Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Alex Muñoz

Featured image: World Fellow Alex Muñoz

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By Aastha KC

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Democracy and Climate Change: A Conversation with Environmentalist, Activist and World Fellow Alex Muñoz  

Alex Muñoz, a 2019 World Fellow at Yale, is currently the National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Director for Latin America. As a law student at the University of Chile, Alex was the first Chilean to win a case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, resulting in the Court’s first ruling on freedom of expression in the Americas. Inspired by the intersection between human rights and environmentalism, Alex has focused on advocating for policy that is evidence based and scientifically informed. A committed environmentalist, Alex’s body of work includes leading the creation of the seven largest fully-protected marine reserves in Latin America, covering 1.2 million square kilometers of ocean. He has also led coalitions with scientists and local activists to pass many significant ocean policies in Chile, making it the first country in the world to legally protect all of its seamounts from destructive fishing; reforming Chile’s fisheries law to require science-based quotas and reduce incidental mortality of species; stopping coal-fired power plants from destroying marine habitats and fishers’ livelihoods; protecting vast areas of Patagonia from salmon farming; establishing the first regulations to reduce antibiotic use and salmon escapes in Chilean salmon aquaculture; and banning shark finning in the country. Muñoz holds a law degree from the University of Chile and a Master’s degree in international and comparative law from the George Washington University. On a sunny afternoon in October, we met at the Yale University Art Gallery to talk about democracy, human rights and the future of the climate change movement for the Yale Globalist

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Aastha KC: How did you get into your work? What interests, experiences or moments led you to your career path? 

Alex Muñoz: I work for National Geographic society now and I help countries to create Marine Reserves to protect the oceans in Latin America. I love the connection between the science, policy, communication and culture that make these processes move forward to a concrete result. I don’t believe that you can just meet a president and create a national park. You have to work with local communities and present the science that supports those proposals. And then you have to use all the communications tools that we have available at National Geographic like documentaries, photographs, so people can fall in love with these places. So, my job is to catalyze all those elements into one strategy, so that we can protect as much of the ocean as possible. Although I started as a human rights lawyer who moved to environmental, the work has many things in common. Working with local communities is at the core of what I do with National Geographic. So,  I feel that I’m doing something that is important and with an amazing team from different fields and counties. It’s really the best.

Aastha KC: You won a landmark case that ensured the freedom of expression in Chile. What was that process like? What are some of the challenges that you faced? 

Alex Muñoz: I was in law school when I initiated that case, which became the first one against Chile in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the first case involving freedom of expression in all of the continent. I was upset about censorship in Chile even after we had our democracy back. This was because of that was dictated during Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 70’s, but it wasn’t revised after democracy arrived in Chile in 1990. I became frustrated when the Martin Scorsese movie called The Last Temptation of Christ was banned in Chile by the Supreme Court, so I decided to bring the complaint with the inter-american court of human rights which ruled in my favor six years later. As a result, Chile had to amend its Constitution to guarantee everyone’s freedom of expression and eliminate censorship against movies. Over a thousand movies were released after that. That was the end of censorship in Chile and it showed me something that I carry with me till today which is to always seek for results, and not just say things but actually pursue concrete goals to change the world.

Aastha KC: Why is freedom of expression so important in regards to human rights, and environmental movements? 

Alex Muñoz: Today, we see that democracy is in crisis. There’s a real danger that people in power will try to just get rid of people who think differently. It was a risk in the past and now we see a wave of facist countries that are coming back to the same trends. In Chile, we had to fight very hard to win democracy back so I know what it is like to live in a dictatorship and not have political rights. Even more, I know what it’s like to live in fear just by giving your opinion, which is a form of state violence. That’s why we need to defend democracy and more specifically, we have to defend freedom of expression so that people feel safe and secure when they have an opinion. That involves not only opinions but also everyone’s identity. We see that, in today’s politics, that some minority groups are struggling to express their identity and by defending freedom of expression, we are also defending their way of living and their vision of the world. 

Aastha KC: You have greatly advocated for the use of scientific information, evidence and independent committees to regulate and bring recommendations to the Chilean government. How do you go about choosing these independent scientific groups and also how do you ensure that these recommendations are not influenced by other actors? And then, how is the government then, able to implement these recommendations? 

 Alex Muñoz: Every expedition that we [National Geographic] does new scientific and sometimes unprecedented scientific studies, and also includes a thorough revision of all the studies that have been published by peer-reviewed journals in a particular area or subject. We have a core group of scientists but we always involve local scientists, who know a lot more about the place than we do. Then we both work together to write a report and publish those reports. Every year we have about 20 different publications from our expeditions. My job is to make policy recommendations to the government based on the science and input from the local communities. It’s very important that any recommendations for creating Marine Reserves come first from the local communities, so I try to facilitate a conversation between them and the government. Almost all of our recommendations are in remote areas because we don’t want to interfere with the culture of a local community or their way of making a living. Local communities have become our main allies and support because they have witnessed how the big industries have damaged ecosystems.

