Marcelo Mena

Cre­at­ing a Con­ser­va­tion Legacy


It’s not com­mon to see a gov­ern­men­tal min­is­ter bike 15 miles (24 km) to work - each way - ev­ery day. For most peo­ple, the po­si­tion’s strin­gent de­mands would likely make find­ing time to bike at all very dif­fi­cult. But Marcelo Mena, Chile’s en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter, tries to em­body his green way of think­ing. For a long time now, he fights ev­ery day to keep ped­al­ing, in part to pro­mote bik­ing as a means of al­ter­na­tive trans­porta­tion for cities like San­ti­ago that suf­fer from high air pol­lu­tion. Mena also owns a hy­brid car and his house has pho­to­voltaic pan­els to take ad­van­tage of so­lar power.

Mena un­abashedly is proud to call him­self an en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist and he walks the walk. Prior to be­com­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tal min­is­ter (he was pro­moted from deputy en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter ear­lier this year), he earned a PhD in en­vi­ron­men­tal engi­neer­ing from the Univer­sity of Iowa, and was the di­rec­tor of the An­dres Bello Univer­sity Cen­ter for Sus­tain­abil­ity Re­search. He re­ceived the NASA’s Group Achieve­ment Award in 2005 for his work in im­prov­ing air qual­ity fore­casts in Chile.

Mena re­calls that one of his most cher­ished mo­ments lead­ing Chile’s Min­istry of the En­vi­ron­ment oc­curred in March when Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tion­ist Kris Tomp­kins vis­ited their of­fices. Some 200 peo­ple were there to greet Tomp­kins with thun­der­ous ap­plause when she walked through the front door of the build­ing. Tomp­kins was there to iron out the de­tails of her do­na­tion of 407,625 hectares of pri­vate park­land to form part of a new net­work of 17 na­tional parks in Chilean Patag­o­nia that will cover a to­tal land area greater in size than Switzer­land. “It is one of the most am­bi­tious land con­ser­va­tion projects in the world,” said Mena. “I’m re­ally proud that I got the chance to be a part of that.”

In June, Mena also par­tic­i­pated in the United Na­tion’s Oceans Con­fer­ence in New York, where he com­mit­ted to mak­ing Chile also a world leader in marine con­ser­va­tion by the end of the cur­rent cen­ter-left Michelle Bachelet gov­ern­ment in March 2018. Now home to more than 950,000 square miles of pro­tected marine area, Chile is al­ready lead­ing the way af­ter last year’s creation of the Naz­caDesven­tu­radas Marine Park, a 185,000 square mile ex­panse that pro­tects the San Am­bro­sio and San Félix Is­lands, and is the largest marine pro­tec­tion area in Latin Amer­ica. More­over, in May, they Chile es­tab­lished a marine park at Cabo de Hornos and Diego Ramírez Is­lands that en­com­passes 6,200 square miles.

Patagon Jour­nal: What is the im­por­tance for Chile of host­ing IMPAC?

Mena: It gives us a lot of pride to be the first de­vel­op­ing coun­try to host this very im­por­tant con­fer­ence. It caps off a four year stint of mul­ti­ple cre­ations of marine pro­tected ar­eas and a very ac­tive in­ter­na­tional agenda by Chile on ocean con­ser­va­tion is­sues. We’ve been work­ing with the U.S. with the Our Ocean con­fer­ence and we’ve been push­ing other coun­tries to go for­ward on more pro­tected ar­eas. On the diplo­matic level, we’ve been sup­port­ing the recog­ni­tion of ocean con­ser­va­tion in the cli­mate change frame­works.

Cur­rently around 13% of Chile’s marine en­vi­ron­ment are in marine pro­tec­tion ar­eas. Are there plans to ex­pand on that?

Mena: What we have done up to now is fo­cus on the big chunks in pris­tine lo­ca­tions such Juan Fernán­dez, Cape Horn and Easter Is­land. Our chal­lenge will be to cre­ate pro­tected ar­eas closer to where there are more ac­tiv­i­ties, closer to con­ti­nen­tal Chile, and that will re­quire a longer dis­cus­sion with dif­fer­ent ex­trac­tive in­ter­ests: fish­er­men, lo­cal coastal com­mu­ni­ties, oth­ers.

Will Chile strive to meet the World Con­ser­va­tion Congress rec­om­men­da­tion of 30% of oceans to be pro­tected in marine pro­tec­tion ar­eas?

