How to save Patagonia's environment: Interview with scientist Juan Armesto

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Juan Armesto at the Senda Darwin Biological Station, Chiloé, Chile. Photo: Daniel CasadoJuan Armesto at the Senda Darwin Biological Station, Chiloé, Chile. Photo: Daniel Casado

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 Juan Armesto, who has a doctorate in botany and plant physiology from Rutgers University in the U.S. and has been a longtime ecology professor at Chile's Catholic University. Armesto is also a co-founder of the Instituto de Ecología y Biodiversidad (IEB, Ecology and Biodiversity Institute) and president of the Estación Biológica Senda Darwin, which does scientifc research on Chiloe Island. Last year, Armesto was the recipient of the prestigious Robert H. Whittaker Distinguished Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America and was also appointed an international member of the United States Academy of Sciences.

The following are excerpts from that conversation with Armesto:
Patagon Journal: What are some of the socio-environmental conflicts due to development in Patagonia that most concern you?
Juan Armesto: One issue is the relationship that exists between conservation and ranching as an economic activity. Introducing livestock to the steppe has produced huge changes in vegetation, such as tree regeneration, due to shepherding. The forest has been receding and the grasslands increasing.
Another problem that needs to be solved with care are the roads currently under construction. Generally, in Chile there are disasters associated with highway construction, such as marshes flooding or the destruction of vast spaces and the soil. This type of impact should be eliminated, but that requires a construction strategy that must be cautious with scenic values, from the cultural and biological point of view.
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.
Are there models in other countries that Chile could learn from?
A good model that could Chile follow would be that of New Zealand and its South Island road, which is on a scenic island. The whole western side of South Island, the wettest part, has been declared a World Heritage Site, so it can only be modified within certain restricted regulations. Or there are certain production activities that cannot be carried out, for example. When I was there it was wonderful, and I thought it was a model that we must follow in Chile.
For example, they do not have private lands, but they have public lands, and that gives certain advantages because the country can take care of those places, even if they are in the hands of some private investors. I believe this is a good model for that reason and because they have left a large part of the territory under the World Heritage Site designation.
What are some of the conservation gaps still remaining in Patagonia?
Patagonia is special because it is an environment where the seas, rivers, lakes and forests come together, interacting in a strong way, more so than any other place in the world.
For this reason, I believe that aquatic and marine systems can no longer be seen as separate systems, but must be integrated elements of the landscape and of biological diversity, and the whole must be the result of this great landscape that integrates marine, aquatic and terrestrial areas.
What we most need to conserve at the moment as one of the urgent objectives, because of the degradation that is happening, are the coastal environments, where all those aquatic farming systems are occurring. I believe that terrestrial biological conservation is relatively precarious but worse is the case of aquatic systems, where there is a lot of diversity that is being lost at the moment.
Also, there are priority areas that must be conserved, especially where there are still watersheds, such as on the mountaintops where there are forests and rivers. These areas are of great conservation relevance because they have to do with the last forests that still remain with very little human impact, and their waters, which is an asset that has to do not only with the fauna and flora, but also with the human society that lives in these watersheds, in the lower parts of the watersheds. So what I am describing is the upper zone of the watersheds, where the rivers and estuaries that reach the sea are born, which is one of the areas most sensitive to deforestation.
What does Chile need to protect its watersheds?
I believe that these watersheds should be considered in a special category of conservation as untouchable zones. They are the areas where the rivers begin to descend, the rivers are formed in those valleys and if we destroy them, obviously the water flowing through those basins will flow much faster and will produce erosion and soil loss effects and the water will pass quickly through those places producing important changes in the landscape.
If we damage those places, we will lose all the value that is in the amount of water that is stored and distributed through those streams and also all the biodiversity that is very extensive in all those wetlands, where there are many organisms that are still not well known.
Does Chile need a new conservation system?
I have the expectation that, with the new change of government, a new system for the conservation of parks and areas of diversity (National System of Protected Areas), which has been in Chile's Congress for almost two decades and has not been approved, will finally see the light of day. We need this law to move forward and be enacted, because it has to do with supporting protected areas and supporting institutions that gather knowledge about Chile's biodiversity. Someone has to fill the Tompkins gap, it should be done through the state and that is a debt that the state has.
What can be done in the next 10 years to protect Patagonia?
Change the conservation system. Unite terrestrial and marine environments in an integrated conservation. Also, get considerably more funding for Patagonia's protected areas, many of which are currently underinvested. Many parks in Patagonia, marine and terrestrial, are only the demarcated area. There are no rangers or people who are concerned.
Finally, to increase the knowledge of Patagonia, the biological sciences. To allow us to identify all the biodiversity that is there, the requirements of that biodiversity, and the places where it is found, and the privileged places that we must protect. For that we need investment in science, I think that in all these points we are making a lot of progress but not enough. There are new universities in Patagonia or research centers that can undoubtedly contribute to scientific knowledge, but there is a lack of collaboration and recognition for this, and this is important. 
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