Sixty-seven salmon farms exist within Kawésqar National Reserve in southern Chile, an area that formed part of the Kawésqar Indigenous people’s ancestral lands, and another 66 concessions are under consideration there

PUERTO NATALES/PUNTA ARENAS, Chile — Pristine waters, partially covered in sea ice, reflect the early morning light while a flock of flamingos basks in the warmth of the sun near the coast. A few meters away, on the mainland, stands a huge white shed with a red roof: a factory for processing salmon, completed just a few months ago.

The town of Puerto Natales, in the Magallanes and Antártica Chilena region of southern Chile, was once devoted to fishing and tourism. But in recent years it has become the operational base for the salmon industry expanding through the fjords of Kawésqar National Reserve.

“After surviving genocide, surviving colonization, we are in the second part … we call it the second part of the colonization of the Kawésqar territory,” Leticia Caro, leader of the community Kawésqar Nomades del Mar, told Mongabay.

The Kawésqar are the last descendants of a population of nomadic hunter-gatherers and fishers who have inhabited this territory for around 6,000 years. According to the Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, in the 19th and 20th centuries their population shrank from around 4,000 people to 47 in 1971, and was forced to live in towns bordering the reserve. Today only a few individuals speak the Kawésqar language, but in a census carried out in 2017, 3,500 people declared themselves descendants of this ethnic group.

In recent years, Kawésqar communities have learned new forms of resistance to counter the proliferation of the salmon industry, which they say is harming the fragile ecosystem of their ancestral territory. According to Chile’s Undersecretariat for Fisheries and Aquaculture, in October 2022 there were 1,360 salmon farms in the wider area of Chilean Patagonia, of which 133 were in Magallanes and Antártica Chilena. Sixty-seven of these were within Kawésqar National Reserve, and another 66 concessions were under development there.

The salmon industry claims the farms only occupy 0.06% of the reserve, which covers a marine area of 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres). But Kawésqar communities accuse the farms of taking up the fjords where their sacred areas and fishing grounds are, of violating their rights on their own territory, and of compromising the ecosystem of the entire reserve through severe pollution.

“I call it ethnocide because it’s the new way of eliminating Indigenous people,” Caro told Mongabay. “Today they don’t shoot bullets but they continue eliminating us, in the sense that they destroy our cultural activities, our way of seeing the world, the spaces that are important to us.”

“We have learned that we have rights and we can exercise them, both for the sake of our families and for the good of the territory,” she said.

A reserve for salmon farms

Salmon are alien species in Chile. The species farmed here are Salmo salar, Oncorhynchus kisutch and O. tshawytscha. Industrial breeding began in the central regions of the country in the 1980s, and then expanded southward. In Magallanes and Antártica Chilena, production increased in the past decade, from 28,476 metric tons in 2012 to 134,080 in 2021. Most of the country’s production is destined for export: in 2021 Chile exported 615,000 metric tons of salmon worth $4.8 billion, mostly to the United States, Japan and Brazil. Salmon is Chile’s second-largest export, after copper.

The proliferation of fish farms has not spared protected areas, including Kawésqar National Reserve. Chilean legislation forbids aquaculture in national parks but is less categorical in other types of protected areas, such as marine protected coastal areas or reserves.

In 2019 the government approved a reform in the designation of Kawésqar ancestral territory, assigning the status of “Kawésqar National Park” only to the mainland, and the status of “Kawésqar National Reserve” to the adjacent marine areas. This legal distinction between land and water permits salmon farms to stay and settle among the area’s fjords, although there is a debate about the legality of this.

“It is a contradiction,” Marcela Aguila Yañez, from a community called Kawésqar Residents in Rio Primero, told Mongabay. “All the other parks also protect the sea, while Kawésqar [National Park] is the only one that has no sea, so it is the only one salmon farms can enter.”

The salmon industry takes a different stance. “Almost 92% of the concessions granted are prior to the date on which the reserve was created in 2019,” Carlos Odebret, president of the Association of Salmon Farmers of Magallanes, said in December. “In this way salmon farming is totally legitimate within the areas and at the same time each of these concessions have been evaluated environmentally.”

