A New Treaty to Protect the High Seas: A Latin American Perspective

Chile’s director for environment and ocean affairs says “it’s time to act”

A New Treaty to Protect the High Seas: A Latin American Perspective
Los Muermos, Chile
Getty Images EyeEm

For Chile, a country with a 4,000-mile coastline, the ocean affects almost every aspect of life. Against this backdrop, Ambassador Waldemar Coutts, director for environment and ocean affairs in Chile’s Foreign Ministry, works to ensure that the South American nation keeps the environmental and conservation commitments it has made in various international forums, where Chile has positioned itself as a regional and global leader in ocean protection.

Ambassador Waldemar Coutts
Ambassador Waldemar Coutts

This leadership has taken on added importance as negotiations for a potential United Nations treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, or BBNJ—areas also known as the high seas—resume after a pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Negotiations on the agreement are scheduled to conclude this year.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What’s your first memory of the ocean?

A: My relationship with the ocean began when I was very young. Spending long vacations by the sea and playing water sports creates a very close relationship—as does eating and enjoying seafood, which I also did from a young age.

Q: How has this close relationship influenced your perspective as a leader in ocean protection and conservation?

A: As I grew older, another dimension emerged in my relationship with the ocean: that of appreciating pristine places, and—by contrast—seeing the adverse effects of human activities, such as the plastic garbage on certain beaches. Then I became aware of the fundamental role of the ocean as a climate regulator and carbon sink, and I also began to understand the concept of ocean sustainability and its role in the balance that must exist between production, protection, and prosperity. In short, the ocean is fundamental for human life on the planet, from every angle.

Q: Progress among countries seems to be uneven when it comes to implementing an ocean-based approach to conservation. Why do you think that is, given the critical role the ocean plays in the long-term health of our planet?

A: I think it’s an approach that’s gradually gaining more and more visibility. There’s still a vast area of the ocean to be explored, and there’s a lot of room for scientific research. We’re learning more every day, and political decision-makers have more input into the process every day. It’s a learning process for everybody.

Q: Negotiators are hoping to finalize a new high seas treaty this year. What do you think is at stake, not only for Chile and Latin America but for the entire world, if negotiators can’t come to an agreement?

A: Concern for ocean conservation is becoming an increasingly important issue because, thanks to science, people can see the urgency of the problem and the relationship between the ocean and our climate. I’m convinced that an agreement on a high seas treaty to protect marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, or BBNJ, is important—not only for Chile and Latin America but for the whole world—because it’s general knowledge how important the ocean is for humanity’s survival. And that’s what’s at stake if we don’t understand that we no longer have time to continue talking. It’s time to act.

Q: Chile is among many countries that support the call to protect 30% of the ocean globally by 2030—often referred to as “30 by 30.”

A: For Chile, there’s a clear link between the BBNJ treaty and the goal of 30% protection by 2030. Indeed, as we pointed out during President [Joe] Biden’s Earth Day climate summit, Chile is committed to adopting the goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 under the Convention on Biological Diversity, while keeping in mind that the BBNJ negotiations are essential to being able to establish the network of comprehensive fully and highly protected marine areas in the high seas that we need in order to reach 30 by 30.

With 43% of its jurisdictional waters protected, Chile recently announced a proposal to create the first fully protected marine protected area in the Nazca Ridge, a high seas biodiversity hotspot in the Southeastern Pacific.

Q: Let’s turn to the upcoming round of negotiations. Are there lessons we can learn from the past based on your experience as Chile’s chief negotiator for the Paris Agreement?

A: With this treaty in particular, we must learn from what went well and not so well in developing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was finalized in 1982. Current times demand modern and effective treaties, with institutional structures that are sensitive to the urgent climatic and environmental situation, in which the ocean plays a key role. Above all, accountability is fundamental: We need a treaty in which countries can be held responsible for its implementation. That’s why, for example, a technical compliance committee is a very important subsidiary body, as are a functional Secretariat and overall structure; a Conference of the Parties; and scientific committees. We need a treaty that, once it enters into force, works in practice.

Q: Are you hopeful that the negotiators will come to an agreement?

A: First, we need to make sure that the negotiations can actually take place this year. Second, given the content and scope of the treaty, I think it was always going to be difficult to come to an agreement in four rounds. There’s enough there to come to four different agreements—on area management tools, marine genetic resources, environmental impact assessments, and capacity building and transfer of marine technology. But we need to maintain the political momentum; and in this sense, the NGOs and civil society are doing important work to support the negotiations. Similarly, the virtual work between sessions organized by Rena Lee of Singapore, who is president of the BBNJ Intergovernmental Conference, has been very positive. Ultimately, we need a treaty that allows a real balance between conservation and sustainable use of the ocean. That approach guarantees a healthy ocean for the future.

white branched octocoral
white branched octocoral
Report

Creating the First Generation of High Seas Protected Areas

Quick View
Report

Although there is much still to discover, scientists have sufficient data and research to begin mapping and modeling hot spots of biodiversity on the high seas. This report identifies some of the special places that could benefit from protections established under a new high seas treaty.

Wave crashing
Wave crashing

The Drive to Protect 30% of the Ocean by 2030

Quick View

Effective marine conservation can help people and nature, conserving critical marine habitat where species may thrive, and significantly boost the global economy, for example by fostering healthy and sustainable fisheries. Pew is working with partners to ensure that the international community builds on this momentum and support to establish and sustain protections to conserve biodiversity in the most important ocean environments.