In Conversation: Ramon Navarro, Chilean Big-Wave Surfer and Environmental Activist

‘The Fisherman’s Son’ on his fight to save Chile’s iconic Punta de Lobos

In a parking lot in Northern California, a white screen is hanging from the tin wall of a surf shop. A crowd has gathered for the screening of The Fisherman’s Son, a film about professional big-wave surfer Ramon Navarro and his fight to save one of Chile’s most iconic surf breaks, Punta de Lobos. We are all waiting for it to get darker so that the movie can begin; the projection must not compete with the light of the California sun. Meanwhile, everyone is having a good time. It’s Saturday and the crowd is alive. More than a few people appear to have come directly from the beach to see Navarro in person as he tours the West Coast screening his film and raising money to create a land trust at Punta de Lobos.

Photo of Punta de LobosPhoto by Government of ChileAs surfers begin to take on coastal stewardship in increasingly effective ways, they are generating hope for the future.

Ramon Navarro is a fisherman’s son. He is also a fisherman’s grandson and great-grandson. He is from Pichilemu, Chile and at the April film screening I attended, Navarro continuously asserted that the land and its people have given him everything. Director Chris Malloy captures the surfer’s origin well. There is a scene in which Navarro’s grandmother recounts a childhood memory of eating sea bass stuffed with apples and cooked under hot sand and coals. By the time Malloy turns his camera toward the threat of development and the campaign to save Punta de Lobos, the viewer knows and can almost taste what is at stake; the local food and access to its abundance, the stories people tell about the land, the culture.

In 2013, Punta de Lobos was approved as a world surfing reserve by Save the Waves, a conservation organization focused on exceptional surfing areas around the world. Save the Waves has helped protect areas with remarkable surf in Peru, Australia, Mexico, and Santa Cruz, California. The organization designates reserves based on a number of criteria, including the quality of the waves, the consistency of good waves throughout the year, biodiversity, and other ecological factors.

The organization also emphasizes the importance of community involvement when selecting new reserve locations. In Pichilemu, the local organization fighting to protect the coast is the Comité por la Defensa de Punta de Lobos, with which Navarro is involved. His work with this local organization and his background in environmental activism in Chile offers insight into Navarro as a dynamic, humble, and storied man searching for the balance between local and international conservation in Chile.

That the crowd that night shared some common identity based on love and respect for the ocean was very clear. California has lost surfing breaks in the past due to the construction of jetties and roads, and access to the beach and water pollution are ongoing issues in the state. California is also home to one of the world’s largest designated surfing areas, which encompasses approximately seven miles of coastline and at least 26 surf breaks in Santa Cruz. The reserve’s local stewardship council has recently identified pollution and sea level rise as its primary concerns for protecting the reserve in the future. 

In addition to protecting local breaks, the surfing community is becoming increasingly attentive to the threat of climate change and sea level rise. From Chile to California, climate change is beginning to influence how we value our coasts and is forcing people to reconsider what is at stake. To persist, these coastal areas will require local stewardship, and as surfers begin to take on that role in increasingly effective ways, they are generating hope for the future. Navarro’s story does the same.

I spoke with Navarro after the film to ask him some questions about his work on the campaign to save Punta de Lobos. 

Ramon, what are the largest threats to the Chilean coastline today?

Well we have a lot of problems on the Chilean coast. The economy of Chile has started to get pretty good over the last few years and people are starting to buy land. There is no control and people kind of buy and do whatever they want in most of the cities. The main problem is there is no good regulation. People can do whatever they want. If you’re a rich man you can pretty much buy the whole coastline of one city and do whatever you want. You don’t have to give access to normal people. It’s good for the tourists and maybe for the city because the city is starting to grow, but they need regulation to control it. In the future people will need the coast. If you lose the main places of a culture, you’re going to lose everything. You lose your identity. Identidad, you know? If a country has lost identity it has pretty much lost everything.

What are some of the solutions that you are working on at Punta de Lobo?

We have been trying to work with the government for more than five years already, trying to create a solution. But under the constitution of Chile, the government can do little if the land is private.  With private land, you lose access to the coast. The only way we can give access back to the government is to buy the land and make a national park. We figured out this is the only way to do it and the only way we can keep it for the future. If we try to do something with the government they can change the rules. If we buy the land we make our own rules, and make a big contract and protect the place forever, for all generations. So the main idea right now is to raise money and buy the land and then donate it to the whole country, pretty much the whole world, because every surfer in the world one day will want to come to Lobos.

If it were to become a park, is the idea to have it be a surf park?

It’s not going to be a surf park because so many things happen there. Because of the biodiversity and the sea life — and it’s pretty huge — it’s going to be for fisherman, for tourists, for surfers, for the community, for everyone.

Why are you fighting for Punta de Lobos?

I feel like it’s my responsibility because I have my blood in that place, because I was born and raised there. My whole family, three generations back, has lived there. My mom and my dad live there. So that place has pretty much been my backyard for years. My favorite memories I have in my life are playing there. So it’s my responsibility, you know? You’re going to take care of your house. I need to take care of it because nobody else is going to do it. Things are happening so fast right now. People with money show up and pretty much step over the heads of the fisherman that have lived there forever. It’s the same thing that has happened throughout the whole world with indigenous people. So I feel like I’m indigenous and I’m fighting for my land. No matter what.

How can people in the United States get involved?

You can go to Lobos Por Siempre website and you can make a donation. You can also form a team or work with an existing team — the Santa Cruz team for example — and try to raise money with your team. The money goes straight to Lobos. And in the future we are going to need a lot of hands to make it happen when we implement the park. We’re going to build bathrooms, build showers, build the roads, make a parking area so that people can walk around, watch the surf, get a view, and watch it all happen. That’s our main dream.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

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