How to save Patagonia's environment: Interview with activist Gabriela Simonetti

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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.
In this interview, our executive editor, Jimmy Langman, spoke with Gabriela Simonetti, executive director of Kauyeken, an environmental group she founded and has directed since 2013 that focuses primarily on Chile's Magallanes region. She is also one of the key leaders of Alerta Isla Risco, a citizen’s campaign that — after 12 years of unstoppable activism – recently successfully halted a large-scale, open pit coal minining project on Riesco Island off the coast of southern Patagonia. Moreover, in 2020, Simonetti founded a regional climate change network Sociedad Civil por Acción Climática Magallanes. Excerpts:
Patagon Journal: What for you are the most important environmental issues facing Patagonia over the rest of this decade?
Gabriela Simonetti: The challenge is very broad. I am probably going to leave out many things, but I would say energy generation and salmon farming - two conflicts that have remained very strong in the Magallanes region and that we do not seem to be advancing at the pace we need to in order to resolve.
At Alerta Isla Riesco, we spent more than ten years working for the closure of coal mining and finally that was achieved, but not because of a commitment of the State; there has not been a political commitment to end coal mining. And I say this because what happens in Chile is that the State is the owner of the minerals, including coal, so the State is the one that offers concessions on the coal so that it can be exploited. In Magallanes, we have about 6 billion tons of coal, so it is Magallanes who has to push for it to end. The government should not approve any more coal exploitation and burning projects. There must be a commitment from the State to end the chain of pollution.
Magallanes is a region that has been characterized by depending on fossil fuels, coal extraction, gas, etc., and we have to make a transition that allows us to achieve clean and renewable energy that does not depend on fossil fuels. But that means a tremendously important cultural change and it has to be done through a just transition that is respectful to the local culture, with the people who work here, with those who are impacted by the use of fossil fuels.
The arrival of green hydrogen seems to have opened the door to other possible ways of generating, storing and transporting energy in Magallanes, and that seems very interesting to me in the sense that until 2 or 3 years ago, when you talked about a different energy such as wind and others, we were view as naive, unpatriotic, destroyers of development. Today, it seems that even the most reticent places and defenders of coal seem to have come around to understanding this. They have seen that there are other possibilities.
What should Chile do to speed that transition?
I am not an expert in public policies regarding energy, but I believe that the State has already been doing it. Thanks to some reforms that were made during the Bachelet government, renewable energy has increased a lot. In addition to the incentives that the market is already providing for emissions, I believe that taxes on fossil fuels need to be increased. Chile has very low taxes, and on the other hand, I believe that what we need is to reform the environmental impact assessment system, which effectively incorporates much more efficient impact measurement mechanisms than they have been so far. The projects currently approved do not comply and the State does not have the capacity to supervise them, so it ends up being a vicious circle, where the problem is not only what type of energy is generated, but how it is being generated. For example, if a wind farm is installed in a place where the impact on the communities and the ecosystem is not taken into account, it is also a bad project.
One of Chile's challenges is to modify the environmental impact assessment system and there is a citizen and trade union proposal that was made some years ago on how to modify it and I believe that this is key.
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.
What needs to be done to counter the expansion of salmon farming to Magallanes and southern Chilean Patagonia?
There is a strong struggle to put an end to the salmon farming that has been installed in a very strong way in the region. There are communities, especially in Puerto Natales and Puerto Williams, and indigenous communities, such as the Kawésqar in particular, who have been fighting a very important battle to put an end to salmon farming. It is curious that the authorities in Magallanes do not see that they are bringing to the region a development model that is very short term, and that has already had very bad results in other regions of the country. So it seems to be a bet that does not make sense if one considers the long term future for the region. Because not only does it have terrible impacts on the environment and on the places where it is installed, but it also has a great impact in social and economic terms.
So we are mortgaging systems that are unique and key, not only for the welfare of the population that inhabits or relates to those places in social and cultural terms, but also for the whole of humanity at a time when we are in a climatic ecological crisis. It seems to me that the protection of the oceans is tremendously important. Magallanes can still put a brake on this. The first step is getting salmon farming out of the protected areas, which are places that help local economies. A marine protected area allows the conservation and reproduction of species that later become resources for artisanal fishermen, for example.
I also think that salmon farming is a threat within and outside the protected areas. It is complicated that we do not understand that the species do not see those borders that we see in the territory and that they move in different ways, and, therefore, I believe that salmon farming is not an activity that has the capacity to be sustainable, on the contrary. We have to learn that without protecting nature there is no sustainable development possible.
What are some other issues important for the region?
Several, but they are less striking in terms of conflict, such as invasive species, which are a tremendously important issue in Magallanes, like the beaver, the mink. It is not a direct socio-environmental conflict, so there is no confrontation between communities and investment projects, but they are very deep problems that are changing entire ecosystems, such as Tierra del Fuego. Life chains and entire ecosystems are being modified by invasive species, and we have been trying to control them for a long time.
Cattle ranching is another major threat to conserving biodiversity. Overgrazing has not only caused us to lose biodiversity, but it has also caused the number of livestock in the region to decrease, they are less and less, because the grasslands provide less and less food, so it is a super good example that we depend on nature in things as concrete as economic activities. We have to take a long-term view: without biodiversity protection there is no economic development possible either.
Will a new constitution help Chile advance on environmental matters?
I believe that an ecological constitution is key for everything. We are in a historic moment in building a new constitution that will be our guide for at least 3 or 4 decades and we have the opportunity to do it knowing that we are facing an ecological and climate crisis. We have the opportunity that this constitution will help us to change our relationship with nature, so that we do not continue to deepen these crises. We have to change our relationship with nature if we want to have a minimum guarantee of access to our fundamental human rights and I believe that the constitution is key for that.
Through October 2022, each week visit 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