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Patricio Colivoro stands barefoot on the gray sands of Guafo Island, an uninhabited, densely green haven off the southern coast of Chile. He’s been sent here by his chief, or lonko, and seems grateful to be swaddled in a woolen poncho as the crisp Patagonian day breaks. Suddenly, thousands of sooty shearwaters burst free from the temperate rain forest above and stream out over the steel-blue waters of the Pacific Ocean.
As this avian freeway soars overhead, Colivoro blows a bleating welcome cry through a curved ox horn. It’s a tradition among the Mapuche Huilliche (an Indigenous group in southern Chile) to offer respect. It’s also a way, he says, of asking permission to visit Guafo, following the eight-hour boat journey from his home near the small coastal city of Quellón on the much larger island of Chiloé.
In the hours that follow, humpback whales arc in and out of waters off the coast of a popular fishing cove. Onshore lie the bones of an old whaling station where many Huilliche once worked. Magellanic penguins sport amid the melodic waves, and a pod of Peale’s dolphins race just beyond. It’s a vision of what the Huilliche-led coalition Colivoro represents is here to protect. As werken, or spokesperson, for his community, it’s clear he is deeply committed to sharing the messages they want to convey.
One such message? The urgency of defending Guafo Island and its waters. Under an initiative called Wafo Wapi, 10 Indigenous communities from Quellón, with the support of 11 local fishing unions, have petitioned the Chilean government to administer Guafo as an ECMPO (Espacio Costero Marino para Pueblos Originarios). This is a legally defined approach that officially puts the administration of coastal areas under Indigenous management based on recognition of “customary use,” or how they’ve traditionally used the area’s resources.
The ECMPO designation would allow the communities to manage the sustainable extraction of resources and the continued health of this still-pristine environment, which lies at the entrance to the Corcovado Gulf—one of the most important feeding grounds for cetaceans, especially endangered blue whales, in the southeastern Pacific. If successful, Wafo Wapi could offer an example for other Indigenous communities to follow—and provide a new model for how to balance human needs with coastal conservation around the world.
The idea to protect Guafo was born in 2016 following a massive red tide that blanketed seas across the greater Chiloé Archipelago. Local fishers blamed the algal bloom on the farmed salmon industry and the controversial dumping of thousands of tons of decomposing fish off the coast. Guafo was also under threat from coal mining and development; in 2020 the land was advertised for sale in the New York Times for $20 million.
Colivoro’s community, Fundo Yaldad Mon Fen, began organizing in 2016. They studied Chile’s Ley Lafkenche, a unique law made by and for Indigenous communities that provides the framework for them to become legal guardians of the coastal environments they inhabit. Protests led by Colivoro’s lonko, Cristian Chiguay, segued into a larger community organizing effort. Following several open-door meetings, nine neighboring lonkos signed on for the ECMPO initiative (see the list at right), and the Wafo Wapi partnership was born.
Since Ley Lafkenche came into effect in 2008, only 18 ECMPOs have passed the state’s rigorous six-step application process, but if all goes to plan, Wafo Wapi could create one of the largest ECMPOs ever (870 square miles, including Guafo and great stretches of ocean) by the end of 2023.
Colivoro, for one, is optimistic. He’s convinced that it’s only with the Huilliche community’s stewardship that Guafo can remain as untouched as it is today. “Indigenous communities that don’t forget their origins, that don’t forget their cosmovision,” he says, speaking of the Huilliche’s spiritual worldview, “see the importance of nature and their role in it. And we know that if we damage it, we are only hurting ourselves.”
The air in Guafo wafts in waves of salt and umami—that is, until you cross paths with the sour funk of a sea lion colony, as Yacqueline Montecinos of WWF-Chile is doing while monitoring wildlife from a rubber Zodiac. Despite the smell, she beams, watching as sea lion pups bound down a rockslide like kids in a playground.
Montecinos, marine biodiversity and ocean policy coordinator, says WWF-Chile’s interest in Guafo dates back to 2009, when the island was first identified as a priority for marine conservation.
“As we were developing the proposal for a Marine Protected Area, or MPA, our process of engaging with local stakeholders like the artisanal fishing community made us aware of local communities’ parallel interests,” she explains. “It turned out that more people than we knew wanted to protect this magical place! And that experience introduced the WWF team to the Wafo Wapi group.
“WWF’s policy is that, if we encounter an Indigenous community initiative, we’ll step back and evaluate how to move forward with them as a partner,” she says. “Our goal is to support their conservation leadership and their initiatives.”
For the Guafo initiative, “there was some initial skepticism from the communities,” Montecinos acknowledges. “But over several months of dialogue, they were able to see how WWF might be a strategic partner with complementary objectives.” So WWF took on an advisory role, helping with everything from scientific and technical support to communications, advocacy, and readying the ECMPO request for submission in 2018.
Chile’s 4,000-mile coastline is rich in biodiversity thanks to the Humboldt Current, which is the largest upwelling system in the world’s oceans. Fishing and aquaculture directly support some 300,000 people here and feed hundreds of millions more around the globe. (WWF—along with many partners—is working to make those industries more sustainable.) Even so, Guafo is unique.
