradigm, explains Soto, a territory is generally considered as appropriable and subject to all kinds of legal transactions, except for territories that the law has designated as common to all (such as beaches, seas and some land territories defined as national assets for public use). This paradigm was enshrined by the constitution of 1980 forged by the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship but Soto argues that a new “ecological constitution” ought to enshrine a paradigm shift away from viewing these places solely as natural resources available for exploitation by private sector owners, as is the case for most real estate, and toward the notion of natural assets with invaluable ecosystems and biodiversity that provide ecosystem services important for the common good. 
“What has happened with Guafo Island is just one of the problematic manifestations that arise in the context of the global climate crisis, for which dominant classical legal systems, such as the 1980 Constitution, do not provide an adequate response or solution," said Soto. 
Days away from the plebiscite in Chile on whether to approve starting the process of fashioning a new constitution, if the country does go forward with the re-write of its Magna Carta then extraordinary natural places like Guafo Island may soon have a new chance at permanent, legal protection.