Álvaro Varela speaking at a seminar in Puetro Montt on Friday. The lawyer for AquaChile, one of the world's biggest salmon farmers, wants the allocation of area to indigenous people halted for the time being.

AquaChile lawyer calls for suspension of coastal spaces allocations

Process for giving sea areas to indigenous people ‘has many flaws’

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The allocation of areas of southern Chile’s coastal sea to indigenous people should be suspended until flaws in the process are rectified, a lawyer for the country’s biggest salmon farmer, AquaChile, has said.

Álvaro Varela called for the freeze at a seminar in Chile’s salmon capital, Puerto Montt, on Friday, reports Fish Farming Expert's Chilean sister site, Salmonexpert.cl.

The event was held to examine the Lafkenche Law that grants limited resource access rights to all coastal indigenous communities, in designated portions of Chile’s coastal areas, for traditional uses including harvesting practices. It followed the rejection in February of a request from two indigenous communities totalling just 38 people for control of more than 621,000 hectares of sea in the Huichas and Cisnes Islands areas of the Aysén region. The sea areas had been requested as part of the Coastal Maritime Spaces of Native Peoples (Espacios Costeros Marítimos de Pueblos Originarios, or ECMPO) process under the Lafkenche Law.

5,000 jobs at risk

Salmon farming organisations had warned that if the indigenous communities got what they asked for, around 300 aquaculture concessions could be lost, which equates to 45% of those in the Aysén Region and 25% of Chile’s productive capacity in salmon farming, putting more than 5,000 direct jobs at risk.

In his presentation called ‘The sea is for everyone’, Varela began by recognising the legitimate rights of indigenous peoples, then went on to show and explain what he called “deviations from the inspiration of the law” based on objective information collected from different sources.

One of the examples was of the Huichas and Cisnes Islands ECMPO requests, where Varela indicated that there were institutional errors in the development of customary use reports and violation of the principle of impartiality.

“I give as an example the verification means used by Conadi (Chile’s National Corporation for Indigenous Development) in Aysén. Even in its report, Conadi states that they have travelled in a small boat and in the course of three days, only during the day, not at night, the 700,000 hectares requested; an issue that does not correspond to the reality, particularly of the navigation conditions of the area,” said Varela.

Rights of third parties

The lawyer added that the rights of third parties interested in the use of a space by indigenous people have not been respected.

“Indeed, third parties have the right to be considered an interested party, but the application has been defective, because although we have requested it and this has been resolved for Subpesca (Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture), we were never notified by any resolution, we were not told the processing status and the background information we presented was not considered or weighted,” claimed Varela.

He added that the government itself had admitted that implementation of the Lafkenche Law had been complex and slow, with problems including extensive review times and lack of coordination of the process, no limits to the amount of territory requested, suspension of the fish farm concession process, and accreditation of “customary use” of the areas by indigenous people.

Numerous shortcomings

“In my opinion, the processing of coastal spaces should be suspended. I believe that the debate and discussion that took place in Aysén revealed numerous shortcomings, [and] differences even between the communities; in one case there were three applicants and two withdrew, something happened there, something happened,” concluded the lawyer.

“The other uses and particularly the zoning processes of the coastal edge, must be specified [before an area is allocated to indigenous people], because once a specific coastal space is approved, any activity or use that is established in the regional zoning process will be a dead letter, it will not be applicable for that specific area because that area already has an allocation and a management plan.

“We must push for the State to commit with intensity, agility, and speed to fully complete the zoning of the use of the coastal edge so that we are clear about what can and cannot be done. We as salmon farmers also need to have that certainty because we are not working for today, but for the future of the activities we develop.”

AquaChile farms both Atlantic and coho salmon, and produced more than 230,000 tonnes (whole fish equivalent) of salmon in 2022. The company employs nearly 6,000 people and has more than 320 sites in Los Ríos, Los Lagos, Aysén, and Magallanes regions.