Patagonia on Ice: the Campaign to Make Aysen a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Two days past Ushuaia, ‘the city at the end of the world,’ Peace Boat participants huddled on deck for the ship’s passage through the Magellan Strait. Antarctic winds reddened faces and the rain fell slantways, but those who endured saw islets flecked with cormorants and once, an outcrop thick with elephant seals; fjords rose on either side, some forested, some bald, and some with milky glaciers encrusted on the rock.

Michael Christopher, a New York-based techno DJ sailing through Patagonia together with a group of international students from Latin American countries, was one of those braving the cold, “I felt humbled just to be next to water, glaciers, and rocks millions of years old untouched by humans,” he said.

The territory of Patagonia stretches across Argentina and Chile. On the Argentinian side, the Los Glaciares National Park and the Valdes Peninsula are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites, which prohibits their industrial development; but across the border, Chile’s Aysén region is contested by civil society organizations and corporations who would tap its abundant natural resources.

“It does not make sense that half of Patagonia is protected and the other half is not,” says Jenia Jofre, President of Chilean NGO Comite Nacional pro-Defensa de la Flora y Fauna (CODEFF) and guest educator on Peace Boat’s 81st Voyage.

According to Jofre, Aysén is now more vulnerable than ever. In 2011, Chilean officials approved a 2,750 megawatt hydro-electric project in Patagonia after Spanish-Italian enterprise Endesa filed a fourth revision of its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Endesa’s HidroAysén facility will dam two major rivers, the Baker and the Pascua, flooding more than 8,500 hectares of farmland, forest, river ecosystems and natural reserves. Its transition system, still pending approval, incorporates almost 2000 km of high tension lines following a winding corridor north through 14 national parks to a terminal in Santiago.

With legal appeals against Endesa’s EIA rejected by Chile’s Supreme Court in April 2012, and other projects such as Xstrata’s Río Cuervo facility, waiting in the wings, there are few options left for environmental groups.

A campaign to make 7,500,000 hectares of Chilean Patagonia a UNESCO World Heritage Site – which originated on Peace Boat as part of a longstanding collaboration with CODEFF – may be environmentalists’ last hope of stopping the industrialisation of Aysén. “This is an emblematic project. If we can’t even protect the most pristine natural environment in Chile, the rest of the country doesn’t stand much of a chance,” said Jofre.

In theory, listing Aysén as a UNESCO World Heritage sight should be simple. To qualify, a site must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one of ten criteria pertaining to ecological or cultural importance.

Chilean Patagonia – where an immense Cenozoic era ice-sheet once extended to the east of the present Atlantic coast; where endemic species such as the Patagonian Fox, the Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk, and a subterranean rodent called the Magellenic Tuco-tuco thrive; where the Southern right whale, the Magellenic Penguin, and the Orca swim the seas; and where rock paintings and describe the lives of indigenous groups like the Tehuelches (who Ferdinand Magellan would histrionically describe as giants) decimated by European diseases – smashes these criteria out of the ball park.

Yet despite Aysén’s apparent eligibility, nothing has happened; the documentation must first receive a government stamp of approval before it is considered by UNESCO. “The application is just sitting there. Everybody is saying ‘yes, we’d like to do it,’ but they’re not pushing it forward to UNESCO,” siad Jofre.

Surveys indicate that the majority of Chileans are opposed to HidroAysén, however there is little political will to prevent it from going ahead. Chile imports 75% of its energy in the form of oil, gas and coal, and according to statistics from its National Energy Commission must double its energy capacity in the next 10 years to meet demand.

For many in government, HidroAysén, which would generate an equivalent of 18% of Chile’s total installed capacity as of 2010, represents an important part of the country’s future energy mix and a cleaner option than coal-fired power stations.

But NGOs such as CODEFF and Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) argue that less destructive alternatives have not been duly considered and question the influence of multinational corporations on energy supply and demand in Chile. “There are definitely a few lobbyists we can identify, there are a lot of rich families who have a lot of influence and would like the companies to succeed in using the water in Patagonia,” said Jofre.

To encourage the Chilean Government to act on Patagonia, and to counter Endesa’s massive PR campaign, CODEFF is re-submitting the UNESCO application documents along with a petition demonstrating worldwide support for its initiative.

As a partner organization to CODEFF, Peace Boat has used its global reach in support of the campaign. Through public events in Chile, New York and Tokyo, and press conferences when the ship calls at Valparaiso or Punta Arenas – the ship has helped add thousands of signatures to CODEFF’s petition.

Emilie McGlone, International Co-ordinator at Peace Boat US has been running awareness and fundraising events in support of CODEFF for the past six years, including the Latin IS (International Students) Programme, through which young Latin American activists are invited to discuss environmental issues such as water usage and conservation onboard. “The purpose of this programme is to strengthen regional networks and to build international networks on the boat,” McGlone said.

Peace Boat’s Latin IS Program is part-financed through Parties4Peace, non-profit house and techno showcases hosted at venues across New York City and in Tokyo. In addition to fundraising for disaster relief and providing direct financial support to CODEFF, Parties4Peace sponsors one artist per year to travel to Patagonia. “This is a very experiential sort of learning” said McGlone, who hopes to create a network of artists in Chile, Japan and the US to spread the message on Patagonia.

Techno-DJ Michael Christopher, a regular performer at Parties4Peace events in New York, joined Peace Boat in Ushuaia midway through an awareness raising ten-show tour of Chile and Argentina. “The rising water level is something that people in Manhattan know very well after Hurricane Sandy,” Christopher said. “These are global issues but before I came on the trip it was hard for me to really find that connection. Now, after having seen Patagonia and talked with people who visited Antarctica on Peace Boat, it is going to be easier for me to relate issues to do with water pollution and climate change back to my network back in New York.”

 

 

 

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