Though the island has a total area of just over 80 square miles, with 47 miles of coastline, Montecinos says protecting it could have wide-reaching effects on the entire Corcovado Gulf, as well as the Patagonian fjords to the south, which face threats from overfishing, illegal fishing, habitat degradation, and industrial aquaculture.
“It’s quite a strategic location for conservation well beyond the Guafo Island ECMPO,” she explains. These waters, after all, are home to a vast number of migratory cetaceans—such as blue, humpback, southern right, sei, and killer whales—as well as the largest reproductive colony of sooty shearwaters in the world.
Manuel Vidal, captain of the fishing vessel Cobra, has the sturdy legs and weathered grin of a man who’s sailed these waters for 40 years. He’s visiting Guafo to extract luga, a leathery seaweed used for cosmetics and carrageenan (a thickening agent for the food industry). Citing the changing ecosystem, the Quellón native says he used to haul in 15,000 tons of seaweed in four days; now it takes a team of three divers about 10 days to harvest half as much, meaning they have to spend more of their lives living in the vessel’s rudimentary shelter.
“I’ve seen this place when it was abundant with urchins, seaweeds, abalones, hake, and conger eels,” he says, monitoring the long yellow hoses that carry oxygen to divers 30 ft. below. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Vidal and his crew are friendly with Colivoro and Elvis Chiguay (who, while not related to Lonko Cristian Chiguay, also represented Fundo Yaldad Mon Fen on the trip). In fact, they share a rapport that some might find surprising. ECMPOs can be a touchy subject in Chile, and not all fishing groups support the Indigenous-led approach.
All of this makes Wafo Wapi and the collaborative effort to protect Guafo and its waters even more special.
Wafo Wapi has the support of artisanal fishers like Vidal, who, in return, still have access to the island. “The sea has been overexploited,” Vidal explains, “so it’s clear you have to protect it.”
Colivoro says he hopes fishers like Vidal can keep coming back without fear that there will be ever fewer resources. “We need to learn to find an equilibrium in the economic activities, to not take and take again, so that you leave a bit for the next time around,” he says.
After visiting with the men on the Cobra, Colivoro and Elvis head ashore. It’s low tide, and the idea is to comb the coastal algae meadows to gather supplies for an evening meal back on the boat.
The men clamber around searching for locos (Chilean abalones) and lapas (limpets), prying the sea snails from exposed rocks with whittled sticks. They toss only the biggest ones into their hand-woven baskets, Colivoro says, “so there will be more for the next person.”
Up above is a primeval forest of towering coigües, bushy myrtles, and spindling olivillo trees—all bent sideways in the incessant breeze. At least 81 species of marine birds, including southern giant petrels and three types of cormorants, make their homes here, as do the scores of sooty shearwaters now filing in after a long day at sea.
“It would be great for our kids and grandkids to know one day that there were people who were worried about protecting this place,” says Chiguay, basket of lapas in hand, watching as the birds nearly blacken out the sunset in the skies overhead. “That there were people who, with little formal knowledge, tried to care for the environment for future generations.”
For now, a squat white Navy lighthouse on the cliff in the distance is the only sign of human intervention—other than five bold-colored fishing boats in the bay, which have moored together to form a floating city of sailors. Men onboard pass around gourds of hot yerba mate (an energizing tea). They cook stews atop wood-burning stoves, ready their mattresses, and prepare for the long cool of night.
Back on solid ground, in a rustic community center in Yaldad, near Quellón, Elvis Chiguay and Colivoro gather with Lonko Cristian Chiguay around a hole in the ground heaped with heated stones and covered with the giant leaves of nalca, a plant similar to rhubarb. The elders are preparing a curanto, one of the oldest continually practiced food traditions in the Americas, where meats, potatoes, and shellfish are all cooked in the earth.
The topic of their lunch meeting is protecting Guafo Island, an idea that was born in this very community center seven years ago. “This ECMPO was born because Western culture so often looks at nature as a source of wealth to be sold,” Lonko Chiguay says, holding up a razor clam. “For us, the sea is a place of respect. We are always doing ceremonies to give thanks to the different ngen [nature spirits] who live there.”
From his spot at the center of the long, shared table, the lonko points to a mural on the wall. It shows how the sea is wrapped up in the spirituality of the Huilliche, whose cosmovision includes a powerful serpent (Caicai) that controls the ocean’s equilibrium, as well as anthropomorphic spirits like a ruling sea lion (Millalobo) and fish-herding mermaid (La Sirena). These mythological creatures help rationalize the whims of the ocean—something that’s become harder to do in the face of pronounced changes such as the massive salmon and mussel farms now anchored in Yaldad’s harbor.
That’s why the community here, and the nine communities they have partnered with, hope their work might be seen as a model for other Indigenous groups defending both cultural and natural heritage.
“It’s an example of how First Nations can continue working to protect nature and do our part,” says Lonko Chiguay, “because a healthy sea means healthy people.”