Case Study

September 13
6 mins

The struggle of Indigenous peoples to protect the Chilean Blue Patagonia

Francisco Araos, Florencia Diestre, Paulo Sousa, Aurelia Guasch, Valentina Cortinez & Wladimir Riquelme
Marine extractive practice at the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos Region
Marine extractive practice at the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos Region. Credit: Francisco Araos
Local Indigenous communities are establishing “Espacios Costeros Marinos para Pueblos Originarios” (ECMPOs) to increase control over their territories in response to the environmental and social impacts caused by the salmon aquaculture industry in Chilean Blue Patagonia. ECMPOs allow them to protect the environment and their traditional livelihoods, as well as halt the expansion of salmon farms.
Marine extractive practice at the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos
Figure 1. Marine extractive practice at the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos Region. Credit: Francisco Araos

Chilean Blue Patagonia is a large marine zone in the south of the country that is an area of rich biodiversity, productive fisheries, and home to Indigenous and local communities. Over the last 30 years, it has become a global center for the development of the salmon and mytilus aquaculture industry. The salmon aquaculture industry produces substantial and well-documented environmental and social impacts, including marine and coastal pollution, nutrient loading, and eutrophication, detrimental impacts on biodiversity, impacts on wild fish stocks, migration processes, social conflicts over allocation of space and natural resources, alteration of sacred places and cultural landscapes of Indigenous people, threats to food and livelihood security, among others (Tecklin 2016; Quiñonez et al. 2019; Anbleyth-Evans et al. 2020, Marquet et al. 2021). There are numerous Indigenous communities – including Mapuche-Huilliche, Kawéskar, and Yagan ethnic groups – settled in the coastal zone of Patagonia, many of whom are shellfish divers and seaweed harvesters. We estimated that there are at least 4.600 indigenous people directly related to the protection of Blue Patagonia.  These communities depend directly on the sea for the exploitation of marine resources –  algae, seafood, and fish – to meet their cultural, subsistence, and livelihood needs.

Map of the area referred to as Chilean Blue Patagonia.
Figure 2. Map of the area referred to as Chilean Blue Patagonia. Elaborated by Zamir Bugueño, a member of the research team.

To confront the ongoing threats from salmon aquaculture, Chilean Indigenous communities have been advocating for and establishing Espacios Costeros Marinos para Pueblos Originarios (ECMPO). ECMPO is an institutional tool (Law 20.249/2008, known as Lafkenche law) through which Indigenous communities can promote legal recognition of their historical, socio-cultural, and ecological relationships with the sea, their territories, and their reliance on natural resources (Araos et al. 2023). The law defines ECMPOS  as “specific areas of the marine-coastal zone whose objective will be to safeguard the customary use of these spaces, in order to maintain the traditions and use of natural resources by the communities linked to the coast” (Article 3 Law 20.249). The establishment of the ECMPO has been the main strategy to contest the expansion and the impacts of salmon farms on local ecosystems, while also protecting their livelihoods, territories, and rights (Araos et al. 2020; Hiriart-Bertrand et al. 2020). The legal process for the establishment of an ECMPO begins with the formal request when the indigenous communities present their customary uses and the polygon of the area. Then follows a long bureaucratic process with the anthropological accreditation of the uses, the geographic review of the area in search of overlapping territorial rights (for example with salmon farming concessions), and the elaboration of the management plan. This whole process should take 2.5 years, but it is taking about 7 years. The indigenous communities have been advocating and waging legal battles to expedite the process, to ensure that the requested area is not reduced and that applied uses are recognized. They have also employed various other tactics to resist the expansion of salmon farms and to promote ECMPOs, including legal and political advocacy with regional congress members and national governmental agencies, mass media campaigns, building national and international support networks, research and documentation in collaboration with universities and NGOs, monitoring and enforcement of the law and joining to other social movements, particularly, with fisherwomen’s organizations.

The central objectives of the Ocean Defenders have been the recognition of the indigenous rights over marine resources, stopping the expansion and reducing the impacts of the salmon industry, and the promotion of territorial sovereignty and sustainable inclusive development. As a result of their efforts, over the years ECMPOs have increased in number and size in the region. Today, there are 80 ECMPOs in Patagonia, covering around 2.5 million hectares (Subpesca 2023).

Currently, the main outcome has been the slowed expansion of the salmon farms across Patagonia and the increased participation of Indigenous peoples in the marine and coastal decision-making arenas. However, the resultant reconfiguration of power relations in ocean governance and control over coastal spaces has also created new conflicts with other stakeholder groups such as the artisanal fisheries unions, mytilus farmers, and salmon companies (Diestre and Araos 2020). The private sector has confronted the ECMPO through a communication and lobbying campaign, developing a narrative framework of “ECMPO as a barrier to development” (Ávarez et al. 2022). Following the same strategy, fishermen’s unions and local mytilus farmers are confronting indigenous communities arguing the loss of their territorial rights, through political lobbying and media campaigns. There have also been smear campaigns against indigenous leaders.  Finally, the government has slowed down the ECMPO administrative process by limiting the implementation of the law and the congressman of Patagonia has promoted a reform to the Lafkenche law to reduce Indigenous rights. 

Seafood and fish harvested in the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos Region
Figure 3. Seafood and fish harvested in the Espacio Costero Marino Manihueico Huinay, Los Lagos Region. Author: Francisco Araos.

