Protecting Chile’s Biodiversity

The proposed Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service is the government’s first major piece of environmental legislation since it took office in March 2010. But the bill has met with a barrage of criticism from NGOs, academics and environmental experts who say that while the new service is necessary, it fails to live up to its promise of integrating the management of public and private protected areas while also protecting biodiversity in the rest of the country.

No one questions the need for such a service. Around 19 percent of Chile’s territory – some 16 million hectares – is protected in parks and reserves by the national forestry service (CONAF), a far greater percentage than in the U.S. or most European nations. But CONAF is woefully underfunded and experts warn many ecosystems are underrepresented or not protected at all. In addition, CONAF’s function of promoting forestry development needs to be separated from its other duties that include guarding national parks and erecting fences.

In 2009, under the government of former President Michelle Bachelet and partly due to recommendations made by the OECD during its accession process, Chile began a process of strengthening its 1994 environmental framework law. The reform, which came into force in early 2010 just before the change in government, created an Environment Ministry, a new independent service to manage the environmental evaluation of new projects, and called for the creation of a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service as well as environmental courts.

President Piñera had a lot on his plate immediately after the earthquake in February 2010 with reconstruction the government’s main priority and the courts have yet to be created, but a bill to create the new biodiversity service was drafted within the 12-month period specified by law and presented to Congress in January.

The bill will now be subject to a debate that could drag on for years like the Native Forests Law, which was finally passed in 2007 after 15 years of delays and revisions.

Today, the responsibility for conservation in Chile is shared by different state entities in charge of, for example, protected areas (CONAF), native forests, fisheries and agriculture. Since the new service is supposed to protect biodiversity in the whole country, it will concentrate these responsibilities under one organization, making it much more than a national parks service.

Environmental NGOs and academics tend to agree that the bill is a positive step in terms of consolidating biodiversity protection. “Chile needs a service that integrates these functions and in this sense the bill is a great advance for biodiversity protection,” said Bárbara Saavedra, the director of the NGO Wildlife Conservation Society Chile.

But the bill was drafted largely behind closed doors and without consulting NGOs or the private sector. This is a big problem, according to Saavedra, because as it is written the new service lacks the technical quality to be an effective tool.

“It looks good on paper but the law is very weak,” she said.

Managing protected areas

The bill proposes an integrated approach to biodiversity management that includes public and private protected areas, but Chile has already been working on a system to manage protected areas.

In 2009, then-Environment Minister Ana Lya Uriarte created the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) project, funded by the United Nations Development Program’s Global Environmental Facility (GEF), as part of the country’s biodiversity strategy to consolidate the management of public and private protected areas.

But the SNAP project was not integrated during the drafting of the law, said Rafael Asenjo, a former director of environmental authority Conama and now the national coordinator for the SNAP project.

Instead, the new service will design a management plan for each protected area, which must be approved by an 11-member Ministerial Sustainability Council headed by the environment minister with the ministers of energy, mining and agriculture amongst others.

The service will place limits on development though not to the degree feared by some, said Leonel Sierralta, head of the Natural Resources and Biodiversity Division in the Environment Ministry.

“It’s one thing to protect and another to prohibit activity in a certain area, for the second a constitutional reform is required,” he said.

Even so, its critics say that the service’s dependence on other ministries weakens its ability to protect biodiversity. “The service’s director is virtually powerless and that’s unusual for a service with such a strong mandate,” said Asenjo.

The risk is that the Council could make decisions based on political rather than environmental criteria, said Juan Carlos Urquidi, an environmental lawyer and partner at SustentaRSE, a consulting firm specialized in corporate social responsibility and sustainability policies.

“The service can draw a line around as many forests and glaciers as it chooses but the Council will make the final decision,” he said.

The bill also calls for the creation of a Technical Committee composed of the service’s director and representatives of the environment, economy, national heritage and agriculture ministries, which will be able to award concessions for the management of protected areas.

The bill states that concessions could be awarded for “reasons of conservation management efficiency”, leaving open the possibility that the administration of national parks used to promote Chile’s image abroad, such as Torres del Paine, could be privatized.

“You can’t just say you are going to give away concessions, you have to be much more specific,” said Asenjo.

The bill is similarly imprecise about fishing and hunting within protected areas. Capture fishing and aquaculture, for example, are not permitted in public protected areas, but they are in private areas. Hunting, on the other hand, is prohibited in protected areas unless it is allowed by the management plan, which is to say that hunting could be allowed in any protected area in the country.

