Protecting biodiversity – better left to the indigenous people!

Northern Patagonia, Guafo island, about 40 kilometers from Chiloè. The divers return to the surface after one of the many dives in search of algae on the cold ocean floor, they get back on the fishing boat numb from hours spent underwater. A hard life for these men, among them Manuel Vidal who is almost 60 years old and has spent 40 of them working off the coast of Chile. Manuel has in his hand a flat, leathery and brownish seaweed called Luga, whose season begins in October and ends in March: a period during which dozens of boats set sail from the port of Quellón and carry men like him into the waves, for 8 hours a day on multi-week shifts. They dive for hours at a depth of just under 10 metres, collect the algae in nets and rise to the surface approximately every half hour, delivering a load of almost 70 kilos at a time. Most of these algae will enter the cosmetic industry circuit or become carrageenan, a thickening agent for the food industry.

In the first years of this work, the load could be completed in about 4 days. Now, due to overextraction, on average it takes 10 days to finish. This is one of the reasons why a group made up of around ten indigenous communities decided to take action to safeguard the seabed. The plan is to lead to the recognition of the Guafo area (over 2250 sq km) as a “coastal marine space of indigenous peoples” (ECMPO – Espacio Costero Marino de Pueblos Originarios). The initiative is also supported by WWF, which offers broader protection on the coastline to include monitoring of access and extraction times. Approval should be given shortly, even if time is always too much for people like Vidal, whose life and subsistence depends precisely on the extraction of these algae, algae which in some areas have disappeared and there is nothing left to harvest. ECMPO is a project in which local populations strongly believe, especially in light of the possibility that, if it were not implemented, there would no longer be any resources available for future generations.

This is not a formal, theoretical concern: there are quite a few teenagers who are supporting their parents in this work, learning techniques perfected over generations of underwater collectors. The boys plan to take over full time when they finish their studies: the boating season helps many of them appreciate the resources that nature offers and learn from a very young age not to consider them an always available asset, approaching work with moderation and the typical gratitude of many indigenous populations. And even if these teenagers have not seen with their own eyes the golden times when algae were much more widespread, they realize the importance of protecting areas on which their future and that of their families depends.

And it’s not just a question of job opportunities either. The island of Guafo is a particularly relevant site for the life, culture and spirituality of the Mapuche Huilliches communities, as well as a key place for the conservation of marine biodiversity in Patagonia, a gateway for blue whales that enter internal waters to feed together with your little ones. It is here that the largest breeding colony of Gray Shearwater (Ardenna grisea) in the world lives, a bird considered near threat on the IUCN red list. It is therefore the cultural and natural characteristics of Guafo as a whole that have motivated this step towards the protection of an ecoregion that is precious for the environment and for the communities that inhabit it and have always preserved it with dedication and respect.

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