How to save Patagonia's environment: Interview with environmentalist Lucas Chiappe

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Lucas Chiappe is an Argentine photographer, author, publisher, farmer and environmentalist who has lived in El Bolsón since 1976.Lucas Chiappe is an Argentine photographer, author, publisher, farmer and environmentalist who has lived in El Bolsón since 1976.

 

One of the world’s last regions with vast stretches of untouched nature, Patagonia, at the lower tip of South America, is host to an extraordinary geography of endless mountains, immense ice glaciers, snowcapped volcanoes, pristine temperate rainforests, and hundreds of clear, blue-green rivers and lakes. Scientists say the Chilean side of the Patagonian Andes – which is more verdant because of more rainfall than the drier steppe areas that predominate to the east in Argentina – is one of six "hot spots" on the planet with the greatest biodiversity, greatest number of undiscovered species, and greatest human threats to that diversity.

Today, this amazing landscape is not what it once was. The environmental conflicts in Patagonia mirror the dilemmas behind our larger global environmental crisis, and some cases are direct consequences of actions taking place across the globe. The metaphorical train has left the station and Patagonian nature is under constant threat as the pace of change in the region quickens due to improved access, technological advances, and migration from cities driven by drought, climate change and the covid-19 pandemic accelerating changes in living and working patterns. At the same time, big business continues to spread its appetite for unspoilt water, minerals, timber, and other natural resources and finis terrae, or the uttermost ends of the earth, is an inevitable target.
 
Patagon Journal has always been a magazine driven foremost by its love for nature and wild places in Patagonia. In December 2021,  Patagon Journal celebrated 10 years publishing its magazine. As such, we thought this would be a good time to evaluate the challenges facing Patagonia’s environment over the rest of this decade. To this end, we consulted with diverse environmental leaders, scientists, and journalists from Argentina, Chile, and around the globe, and in the current issue of our magazine we outline an environmental agenda for the next 10 years.
 
Lucas Chiappe is an Argentine photographer, author, publisher, farmer and environmentalist who has lived in El Bolsón since 1976. He has been active since the 1980’s on environmental issues in Argentine Patagonia, organizing to stop hydroelectric dams, nuclear waste dumps, and rampant deforestation in the region, among other issues. That activism eventually led him to found in 1990 the conservation group Project Lemu. His award-winning work has also included helping to establish the first provincial park in northwestern Chubut. A longtime member of Patagon Journal’s advisory board, Chiappe sent to us his list of 6 things that should be done during the rest of this decade to save Patagonia's environment. Excerpts: 
 
I don’t believe that it’s possible to make a list of priorities, because after 45 years of fighting against Patagonian ecocide and involving myself in dozens of environmental and territorial fights, I find it very difficult to put together creative and optimistic responses. The truth is that, frankly, I believe we are quite lost, and, while I always leave the door open, I have a clear feeling that the war is lost.
 
In short, I will give some passing thoughts and a small sample of what should be stopped in order to prevent a systemic collapse, as well as a few proposals about what we are working on more and more as Patagonians without borders, united by the fear of knowing that we are mirrors of the same plundering on both sides of this marvelous mountain range. (Lucas Chiappe)
 
1) Reverse biocide in the Patagonian-Andean Forest ecosystem caused by commercial plantations of exotic species, through methodically restoring invaded ecosystems and abolishing the absurd governmental subsidy for forestry conglomerates.
Commercial afforestation with exotic species has been one of the worst environmental catastrophes to have occurred since the second half of the 20th century, which was backed by most governments from the Southern Hemisphere.
 
State policy allowed and stimulated the transference from North to South of one of the most polluting industries of the planet.
 
Its unfortunate consequences have been the massive deforestation of old-growth forests, with all their rich and fragile biodiversity; the expulsion and confinement of aboriginal communities and campesinos; the concession and renting of public land at the hands of the timber and paper industry; the desertification of lands; the expulsion of original flora and fauna; the pollution and disappearance of underground aquifers even knowing for certain the serious lack of water caused by the climate crisis that will likely worsen in the next decade.
 
These are sufficient reasons to develop a policy of restoring our old-growth forests, support and shelter of a stunning biodiversity and fundamental organ of the regional hydrologic cycles.
 
 
Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal.Read “An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia” in the current edition of Patagon Journal.
 