Changing the rules

Chile’s existing law allows for the development of economic activities in any part of the territory subject to environmental approval, but the new service would be able to propose that additional areas be protected or that the management objectives of protected areas be changed.

“More than 20 percent of the national territory is currently protected, but this area could be subject to strict restrictions for productive development if this law is approved,” wrote Susana Jiménez, an economic analyst at the Santiago think-tank Libertad y Desarrollo, in a public document published in March.

“This would mean an important change in the rules of the game,” she continued.

But NGOs are not happy either. According to Greenpeace Chile’s campaign coordinator Samuel Leiva, the bill does not go far enough in making protected areas off limits to development. “What sort of development can take place on a glacier, a petrified forest, or an indigenous area?” he asks.

About half of Chile’s existing protected area is covered in glaciers or lands with limited investment potential, but expanding the size of the area could threaten investment and adversely impact the economy, said Jaime Dinamarca, head of environmental affairs at Chile’s manufacturers’ association (SOFOFA).

According to Dinamarca, the service could end up protecting 40 percent of Chile’s territory. “If that happens, and there is no chance at working in protected areas, we will have effectively chained off nearly half of the country,” he said.

Developers of projects like the Barrancones coal-fired project, which was suspended after President Piñera intervened in 2010, or the HidroAysén hydroelectric project in Patagonia could suddenly find that land they had planned to develop is now protected or subject to different environmental criteria.

But Asenjo says the service is unlikely to recommend a major expansion of protected areas because each new area must be approved by the Sustainability Council on a case-by-case basis.

The Council must also establish a management plan for private parks. Currently, the protection of private parks, such as U.S. businessman Douglas Tompkins’ Pumalín Park in Patagonia, is basically unregulated, but the new service will be able to inspect them to make sure that conservation activities comply with the area’s management plan.

However, Saavedra emphasizes the need to establish a national system of protected areas that integrates public and private conservation efforts on land and in marine areas.

Conservation challenges

But, despite the problems with the way protected areas will be managed under the new service, this is not the biggest problem with the draft law. The project also aims to protect biodiversity outside protected areas, which opens a Pandora’s Box of regulatory issues not to mention running into possible conflicts of interest with other ministries such as agriculture, mining and energy.

“There is an urgent need for a decision about how to manage protected areas, but protecting biodiversity outside these areas is an extremely complex issue that involves many different stakeholders,” said Asenjo.

The bill includes a list of tools including a national inventory of species, a plan to protect endangered species, and a plan for recovering damaged ecosystems and controlling or eradicating harmful foreign species. The service would also be responsible, in partnership with other agencies such as the national customs service, for levying fines. These are all good objectives, but the bill does not explain how they will be achieved or funded, said the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Saavedra.

“The most important challenge for a country like Chile is how to strengthen conservation in areas outside national parks and reserves, but the law doesn’t address this adequately,” she said.

The new service will require a much higher budget than CONAF to carry out its many responsibilities, but the budget is not stated in the bill and it is not clear if the government, through the Finance Ministry, is willing to pay for it, said Asenjo.

Financing conservation initiatives can be costly, but the service will also be able to receive funds from other sources. The bill calls for the creation of a National Biodiversity and Protected Areas Fund, administered by the service, which will receive funding from the government, international organizations and individuals.

The Fund, which will finance projects related to biodiversity research and education in Chile, is “an innovative and powerful idea” that creates the possibility of new financing mechanisms for conservation efforts, said Saavedra. However, its administration should be separate from the service and should include a trust fund for long-term projects that are beyond short-term political aims, she added.

Chile is not the only country to protect biodiversity at a national level. Other countries with rich biodiversity, most notably New Zealand, have created a conservation department to protect the national territory, but this has only been possible after a decision by the government regarding conservation and development objectives.

According to Asenjo, this decision has been postponed by successive governments in Chile and, as a result, the conservation aims of the new service must be established case by case and could end up clashing with the aims of other ministries like the economy ministry, which is charged with promoting economic growth.

Protecting biodiversity is important for the sustainable growth of Chile’s economy including its mines, forests and fisheries, but how to do that in a way that balances the needs of development with conservation is a complicated question.

Unfortunately, when it comes to protecting biodiversity good intentions are not nearly good enough. With so much at stake, Chile deserves a biodiversity service worthy of the name.