Striking Deals: Activism and the Art of Conservation

Graphic by Rebecca Goldberg

Alex Muñoz is a Yale World Fellow and activist whose work has ranged from human rights law to ocean conservation. Muñoz is the Latin American director for Pristine Seas, a branch of National Geographic that combines art with activism, and partners with governments and communities to protect marine life. His omnivorous career has seen the rolling back of national media bans in Chile and the formation of the 12 largest marine reserves in Latin America. Just three weeks after touching down in the U.S., Muñoz led a Climate Strike at Yale along with other World Fellows. We sit down to discuss the strike movement, forbidden film, and the role of Yale and America in responding to the climate crisis.

Yale Herald:  You started your career as a human rights lawyer working with victims of domestic violence and later transitioned into marine conservation. What motivated that transition?

Alex Muñoz:  Since I was very young, I wanted to fight injustice. That is what has moved me all my life. For years, I focused on human rights. I wanted to help people that were living in more disadvantaged conditions [than I was]. My first job was defending women that suffered domestic violence. That was my first experience as an attorney and it really changed my life. I became a feminist and I also experienced what it is to be side by side fighting with someone — not only for someone, but actually being on a team with someone. Later in life, I was offered a job by an ocean conservation organization called Oceana, and I became an environmentalist. I fell in love with the oceans, and I found a lot of common elements between human rights work and environmentalism. Basically, when you have an environmental conflict, usually you have a powerful party and a weaker party. I’ve tried not only to achieve environmental protections, but also to help the communities that were suffering the impacts of environmental problems. I found the perfect combination that stayed with me.

YH:  How would you describe the relationship between human rights issues and environmental concerns like climate change?

AM:  Well, the ones who have a harder time in the world are usually the same ones. They are the poor, the women, the ones who are not white. There are certain patterns that repeat; and when we deal with global problems with the environment, it’s the same. When you see the coal-fired power plants affecting so many communities, they are never in the neighborhoods where the rich people live. They are always around towns where the most vulnerable people are located, people that cannot defend themselves because they don’t have the resources or the connections. So that pattern is the same in human rights violations and environmental degradation. Environmental problems don’t affect everybody the same way.

YH:  You work for National Geographic, an organization that’s famous for making the natural world accessible through various art forms. How does Pristine Seas use art in conservation work, and what do you think the role of storytelling is in environmentalism?

AM:  National Geographic has existed for over 130 years, and for a long time it used to describe what was happening in the world. Pristine Seas was the first project in National Geographic that aimed at changing the world and not just describing it. So we decided that instead of just telling the story of the dying oceans, we wanted governments to repair the damage and protect it. This has been so successful that now National Geographic has shifted to this approach and wants to influence the world, instead of just telling the story of a planet that is suffering. Today’s National Geographic’s tagline is “a planet in balance,” which means National Geographic is using its whole capacity to influence decisions, inform the public and change the agenda on key areas such as pollution, human rights violations and others.

YH:  You helped to lead the Yale World Fellows climate strike on Sept. 20. What is your perspective on the climate strike movement as a means of combating climate change?

AM:  I believe that everybody should get involved in this global movement because all together we will be more effective in changing the agenda. We can have all the technical knowledge, but if we don’t open the door to these ideas, then nothing will happen. So we could be the best engineers or lawyers or biologists in the world, but if the political power isn’t listening, then nothing will happen. So that’s why it’s important [for me] to be both advising professionally and taking part in these environmental strikes. That’s why only three weeks after I became a World Fellow, I decided to organize this climate strike. With the help of the other World Fellows, we had around 200 people demonstrating in front of the Sterling Laboratory which was a great feeling. I barely knew anybody, but there was a lot of excitement and satisfaction. Everybody could feel that something good was happening. And then we went altogether to join the demonstrations with the New Haven community. So, yeah, you can be in any position, but in the end, we are all citizens and we have to be part of this movement to help move the needle and open the doors for better discussion.

YH:  Going back to your human rights work, you won a landmark case in Chile that resulted in the first ruling on freedom of expression in South America. How did you get involved, and what have been the consequences of that ruling?

AM:  Yeah, well, Chile had a dictatorship for 17 years. And even after that, some of the laws that had been approved by that dictator were still in place. I was studying in law school when a movie by Martin Scorsese, called The Last Temptation of Christ, was banned. The church was very influential back then in Chile, and they got the Supreme Court to ban this movie. I was really upset and outraged by this decision, and I was taking my first steps in human rights, so I decided to explore the mechanisms for international court complaints. I filed a complaint against Chile for violating my freedom of expression, for banning these movies. After six years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in my favor and declared that Chile had violated mine and every other Chilean’s liberty through our freedom of expression and made Chile change its constitution to eliminate censorship in movies and guarantee our freedom of expression. So, that was an important milestone in my life. After that, more than 1000 movies that were banned were then released. And now the Chilean government cannot ban any movie but only rate them to protect minors and children, in general.

YH:  How do you view the relationship between governments and communities when it comes to environmental conservation, and how have you experienced this in your work?

AM:  I’ve often been asking whether we should work with governments or communities to establish marine reserves. Actually we have to work with both at the same time, combining a top-down and a bottom-up approach. Our role is to catalyze change by doing scientific studies and making recommendations, but also by listening to groups or institutions and incorporating their perspectives. We will always push for the broader protection of the oceans, but we are very respectful of local communities… we usually adopt their vision, especially if they are indigenous communities. And once we have a clear idea for the area to be protected, we go to the governments and propose for them to be the “hero of the story.” In my experience, the governments usually don’t have ocean protection in their agenda, but they have learned that if they do this, they can improve their reputation and then they can be acknowledged internationally. So far it has worked very well. So yes, I really enjoy this combination between science, artists and policy experts. And that’s the choreography that’s been effective; Pristine Seas has helped create 22 of the largest marine reserves in the world.

YH:  As an international living in the U.S., how do you view America’s economic influence and its relation to Latin America?

AM:  Yes. I guess I’m not the only one for whom the U.S., generates contradictions in his mind. On the one hand, I work for a U.S.-based organization — National Geographic — and a U.S. university — Yale — has very generously given me the opportunity to spend a semester here. There are great things that have been born in this country and there are many leaders that we admire. But on the other hand, some of the biggest problems in the world have originated here, such as wars and tensions all over the world — even my country. The dictatorship that started in 1973 overthrew the democratically elected president with the assistance of the U.S. government, so I’m very aware of that. I like to think that the U.S. is a very diverse country and that good or bad, we can have the freedom to acknowledge the good and criticize the bad.

YH:  You’re a Yale World Fellow, a role that involves advising students on campus. As students, we have limited economic power, are not able to enact policy, and can feel powerless in the face of documents like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What do you think is the role of students and young people in addressing climate change?

AM:  I remember when I was a kid, students from universities were the ones that started the end of the dictatorship. They would go out and protest. And they were beaten up every time by the police. But then people started to lose fear and realized that this could be done. After a few years, that dictatorship ended because of those protests. So, for me, the younger generations have the energy and power to get together and be fearless and demonstrate without measuring every step that they take. Many people just have in their minds the costs and benefits of what they’re doing. What I’ve seen in Chile, in the U.S. and many other countries where people are demonstrating for climate change, is that the only thing they have in mind is solving the problem, no matter what the cost is. I see people missing classes. Some people being arrested. But that’s not as important as the act of protesting to change the agenda. And that gives me enormous hope. I just hope that students keep doing that… they are doing the right thing, they are putting in a light on the world’s problems.

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