With a fascinating personal history and a deep affinity for the wilds of Patagonia, Daniela Castro Polanco is one of the great champions of CP’s conservation efforts. As Projects and Programs Coordinator out of Coyhaique, Chile, she has been an instrumental member of the “Patagonia Sin Represas” campaign, striving to protect Patagonia’s rivers from the megadams of HydroAysen. We did an interview with Daniela this month: read on for a glimpse into her life and times with CP!
Q: Where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?
A: I was born in Santiago and spent my infancy in central Chile. At the age of six, I moved to Africa with my family. My father had accepted an engineer position in the copper mines in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I grew up in Kolwezi, a small mining town in the south of the country, and went to a Belgian program consulate school. We spoke French and Swahili!
When I was 18, I came back to Santiago, Chile to go to University. I studied agriculture at the “Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile,” and spent my last year of college on an exchange program at the University of California, Davis. A few years later I completed a Master’s degree in Land Use Planning with UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.
Q. How did you get interested in conservation?
A: I first got into conservation during my early years in Africa. My father got extended vacation, and we would drive around eastern Africa visiting this region’s extraordinary national parks. I learned to drive in national parks using my family’s 504 Peugeot (we called it the “African tank!”). I had to be careful not to run over any endangered wildlife!
Q: How did you get involved with Conservacion Patagonica?
A: When I came back to Chile to go to University, I missed the outdoor adventures of my youth in Africa. I enrolled in the mountain club so I could visit Chile’s national parks and reserves. When I was 23, I participated on a three-month expedition in the Aysen Region in Chilean Patagonia, and I fell in love with the place.
While at University in Santiago, Doug Tompkins came to give a speech to the students about conservation and the creation of Parque Pumalin, the first national park project he took on with Kris, his wife and founder of Conservacion Patagonica. It was an amazing talk, and it instantly inspired me to write my student thesis about the controversies and triumphs of Pumalin. When Doug finished his speech, I elbowed my way to the front of the room to talk to Doug about my thesis idea. He gave me his business card and told me to give him a call. After calling and insisting a great deal, I convinced him to let me spend my summer at the park doing research.
A few years later, while I was living in Coyhaique working with the government environmental commission, I learned that Kris was in the area. I heard that she had just bought the nearby Estancia Chacabuco as a base for a new Patagonia National Park. I was inspired once again: I tracked her down at her hotel, and convinced her she needed me on the team… And here I am today!
Q: You’ve been a key player in the Patagonia Sin Represas campaign. Tell us more about this campaign against HidroAysen’s proposed megadams.
A: We started the campaign six years ago when Endesa first made public their plans to construct a series of megadams in the Aysen Region. This remote and sparsely populated region had been forgotten by the rest of Chile for many years. Once the huge hydroelectric potential of the area became more visible, the rest of the country suddenly “discovered” us, like America in 1492. When the dams were first proposed, many people thought that building dams in Patagonia was a shame, but that it was Chile’s only viable energy option. It was either dams, or nuclear energy.
Over the years, the “Patagonia Sin Represas” campaign has developed into an intelligent citizen’s education movement that is creating meaningful change in Chile’s society. We focused not only on the impacts of the dams and the transmission lines, but also on energy efficiency and energy alternatives. Today, 80% of Chileans believe these dams are a bad idea, and they are demanding a better solution. People have empowered themselves, and the campaign has taken on its own momentum and direction. It is now much greater than the initial “us,” and that is very inspiring. There is still a lot to do, and the dams might still be built, but today there is much greater hope for the future of Patagonia’s rivers.
Q: Six years into the campaign, what is the future of Patagonia Sin Represas?
A: The decision whether to build the dams or not will be taken either by the Chilean government or the company itself. Over the years, the project has become more expensive and much more risky. As more people find out about the numerous risks and social and environmental impacts of the dams in Patagonia–and the many viable alternatives for Chile—and as the pressure builds on our decision makers, we will eventually come ot the point where the projects will not be considered viable anymore.
Chilean Patagonia has a unique opportunity to become an exceptional place, the “reserve of life” (Aysen Reserva de Vida) that many of its inhabitants have been striving towards for years. We can choose to continue on that path, creating a blooming economy based on the conservation of its incredible natural landscapes and wildlife that will improve quality of life and provide secure and healthy work opportunities for all. National parks and sustainable tourism take us in that direction; megadams and transmission lines don’t.
Q: We’ve heard about what brought you to Patagonia. What made you stay?
A: Patagonia is a wonderful place to live. To me it has a strange mix of unbelievable beauty, brutal remoteness, severe climate conditions, and incredible human warmth. I have been working in the south of the Aysen region for years, traveling the same route through the region over a hundred times. Each time I get the same marvelous feeling as I wind through the old lenga and cuigue forest on the Cofre pass, discovering the great Chelenko Lake around the bend in the road, following the mighty, and as yet free-flowing Baker river, and heading at last into the steppe of the Valle Chacabuco, the heart of the future Patagonia National Park. It is a magical place—a friend once called it “food for the soul.” It really is.