Aastha KC: Who did you work with in your efforts to pass and advocate for law like banning shark finning, stopping coal-fired power plants from destroying marine habitats and establishing regulations to reduce antibiotic use and salmon escapes in Chilean salmon aquaculture? What kinds of partnerships or coalitions did you have to build in order to pass these laws?

Alex Muñoz: Usually the most polluting companies are the ones that exploit natural resources and they are located where people have less power and political networks. Environmental problems don’t affect all groups equally. So, we partner with local groups to protect areas that have been intact until some big companies threatens to come in. In Southern Chile, we have a natural treasure in Patagonia but we have salmon farming invading the waters and polluting pristine oceans and affecting local communities that used to do small-scale fishing and tourism so we are working to protect the waters of Patagonia and to stop salmon farms. I’m sure that if people knew what was happening to the ocean and to the people, consumers would stop eating Chilean salmon, which is found in many cities in the United States. 

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Aastha KC: I want to talk a little bit more about the role of the private sector in taking on challenges in ocean conservation. Is there a role for the private sector or should they be banned? Is government the best way forward? What also is the role between the local communities, government and the private sector?

Alex Muñoz: The paradigm in the 20th century was unlimited growth. Countries believed that in order to provide goods for the people, we needed to grow the economy every year, and we still see countries obsessed with economic growth. I believe that we cannot keep growing like this, now it’s a matter of making that economic growth sustainable and distributing the results of our economy and natural resources in a more fair and responsible way. There’s enough wealth in the world but it’s in the hands of very few people. If companies are willing to change their mindset about profit and stop sacrificing the community’s well being and nature, then they have a future in a world that is facing enormous trouble because of social and environmental problems. I’m not against private business but countries and companies have to adapt themselves and acknowledge that this world has very limited resources. They [companies and governments] need to understand that we have exhausted our credit and now we need to start paying our debt. 

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Aastha KC: This past September, we saw thousands of people march onto the streets to demand action for climate change. You along with other World Fellows led the Climate Strike here at Yale. What do you think is next for the climate movement? How does one address large scale issues like climate change and connect it to people and their daily lives around the world?

Alex Muñoz: We have achieved something very meaningful which is that no one should feel absent from the climate emergency movement because everybody has something to say and do to solve the problem in difference scales. That’s why we organized the climate strike at Yale, because Yale being one of the most prestigious universities in the world cannot be passive and not participate in a global movement to change the agenda and get more attention about the climate emergency. We need more climate strikes to hold leaders accountable and we need experts and scientists to inform policy. Next time people vote, I would encourage them to understand what their candidate is saying about this. Climate Change is not a side issue, it is a central issue and every politician should state what they plan to do to help solve the problem. 

Aastha KC: How do people hold their politicians and governments accountable when the government and its leaders are functioning under the logic of neoliberal economic growth? 

Alex Muñoz: The usual accountability systems like checks and balances and even elections have not proven to be efficient. I believe that social movements are informal accountability systems that can change certain decisions. We have seen that in the world throughout history. All of the victories for human rights like the women’s right to vote and others [civil rights movements] have come from social movements. And that’s why I want to emphasize the power of the people to change the agenda. As much as we need science, it hasn’t been enough to change policy. In the end, we need a combination of both. 

Aastha KC: Where does National Geographic fit into this picture? How can images, documentaries, and storytelling change people’s minds and perspectives?

Alex Muñoz: I think that emotions move the world. We are a science based organization but at the end of the day, we are also storytellers that can make people feel emotional about an issue and this inspires them to take action. I want people to make a move and not just be frustrated with the world. We do beautiful expeditions to all parts of the planet to showcase the beauty of the natural world, but it is up to the governments and local communities to protect these environments and we show them a way to do it as long as they want. That’s the way that we work. We try to catalyze change by getting different actors at different ends of the debate to work together to protect the environment. That’s what I do.  

Aastha KC: What do you think are the underlying issues for the Chilean protests that have occurred?

Alex Muñoz: Although Chile has been one of the most politically stable and economically developed countries in Latin America, there is great inequality in the way wealth is distributed. A small group concentrates not only more money but also all kinds of privileges in the treatment they get from the government, judiciary and Congress. This elite is not playing by the rules, commit major abuses against the poor and are rarely held responsible. The rest of the people feel that they are not getting a fair share from the economic growth and that are constantly excluded from the decision-making process in politics. This is a movement against elites that claims for more social justice and a democratization of political power.

Aastha KC: Over the past months, we have seen similar anti-neoliberalism protests in Lebanon as well. Do you think that the protests represent a global trend? 

 Alex Muñoz: The historical protests of these weeks in Chile have shaken their political system and have been fundamental to open a door towards a different future. It is clear that this transformative power would not have come from any government or Congress alone. As painful as this crisis is, it gives me enormous hope to think about what we can build together from it. The same is happening in many different countries such Iraq, Ecuador Lebanon, and others. I want to believe that this is a global change of era that can makes us build a better world where human rights are ensured by the States, the environment is protected and the relationships in our society are based on respect, collaboration and empathy among ourselves.

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Aastha KC is a senior in Pauli Murray College. Contact her at aastha.kc@yale.edu.