Collective Action to Preserve Wetlands in Chile

Environmental issues are beginning to take the driver’s seat in different parts of the world. Some countries’ sustainable efforts are carried out through government while others can count on the nonprofit sector. Similar to other nations in the Global South, in Chile citizens unite and work together without the need of being legally recognized as an environmental group. 

Special Report by Cristina Ramirez Doval

According to natural resources engineer Víctor Elgueta, these factions are very well recognized in many regions of the country. 

“They fight to protect dunes, wetlands, basins, rivers, forests and mountains», he said.

The environmentalist explained that Chile is one of the countries with the most amount of water resources around the world, a reason why natives have become invested in protecting its water and wetlands.

Elgueta said that the Chilean government leave environmental laws on the back burner in public hearing agendas. 

Although the nonprofit sector participates in the proposal of green public policies, the engineer pointed out most of the work is carried out by private citizens. 

Since wetlands are estimated to be 5.9 % of the national territory,  people from all regions try to protect the ones that are near their communities due to their biodiversity and the oxygenation that takes place in their waters.

In Elgueta’s case he became involved with the conservation of the Humedal Angachilla wetland in southern Valdivia, a city that did not have any wetlands before the earthquake of 1960, the biggest earthquake detected in history

“With the city’s developments and increasing population, the wetlands surrounding the area have become endangered”, he said.

The Chilean engineer indicated that since there is little space left for Valdivia to expand, those in charge of construction have started filling the wetlands with cement. 

“This is a dangerous practice because of Chile’s seismic activity, there’s small earthquakes happening every day, and this endangers the residents whose houses have been built on top of the wetlands”, he added. 

Due to his commitment to the area, several residents decided to join efforts and create what is known as a Neighbors Board in charge of leading educational trainings, awareness campaigns and community rallies. 

Angachilla now has trails and watchtowers and it has become a famous touristic spot. 

The government was set on building a highway bridge that would have seriously compromised the preservation of Angachilla. However, due to the advocacy of residents, the construction has been put on hold. 

Born and raised in a small town himself, Elgueta recalled this way of life was of great influence for him, especially when it was time to choose a career before college.

 “I was raised in Río Blanco, a rural town with a population of 500, now it’s up to 900, so it’s still composed of very few people”, he said. 

Older generations in his family had always lived out in the country, and he mentioned this is how he came to love animals, nature, and the environment.

During his school years, he thought he would become an agronomist or a veterinarian. However, when he became of age, he realized he wanted to devote his life to protecting the environment going to the Austral University of Chile to become a natural resources engineer.

In 2015, he founded the Colectivo de Acciones Sustentables, a nonprofit with the sole mission of empowering environmentalists in Chile and Puerto Rico. The CSA helps these leaders plan and carry out successful environmental campaigns, many which have been focused on the conservation of water, since it is one of Elgueta’s many areas of expertise. 

Having lived in both nations, Elgueta noted some similarities and differences in their people’s efforts to save the environment. 

“Both countries are similar in the sense that most environmental efforts are carried out by individuals that decide to get together and formulate a plan, but Chile’s movements are more radical”, he observed. 

According to him, Chileans have been fighting for water rights for 10 or 12 years. They were so dedicated to having the government scale back on the selling of water rights that a big corporation had to back off from purchasing them after pressure from citizen protests.

Although some governments have noticed the importance of protecting natural resources and fighting against climate change, citizens hold the key to push and promote key environmental policies, regardless of how hard it can be or how long it may take. 

Photo Credit: Victor Elgueta, Amira Odeh

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