Ocean defenders of the Chilean Blue Patagonia are mainly from groups who are in vulnerable positions due to their lower socio-economic status and high level of reliance on natural resources. Most of the leadership and organizers are indigenous women who have to balance political activism with domestic care activities. Indigenous women have played a key role in the ECMPO process because most of the applicant organizations are recent, without a direct link to the ancestral systems of indigenous organizations, generally led by men.  Likewise, many of the customary uses have been practiced by women, valuing their contribution to the local economy, food security, traditional health, and cosmologies. 

The entire process is highly bureaucratic, requiring substantial technical expertise and financial resources, thus hindering the implementation of the ECMPO. Currently, these challenges are being addressed through the creation of networks and political alliances among the indigenous communities, and with NGOs, local activists, and universities. These efforts and the ongoing establishment of ECMPOs have the potential to reorient past ocean governance architecture away from a focus on private ownership and profit, towards the promotion of participation, environmental safeguards, and social benefits for Indigenous peoples.


Araos, F., Diestre, F., Sousa, P., Guasch, A., Cortinez, V., Riquelme, W. (2023). The struggle of Indigenous peoples to protect the Chilean Blue Patagonia. N. Bennett & R. Lopez de la Lama (Eds.), The Ocean Defenders Project, http://oceandefendersproject.org  


Alvarez, R., Araos, F., Diestre, F., Riquelme, W., Brañas, F., Torrijos, C., Cursach, J. and Stock, M., (2022). ¿ Es sustentable la salmonicultura en Chile? Enmarcando narrativas en disputa sobre la actividad salmonera en la Patagonia. Desenvolvimento e Meio Ambiente, 59.Araos, F., Hidalgo, C., Brañas, F., Anbleyth-Evans, J., Diestre, F., & Iwama, A. Y. (2023). Facing the blue Anthropocene in Patagonia by empowering indigenous peoples’ action networks. Marine Policy, 147, 105397.
Anbleyth-Evans, J.; Ñanculef-Huaiquinao, J.; Coñuecar-Llancapani, Y.; Araos Leiva, F.; Riquelme Maulén, W.; Raymond, C. (2022). “Mapuche Az-Mapu and Nature’s Contribution to People: Eudemonic Values for Living Well”. Environmental Values. DOI: 10.3197/096327122X16569260361760.
Cid, D.; Araos, F. (2021). Las contribuciones del espacio costero marino para pueblos originarios (ECMPO) al bienestar humano de las comunidades indígenas de Carelmapu, Sur de Chile. CUHSO (Temuco), Epub 12 de mayo de 2021. Recuperado en 16 de septiembre de 2021, de https://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S2452-610X2021005000003&lng=es&tlng=es.
Diestre, F.; Araos, F. (2020). La recuperación de los comunes en el sur-austral: construcción institucional de Espacios Costeros Marinos de Pueblos Originarios. POLIS Revista Latinoamericana 57:13-36. DOI: 10.32735/S0718-6568/2021-N57-1562.
Anbleyth-Evans, J., Araos, F., Ther, F., Segovia, R., Häussermann, V., Aguirre-Muñoz, C., 2020. Toward marine democracy in Chile: Examining aquaculture ecological impacts through common property local ecological knowledge. Marine Policy. 113, 103690. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103690.
Marquet, P., Buschmann, A., Corcoran, D., Diaz, P., Fuentes-Castillo, T., Garreaud, R., Pliscoff, P., Salazar, A., 2021. Cambio global y aceleración de las presiones antrópicas en los ecosistemas Patagónicos, in: Castilla, JC., Armesto, J., Martinez-Harms, M. (Eds.), Conservación en la Patagonia Chilena. Evaluación de conocimiento, oportunidades y desafíos. Ediciones Universidad Católica, Santiago, pp. 65-103.
Quiñones, R., Fuentes, M., Montes, R., Soto, D., León-Muñoz, J., 2019. Environmental issues in Chilean salmon framing: a review. Reviews in Aquaculture. 11, 375-402. https://doi.org/10.1111/raq.12337.
Tecklin, D., 2016. Sensing the limits of fixed marine property rights in changing coastal ecosystems: salmon aquaculture concessions, crises, and governance challenges in southern Chile. Journal of international wildlife law & policy. 19(4), 284-300. https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2016.1248647
Hiriart-Bertrand, L.; Silva, JS.; Gelcich, S. (2020). Challenges and opportunities of implementing the marine and coastal areas for indigenous peoples policy in Chile. Ocean and Coastal Management 193: 105233. DOI: 10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2020.105233
Bandiaky-Badji, S.; Lovera, S.; Márquez; G.; Araos, F.; Robinson, C.; Smith, M.; Currey, K.; Ross, H.; Agrawal. A.; White, A. (2023). “Indigenous stewardship for habitat protection.” One Earth 6(2): 68-72. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.oneear.2023.02.002


Declines of Biodiversity, Degradation of Ecosystems, Disruption of Marine Foodwebs, Fish Abundance and Productivity, Introduction of Invasive Species , Indigenous Peoples , Aquaculture , Awareness and communication campaigns, Collective action, Social movements, Legal and policy interventions, Monitoring and enforcement, Research and documentation , Criminalization, Economic marginalization, Political marginalization , Environmental Human Rights, Food Security, Human-Nature Relations, Social and Cultural Impacts, Traditional and SSF livelihoods

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