When Michele Bachelet stepped down from her second term as president of Chile in March, it was with a flurry of ocean conservation regulations. First, the Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area was declared, covering 740,000 square km of the Pacific Ocean – over three times the size of the UK – around the remote Easter Island, with a few allowances for small-scale traditional fishing by indigenous inhabitants. Then, she signed a decree to protect 1.4 million square km of ocean running along Chile’s mainland 6,400km (4,000-mile) coastline, expanding the proportion of sea protected by the country from a mere 4.3 per cent to a whopping 42.4 per cent.
‘The creation of huge reserves has strong, ecological, progressive arguments for it, but it could also be seen as another way of designating the sea as Chilean territory,’ explains Paul Merchant, lecturer in Latin American film and visual culture at the University of Bristol, whose latest research project examines the cultural significance of the sea in modern Chile. ‘I’ve been really astonished when I’ve spent time there, and from talking to Chileans, by the extent to which that territorial or even militaristic understanding of the sea as an extension of the nation is prevalent in museums and in monuments.’
The annual Mes del Mar (Month of the Sea) is one regular reminder of the important role the ocean has played in the Chilean national consciousness, as school children in particular learn how the waters beyond the country’s coastline have, over centuries, had significant economic, historical and cultural impacts on the modern nation. At the same time, incidents such as the February 2010 tsunami, which killed more than 500 people, are a constant reminder of the threatening presence the ocean provides.
The emphasis on environmentally-conscious policies by Bachelet at the end of her administration was part of a package of reforms that, as a whole, was seen to diverge from the consensus of the post-Pinochet years in Chile, including changes to education funding, explains Merchant. ‘One school of thought says this won’t last,’ he says, ‘that she went too far and overplayed her hand. This is beyond what the public wanted. However, support for individual measures was quite high, so I think it’s too early to say whether she’s actually shifted the terms of the debate.’
Whether the new president, Sebastián Piñera (also in his second stint, having previously taken charge from 2010 to 2014) will keep all these policies in place remains to be seen.
This was published in the May 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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