“Everything Depends on Conservation” | River Guardian Macarena Soler

Macarena Soler fights for Patagonia.
Macarena Soler fights for Patagonia.
Courtesy of Macarena Soler

You could be forgiven for thinking that Chilean lawyer Macarena Soler had cloned herself.

In a casual scan of news articles in May, her name pops up repeatedly. Here she is, speaking as the lawyer for the Chilean anti-dam movement No Alto Maipo. Click another link, and there she is, defending indigenous Mapuche people from dam construction the Rio Puelo

She’s known as the founder of GEUTE Conservacion Sur, a nonprofit foundation that has undertaken the legal defense of important Chilean ecosystems. And she’s in charge of the Comite de Defense de la Patagonia, a body that coordinates Chilean and foreign NGOs that banded together to protect Patagonia.

The fact is, if there’s a fight for nature in Chile, Macarena Soler is in it – and she likes it that way. 

Why? Because the stakes are high, and Chile’s environmental protections are still troublingly weak. “No court in Chile,” she says, “has been brave enough to reject an investment project to protect an endangered species or its habitat.”

Chile's Lack of Political Courage

This lack of political courage is having a major impact on local wildlife. Species are disappearing at an alarming pace – about 1000 times the natural rate of extinction – and Soler ticks off the casualties: “Freshwater fish, such as the Patagonian catfish; some hummingbird species, such as the hummingbird of Arica; the Darwin fox; wild cats; some amphibians; the huillin; the freshwater otter....”

Endangered huemul or South Andean deer.
Endangered huemul or South Andean deer.
Enidan7/Wikimedia Commons

“We are exterminating the rest of our planet’s inhabitants,” she says simply. “It is a holocaust.”

Soler is committed to stopping this holocaust. But her work isn’t just stymied by timid courts: She’s also clearly frustrated by the limited reach of international campaigns around endangered species. 

“People are moved when they see the harm done to whales, to dolphins, to polar bears,” she says. But those species are just a handful of the many currently threatened. Soler would like to see her fellow Chileans pay attention to species closer to home. 

That kind of civic engagement is key to protecting threatened species and ecosystems, according to Soler. “No authority, no court is going to worry about an environmental issue in which no one is interested,” she says. “The community closest to the environmental problem is the one that must spearhead any campaign to defend its home, its territory, its future.”

A case in point is the huemul deer. “The huemul is on our National Coat of Arms, and the Chilean people are simply not familiar with it: they do not know that there are barely hundreds of them left...It is disgraceful.” 

At the same time, Soler says, the situation is so absurd that it makes it easier to present it to judges, authorities and companies. 

“We always take pride in defending the huemul before a court of justice,” she says. “It is one of our favorite clients, and we are determined to keep it on the national emblem.”

The Fight of Her Life

It was another Chilean emblem that led Soler to the fight of her life: the southern state of Patagonia.

A wild and remote region of great beauty, Patagonia has always had a semi-mythical quality in the Chilean imagination. The first European settlers were convinced that the region was inhabited by a race of giants, and descriptions of them abound. (Scholars now think these people were Tehuelches, an indigenous group who were exterminated, but who were much taller than average Europeans at the time.)

In 2011, the Chilean government – hungry to boost power generation in the country – approved a hydropower mega-project in Patagonia: HidroAysen. Conceived by two companies, Endesa and Colbun, the project proposed to build five dams on two pristine Patagonia rivers: the Baker and the Pascua. 

“HidroAysen was like a tsunami,” Soler says now, “a huge wave that threatened to break on top of all of us.”

The project impacts, by any measure, would be extreme. The dams would flood nearly 15,000 acres of rare forest ecosystems and some of the region’s most agriculturally productive land. The construction process alone would impact six national parks, eleven national reserves, 26 conservation priority sites, 16 wetlands and a number of privately-owned conservation areas.

The beautiful Baker River.
The beautiful Baker River.
Glenn Switkes, International Rivers

When the decision to move forward with HidroAysen was announced, Chile erupted in protest. Allies around the world, including International Rivers, joined the fight. And Macarena Soler, along with the Comite de Defense de la Patagonia, sprang into action. 

“As any lawyer, I always wanted to win; undoubtedly such a wish is in the genetic makeup of any lawyer,” says Soler. But it would have been naive to think a win was inevitable, she claims.

In fact, the legal fight around HidroAysen showed just how inadequate Chilean legislation is when it comes to protecting critical ecosystems and biodiversity. Soler says it became evident how corporations can easily force decisions that are favorable to them but ignore the public interest.

But in this case, the rivers won: In 2012, the project was put on hold because of the international outcry, and the Chilean government canceled it in 2014.

On Conservation and Restoration

I asked Soler if she’d had a relationship with rivers growing up. She admits she didn’t: “It’s very difficult for me to find beauty in a place without mountains,” she says. But, she adds, “It was precisely the HidroAysen case that made me see that the center of life is water, the rivers.”

Now she lives in Patagonia, in an attempt to live at a more human pace, rather than the pace imposed by technology. Unfortunately, that “human” pace hasn’t entirely come to pass, she says, “because the threats that constantly loom over this wonderful land force us to work 24/7.”

Finally, I ask her why she’s so passionate about conservation. Her answer is simple: “Because everything else depends on conservation. It is that simple, and that complex.”

“Our biosphere,” she says, “is the result of millions of years of successive experiments that tend to favor life. Some of them, we’ve been able to understand to some extent, [but]...what we are far from understanding is infinite. 

Llama in Llolleo, San Antonia, Chile.
Llama in Llolleo, San Antonia, Chile.
Vivian Morales/Wikimedia Commons

“In a very short time, our species has caused great changes to the biosphere. Some call our era ‘the Anthropocene.’ We can talk and write forever about the causes of this, and propose many measures...but conservation and restoration are an obvious answer that is in everyone’s sight.”

Soler says she’s committed to this fight for the long haul. She draws strength and hope from her law partner and friend Manual Passalcqua and their team, whose enthusiasm and unshakeable commitment “make it impossible to get discouraged.”

But when I ask her what she’s most excited to work on next, her answer is immediate: working with young people.

She’s ready to train a new generation of informed, professional, serious activists “who question everything around them and are willing to change the paradigms from the steadfastness of their convictions, but always in a peaceful manner.”

They could ask for no greater role model than Macarena Soler, an extraordinary lawyer and activist, and our June River Guardian.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016