January to April are the warmest months in the Southern Hemisphere and the time when the sea provides a treasure: red seaweed. Blanca Cárdenas is there to collect it.
It’s a big commodity, this seaweed, in her close-knit community of Chana, population of some 80 people, located in the Chaitén municipality in Chilean Patagonia. Chaitén, a coastal town in the Lake District, is a gateway to popular tourism attractions. People travel from all over the world to trek or kayak through national parks, hike to the top of a volcano, and boat through narrow fjords and across clear lakes and rivers. The area is also rich with islands, estuaries, and channels that provide habitat for the abundant plants and wildlife, population untold. Particularly important to Cárdenas and fellow algae gatherers is the red seaweed, known as luga (Gigartina skottsbergii), which can be used in food, medicine, and cosmetics. So as long as the weather is clear, she goes out to harvest it daily.
But when some people who lived outside of Chana realized the seaweed was valuable, they began collecting it for their own benefit and decimated the supply. In response, Cárdenas organized local fishers, seaweed collectors, and algae harvesters into a union and served as its first president—an unusual feat for a woman in the traditional society where she was born and raised. The union’s goal was simple: to create a marine management area that is protected by the government. It succeeded in creating two.
“We started protecting the sea many years ago,” says Cárdenas. “And thanks to those management areas, we’re able to protect our resources. We can already see the results. We have significant algae and seafood production—and the sea is regenerating itself.”
Small, organized groups such as this union are a cornerstone of protecting Chilean Patagonia’s natural heritage.
Cárdenas is also a partner in an environmental corporation, Yene Purrun We, which means “place where the whales dance” in the language of the local Mapuche people. The group is working with other indigenous organizations to get the region of Chaitén designated an Espacio Costero Marino de Pueblo Orginarios, or Coastal Marine Space of Native People. Once an application for designation meets all the requirements, then any requests for aquaculture concessions must stop. Furthermore, if the group succeeds in claiming the designation, the coastline and its riches will be preserved for people who’ve lived off the sea for generations.
Boosted by locally driven organizations, the government of Chile has worked to protect its rich resources and has recognized Cárdenas as a steward for the environment. More than 20 percent of all land and 40 percent of all ocean areas are under some form of protection. But to ensure that these resources will be protected for generations, more work is needed.
Pew is collaborating with Chilean government officials and locally organized groups, such as Yene Purrun We, as well as with people such as Cárdenas, to responsibly develop, manage, and protect more areas of Chilean Patagonia’s natural bounty.
“Throughout my life, I’ve learned that we have to take care of nature so that people today and the children of tomorrow may also have that opportunity to know how to use natural resources in a sustainable way so we don’t exhaust those resources in the future."Blanca Cárdenas
“The world should care about not finishing off what’s left and try to reestablish what once was in some places. If we stand together and become aware of what nature is, I think that in 10 or 20 years from now, this place will be as beautiful as it is now. And improved.”Blanca Cárdenas