How to save Patagonia’s environment: Interview with journalist Patricio Segura

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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 Patricio Segura, a journalist who lives near Puerto Guadal and Lake General Carrera in the Aysén region. He is the current treasurer of the Corporación Privada para el Desarrollo de Aysén, in charge of communications for the Aysen Reserve of Life coalition, and was a key part of the communications team for the Patagonia without Dams campaign. A long-time contributor to Patagon Journal, he has published articles and columns in a variety of national and international media, including Science, Nature, CIPER, El Mostrador, Le Monde Diplomatique, El Desconcierto, El Ciudadano and El Divisadero, on science, tourism, corruption, the environment and socio-environmental conflicts, with an emphasis on Patagonia.
The following are excerpts from that conversation with Patricio:
Patagon Journal: What do you think are the priorities for protecting Patagonia over the next 10 years?
Patricio Segura: The first thing is to have strong territorial planning and zonification both for land and sea. We need to start a regional conversation about how we are going to plan our territory because production-related projects that threaten the environment such as mining, salmon farming, energy, and tree plantations require us to take a new and critical look at the traditional development model for Patagonia. By dividing up the territory, this will put pressure on nature. The pandemic and teleworking enabled people to move to rural areas and this has led to the dividing up of rural land. It has led to new communities and urban centers springing up and has put a lot of new pressure on all types of services.
New towns are basically appearing, and these developments have been left out of State collective planning. At the moment, the market is determining where new towns will be created and issues like where these new residents will get their firewood, their energy, and where their waste will go to are not being discussed at a macro level.
At the moment it is the market, specifically the real estate sector, which is deciding where new urban settlements will be and we believe that this falls outside of the legal framework. But the housing and agriculture ministries and the municipalities are not showing any political will to look into this issue. That is why I am talking about land use and territorial planning, because the pressure here in the Aysén region has increased exponentially in recent years. There is population pressure and I think this is an important aspect that will have to be dealt with over the next decade.
We believe that first of all there has to be a discussion about how to stop this by enforcing planning legislation with regard to these new plots. The law states that new urban settlements cannot be considered separately from state planning, which falls under the remit of the housing ministry. But what is happening now is that there are lots of 100 parcels, and new urban centers are being set up that are not being regulated. The comptroller's office should not allow these types of subdivisions. And these plots are being created in tourist areas without the corresponding report being filing as required when such land subdivisions are made.
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.
How do you think territorial planning can be improved?
In the long term, what we have to do is to modify these regulations, as well as planning legislation and take a fresh look at the land and these new urban centers.
In the long term, what needs to be done is to modify legal agreements, but also to modify planning, to look at the territory and the new urban centers. Either we allow certain cities to be expanded in a sustainable way or we agree to create new urban centers. But this needs to form part of a collective discussion, involving the regional government, the municipality, local residents, and even real estate companies if they want. They must all be part of this discussion. That is true territorial planning.
Legal instruments exist to oversee this. Regulations have been introduced that make spatial planning binding and we have an opportunity to do this, even to supervise new urban centers. There is a basic ecosystemic issue, we have to open up new channels. We are starting to see waste accumulate on a major scale, water is starting to be extracted, a whole series of ecosystemic impacts.
In addition, the world is watching Patagonia, not only Chile. And that is where we enter into another discussion, which is the global philanthropic offensive that has seen Patagonia start to be viewed as somewhere to be taken care of. There is the perception that conservation is being imposed without allowing for any real participation, and I say this as an environmental activist.
What other issues in the Aysén region most concern you right now?
Here we don't see the environmental issue as green capitalism, we see it as a legitimate way of seeing things and a different development paradigm with different points of view. In the end, once you start financing and tendering out areas of the public sector, you start causing social discontent because there is a sensation of discrimination and inequality. I know that there are private parks in the United States and that the idea works there. But here, I'm not so sure its a good idea and I think that that idea has to form part of a deeper discussion.
People who live in the region must be included in these sorts of conversations, as well as local organizations, tourism groups, and the neighborhood associations. What has to prevail here are not the private interests but rather the collective interests expressed through different organizations.
Aysén, and Patagonia in general, is not an open pantry, free for all, nor is it a platform to be manipulated by foreign interests. We need to set limits and make it understood that there are certain common goods that are not appropriable. Just because the Northern Patagonian Ice Fields are still intact, we in Aysén cannot just hold a plebiscite to sell them off. I do not believe that common goods can even be appropriated by the local authorities. But yes, the people who live in the territory do have a little more say in the matter. What cannot happen is that people from outside tell us how it should be.

How can Aysen address the environmental threats from the mining sector?
Mining is like an addiction, it makes the community depend on this activity, so people get used to the good salary, and they don't want to give that up. So once mining is installed, it can never be removed, because it has a social and general system that does not guarantee rights. If you have a society where people already have access to good health care, good education, common goods such as water, energy, etc., if a mining company then comes and says I'm going to settle here, people could decide why those resources would be guaranteed. So, the discussion is not only environmental, but also social.
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