 
2) We must end areas of industrial sacrifice and the looting by the mining industry. 
The reasons are obvious: air, water and soil pollution; the unimaginable consumption of fresh water in arid regions; the seismic impact caused by the extraction of gas and oil (fracking), for the benefit of transnational corporations, who steal the planet’s diminishing minerals because of meagre provincial royalties, leaving a deep environmental scar without remediation. And if we add to this unfortunate outlook the serious social and health impact that is caused in the neighboring towns and cities, the degree of complicity, or plain and simple corruption, of those who manage the future of Patagonia’s natural assets on both sides of the mountain range becomes clear. Facing such subjugation, the Northern Hemisphere continues pushing the immense move of the planet’s most pollutant industries: those who search for cheap employees and raw materials; permissive and avoidable laws; the absence of obligatory restoration plans; scandalous imposing exemptions; and unimaginable earnings in the competitive European and North American markets.
 
3) We must imagine a new current and complex water economy: an economy that unites ecosystems, territory and its settlers.
We have torn apart our rivers, starting with the riverbeds (dug up, “straightened” and “corseted” between walls of iron and cement), using their shores for the uncontrolled strip mining of sand and mortar, as if the riverside ecosystems were not a fundamental part of fluvial ecosystems. What’s more, construction continues indiscriminately on the wetlands that are home to a prominent and very rich biodiversity, and they lend essential ecological services to human beings (regulating and purifying the water, reducing the risk of floods, stabilizing coasts, protecting against storms, retaining and exporting sediments and nutrients) and dredging peatlands of which the ecosystem functions are CO2 and fresh water storage and the preservation of the rich biodiversity that frequents these locations.
 
Concurrently, after 100 years of intensive timber exploitation and over-shepherding livestock throughout the mountain range, we still don’t understand that each tree felling brings us closer to desert limits… that with each felling of a lenga beech tree (the big protectors of the watersheds) we feel the consequences to all the people downstream.
 
4) Paralyze the hydroelectric mega-dams financed by the State and designed with scarce ecological considerations.
Following with that illogical logic, the governments in office are not only betraying their aquifers, rivers, streams, lakes and watersheds, so that their main priority, drinking water, is polluted; but they are also planning to build the sinister multinational corporations of the Northern Hemisphere, the energy structures through which they will leave us another tremendous environmental, social and economic liability. In fact, in many parts of the Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia they are planning the construction of reservoirs and dams for the installation of hydroelectric mega-centers, with the eternal excuse of beating the “national energy crises." When in reality we all know that a single, Argentinian, strip mining operation, that of Bajo de la Alumbrera, in the Catamarca province, consumes more than 80% of the energy produced by the dam in the village of El Chocon (in the Neuquén province), whereas, conglomerate Aluar’s aluminum manufacturing in the city of Puerto Madryn consumes almost all that is generated by the Futaleufú dam in the Chubut province.
 
As summarized by Juan Pablo Orrego in the roar of the Patagonia without Dams campaign: “To reverse this situation our society must understand that it needs a national land management plan, relating to a management of drainage basins that guarantee their restoration, protection and conservation, just like the fluvial ecosystems and hydrological resources."
 
5) Halt in Argentina and reverse in Chile the proliferation of the salmon industry.
In practice, it is clear that for the State water maintenance is not a cultural problem and ecological priority given that its use and distribution are only linked to the interests and structures of political-commercial power.
 
In consequence, and despite the multiple bad examples of this North to South transference along the marine coasts and the Chilean lakes (ocean eutrophication, the abuse of antibiotics that eventually end up being ingested by the consumers and the release of salmons that in turn prey on endemic species and make them unwell), that practice and many more abuses still occur throughout the whole of our Patagonian bioregion.
 
6) Stronger political participation
And, if we want a future that at least resembles how we lived in the 20th century, we must make a series of personal decisions committed to our surroundings. It is essential to seriously reflect on what our attitude will be henceforth, to try to minimize the dangers that affect our immediate future and that of our descendants: putting ethical-ecological criteria before the economy; encouraging local autonomy, decentralization and self-management; preserving wide sectors of the biosphere without any type of industrial exploitation and large scale human settlements; with the ultimate goal of achieving a stable economy, more balanced social patterns and an environment capable of regenerating the necessary conditions for the survival of all the beings who populate this so generous bi-national bioregion that is so punished by our own ignorance, carelessness and short-termism. And based on these vital agreements we must actively participate in the process of recreating the conditions so that life continues to flourish in all its diversity, as a foundation for health and stability in the ecosystems.
 
As additional suggestions I propose:
  • Amplify and interconnect the network of natural protected municipal, provincial and national areas.
  • Create food self-sufficiency centers promoting agroecology on a small, medium and large scale.
  • Make a law that obligates each person or company who has an environmental impact on their surroundings to restore each of the invaded ecosystems, especially forest, oil, mining and agricultural industries.

 

Through September 2022, each week visit www.patagonjournal.com for more interviews in this special series. Read "An Environmental Agenda for Patagonia" in the current issue of the magazine. Subscribe today or look for the magazine at our stockists