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.  

Protecting Chilean Patagonia: One Woman's Fight
When red seaweed—among other marine life—was being depleted from the waters near the small town of Chana, local seaweed seller Blanca Cárdenas had to act.

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 holds a piece of dried, leatherlike red seaweed that she pulled from the water and will dry on the rocks along its shores. Thanks to the work of the union, the seaweed has replenished itself, and the local community is reaping the rewards.
Homegrown potatoes fill a basket Cárdenas made from leftover fishing nets. She reuses and repurposes materials and grows all her own food, never going to the grocery—ever. “I have been taught that we have to take care of nature,” she says. “This comes from my parents, because they also got their livelihood from natural resources.”

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.

Sunset casts an amber hue over the soft sands of a beach in Puerto Montt, a coastal city on the Pacific Ocean where the economy is fueled by salmon fishing. “The sea for me is like a mother,” says Cárdenas. “Because it doesn’t ask for anything and it gives us everything. A mother doesn’t expect anything from her children. She just gives.”

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.

Cárdenas lives on a farm surrounded by chickens, sheep, cattle, pigs, ducks, and several dogs—as well as her extended family.
Cárdenas shares a book about Patagonia with her granddaughter, Yael Vallejos, as she teaches her what she knows about the land and sea.

“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
Close to the bottom of the planet, a ship motors through one of the many archipelagoes in Chile’s Magallanes y La Antarctica region, where mountain climbers and adventure seekers travel through the archipelagoes and fjords. Chilean Patagonia is also considered a biodiversity hotspot, particularly for marine life. “In these places, we still have air, we still have native forests, we still have wetlands and algae, which also contributes a lot to purifying the air, the water,” Cárdenas says.

“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
Patagonia sunrise
Photos by The Pew Charitable Trusts
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