Odebret declined Mongabay’s request for comment for this story.

Alleged human rights violations

According to a 2019 report from the Bergen, Norway-based Rafto Foundation and partners, up until that year in Chile “neither the state nor the majority of the companies interviewed were complying with their obligation to consult indigenous communities before implementing projects that can affect their ways of living and traditional cultures.”

In December 2021, the Kawésqar, together with Yagán and Mapuche Indigenous communities, presented a case about salmon farming in Chile before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

“The state of Chile has facilitated the expansion of the salmon farming industry despite the negative and irreversible impact that it has on the Indigenous peoples and their ecosystems,” Enrique Viale, legal adviser to the plaintiffs, told the commission. “The state has prevented them from accessing the legal tools to enforce their rights, which constitutes a very serious violation of human rights,” he said.

Jessica Fuentes, legal deputy director at the Chilean National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service, replied during the hearing that the law committing the state to consult Indigenous communities “was implemented in 2016,” while “many of the licenses started operating in the ’90s, when that obligation did not exist.”

A video produced by the industry and released in December denies the human rights allegations and criticizes the communities’ protest as a hoax of “green colonialism” arranged by foreign NGOs, especially Greenpeace. In the same video, some Kawésqar speak in favor of fish farms as a development opportunity.

Defending rights and culture

“When the industry began to break into the territory, the first to raise the alarm were the fishermen, the Kawésqar who still pass through,” Caro said. “We started looking at the problem and we said to ourselves: we have to do something, we can’t let this happen, knowing the previous history.”

A network of half a dozen family groups, including Caro’s, called Kawésqar Communities for the Defense of the Sea, coordinates opposition to the salmon industry in Kawésqar National Reserve.

“I started studying and studying, alone, also through YouTube,” Caro told Mongabay. “I studied how to make observations at the SEA [the Chilean Environmental Evaluation Service] and appeals, I watched a lot of videos and forums.

“The surprising thing was that it went well. Last year we won a protection appeal at the Supreme Court, starting from the drafting of a document that I had written, by hand,” she said.

Some NGOs provide legal advice. Greenpeace Chile, in partnership with local environmental NGOs AIDA, FIMA and the Indigenous communities, has at least 15 legal appeals before various courts as well as administrative processes aimed at stopping approval of new salmon farms in Kawésqar National Reserve, according to Estefanía González Del Fierro, the group’s campaigns coordinator.

Amid a growing national debate about the impact of salmon farming in Patagonia, Chile’s newly elected president, Gabriel Boric, said during a May 2022 visit to Magallanes that “there can be no salmon farming industry in marine protected areas.”

Two days later, Pablo Berazaluce, executive director of the Association of Salmon Farmers of Magallanes, responded in an interview with Salmonexpert that the withdrawal of concessions in Kawésqar National Reserve “would affect around 50% of the production in the area and put at risk the industry’s operational viability in the region.” Berazaluce declined Mongabay’s request for comment for this story.

The environmental stakes

In 2022, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program published a study describing Kawésqar National Reserve as “amongst the highest global conservation priority areas due to its high degree of endemism, its significance for numerous threatened and endangered species, and its importance for valuable fisheries species.”

Within the reserve, “endangered species like humpback whales, orcas, sea otters, endemic Chilean dolphin, cold water corals, albatross, penguins are all threatened by salmon farms,” Alan Friedlander, Pristine Seas’ chief scientist and a researcher at the University of Hawai‘i, told Mongabay.

The Pristine Seas study describes the aquaculture industry as “the major impending threat to the region” and to “the biocultural integrity of the Kawésqar people.” The high density of farmed fish, which creates “dead zones” under the farms, and escaping salmon, which can compete with native fish, pose the main threats, Friedlander said.

In June 2022, with scientific support from the Pristine Seas program, the Kawésqar communities formally requested the Chilean government declare the waters within the reserve a national park without salmon farms. They reiterated the request in December in Santiago, during a meeting with Maximiliano Proaño Ugalde, undersecretary of the environment, but they are still awaiting a formal response.


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