Mena: Yes, I think we should strive for that. With some of the col­lec­tive ac­tions we’re look­ing into an even higher num­ber as we move past Aichi [Biod­vier­sity Tar­gets], be­cause we also know, like the Ky­oto Agree­ment for cli­mate, that it’s not enough. We had the Paris Agree­ment to re­place that one, same goes here. We should be look­ing into higher con­ser­va­tion goals, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the high level of de­ple­tion of marine re­sources glob­ally.

In Chile, about 60% of fish­eries are over­ex­ploited right now.

Mena: For many decades we have had fish­ing re­stric­tions in place, and how­ever crit­i­cal one may be of Chile’s fish­eries poli­cies, we ac­tu­ally have one of the more pro­gres­sive sys­tems in place. Our quo­tas are de­ter­mined by science and based on sus­tain­abil­ity. And that’s why we see more and more fish­ing com­mu­ni­ties in Chile look­ing at con­ser­va­tion as an op­por­tu­nity, be­cause they know that if you over­fish it will be harder for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to con­tinue with fish­ing.

What else do you think needs to be done to pro­tect marine life along the coast?

Mena: I think de­creas­ing CO2 emis­sions is im­por­tant to re­duce the amount of ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion. Also, we need to be look­ing into strength­en­ing our emis­sion stan­dards so nu­tri­ents that are dis­charged into the ocean can be de­creased. Fi­nally, we need to cur­tail the amount of plas­tic bags and plas­tic bot­tles that are used and dis­posed of, par­tic­u­larly in coastal cities.

What can be done about plas­tics in Chile?

Mena: We need to look into get­ting rid of dis­pos­able bot­tles and use a re­turn­able bot­tles de­posit sys­tem. And we need to cur­tail the use of plas­tic bags, they are per­va­sive and are very ef­fi­cient at mak­ing it

into the ocean. Chileans use al­most a bag and half per per­son per day, and that’s a lot of plas­tic bags. Fi­nally, we don’t have the waste man­age­ment prac­tices that re­ally pre­vent the trash from get­ting out into the ecosys­tems. And since we have one of the largest coasts in the world--we’re among the top 5 coastal coun­tries in the world-- we re­ally have a high re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­duce the amount of trash that gets into ecosys­tems.

There will soon be a net­work of marine pro­tec­tion ar­eas for Patag­o­nia. Why is Patag­o­nia par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to pro­tect?

Mena: Be­fore the Bachelet gov­ern­ment, the amount of pro­tected ar­eas in the Ma­gal­lanes re­gion was very low com­pared to other re­gions. And if you com­pare the amount of ter­res­trial con­ser­va­tion ver­sus ocean con­ser­va­tion, there is also a big gap within the Ma­gal­lanes re­gion. Patag­o­nia is one of the most pris­tine ecosys­tems in the world. It’s where a lot of pro­duc­tiv­ity starts, where you have all th­ese dif­fer­ent nu­tri­ents trav­el­ing up Chile’s Pa­cific coast in the Hum­boldt Cur­rent. It is im­por­tant for car­bon se­ques­tra­tion. We have been work­ing with pri­vate NGOs, such as Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety and Na­tional Geo­graphic, and they have been show­cas­ing how im­por­tant th­ese ecosys­tems are and have helped us with the sci­en­tific back­ground needed to jus­tify th­ese con­ser­va­tion ar­eas.

Per­haps the big­gest threat to the Patag­o­nian coast is the salmon farm­ing sec­tor. How will you tackle that and cre­ate more marine pro­tec­tion ar­eas in the re­gion?

Mena: There are many lessons to be learned from the salmon farm­ing in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence. One les­son is that we need bet­ter reg­u­la­tions. We have re­cently im­proved reg­u­la­tions in terms of the den­sity of farm­ing and hav­ing more re­siliency to our fish kills due to al­gal blooms, such as early warn­ing sys­tems. That said, Chile is no Sil­i­con Val­ley. We have a thriv­ing re­new­able en­ergy in­dus­try and are de­vel­op­ing other new added value in­dus­tries, but mean­while we are a coun­try with an econ­omy that has a lot of nat­u­ral re­source ex­trac­tion. So, we need to come up with the most sus­tain­able ways of do­ing that. I think a bal­ance be­tween bet­ter reg­u­la­tions in aqua­cul­ture and higher con­ser­va­tion is a good way to make both work.

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