Luis Valladares Faúndez

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Luis Valladares Faúndez's work was prepared when Luis Valladares Faúndez was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008 .


Luis Valladares is bridging the gap between environmental policymakers and scientists, and the Chilean populations most effected by conservation legislation. Luis created a new area of knowledge building—“biointegrología”—merging biology with relevant aspects of local developement, such as education, production, and social development, among others. His environmental centers seek to set a new standard of environmentalism that incorporates the needs and livelihoods of local inhabitants. Each center produces locally relevant strategies of natural resource management and educates Chilean citizens living in threatened areas to be advocates of environmental protection.

The New Idea

Environmental scientists and lawmakers are often out of touch with the true needs and situations of the Chilean people. Despite a growing environmental movement in Chile, a large gap of understanding remains between the country’s environmental leaders and the communities whose lives are most affected by regulation. In order to bridge this gap, Luis created a profession, the “Social Investigator,” trained in the sciences but at the service of the communities and their development, that applies environmental science and preservation in the context of human development and social needs. Luis founded the Center for Investigation and Education led by Social Investigator biologists that produce relevant knowledge and best practices to preserve the ecosystems where each center is located. However, they do so in a manner that is in tune with the needs—and within the means—of rural populations. Each biologist also participates in a variety of education programs that increase environmental knowledge and encourage participation of local communities. The centers have three primary goals. The first is to generate relevant information for the conservation needs of a specific community and provide the tools and support necessary for rural inhabitants to care for the environment. The second is to bridge the gap of understanding and communication between environmental policymakers and the inhabitants most affected by environmental policy. And finally, each center supports formal and informal environmental education so that rural communities can learn the value of conservation and also begin benefiting from advances in science and technology that aid in the protection of the environment without shattering livelihoods and displacing whole populations.

The Problem

Despite the ecological, historical, and economic importance of Chile’s natural ecosystem—and despite a growing environmental movement in Chile—many of the country’s most vulnerable areas remain unprotected by the National System of Wild Areas Protected by the State. Most importantly, there remains a large gap between state legislation and implementation of that legislation—between environmental policy makers and the rural communities most affected by their policies. Miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides leads to ineffective policy, and often to situations harmful to the environment and communities who depend on the land. The result is that those most responsible for the future of Chile’s diverse ecosystems lack the education and tools to practice conservation and protect Chile’s natural environment. Over the last decade, the Chilean government has passed dozens of environmental laws and regulations to protect the countries natural resources. However, much of this legislation was passed without consulting those most affected by its new rules—communities who hunt, fish and harvest wood and other resources with no practical alternatives for making a living. For example, the National Forest Corporation was founded with the mission to conserve the wildlife of forest ecosystems, and in doing so, is prohibiting communities from cultivating forest resources that they have relied on for centuries for their subsistence. Another example involves the artisan fishermen from Chiloé that for centuries have fished without any kind of restrictions, but now face a fishing quota that reduces their income to the extent that they can no longer afford the minimal rental costs of their boats.There is a great divide between advanced science and technology and the ability of rural communities to benefit from these developments. The knowledge produced by the scientific community has an elevated production cost which rural inhabitants cannot afford; this leaves large populations outside the reach of the latest advances. The Chilean government has yet to propose a policy of environmental sustainability that correlates preservation to the needs of rural communities. Rural sectors, already vulnerable in Chile’s segmented social structure, must now face the increased economic pressures coming from environmental regulations and the migration of youth to urban areas. Lack of good planning and incorporation of indigenous and rural peoples aggravates economic and environmental problems that future generations will inherit.

The Strategy

Luis is bridging the gap between scientific environmentalism and rural sustainable development through education, collaboration, and a new profession: The Social Investigator. He founded the Center for Environmental Education and Biological Investigation for a Sustainable Development to provide rural inhabitants with the information and tools necessary to practice conservation while maintaining their livelihoods and preserving their cultural history. Each center provides sound environmental methods in a manner that is culturally relevant—and that can be modified if necessary—to generate “buy in” from communities who believe in their value and who can protect the environment.The process for establishing each center follows a similar sequence but hinges on the role of the scientifically trained Social Investigator. In the first phase the Social Investigator acts as a motivator who establishes the confidence of the community in his or her technical team. This enables the Social Investigator to gain local participation in environmental courses and seminars. The center organizes recreational games through which the community begins thinking about the present and future of their ecosystem and economy. Later on it works with the base organizations and especially with community leaders in the development of abilities and the elaboration of key projects so they can advance both environmental and development goals. The centers also work closely with local schools to adopt environmental education into their curricula and experiment with new teaching methods like holding classes outside. Finally each center proposes concrete environmental projects co-developed by local inhabitants and implemented almost exclusively by rural communities. The Center for Investigation and Education plays the role of facilitator between the universities and other related centers, with the aim of obtaining the finance and development of workable solutions to community problems, opening the door so that institutions of academic excellence can become more aware of social realities. With the objective of making his method known and inviting them to imitate his model, Luis has developed alliances with universities across Chile, especially with PhD candidates who are working on their theses, as well as investigation centers, such as the Forest Institution. Finally, each center occupies the role of mediator between the administrators of the governmental and non-governmental environmental projects, and Chile’s rural inhabitants who have depended on natural resources for generations. The ultimate goal is to produce better environmental policy and regulation that is in sync with human needs, while at the same time educating and recruiting local inhabitants as protectors and guardians of the natural world. At present, Luis’s model has been carried out in Chile in three places and it has different levels of implementation, according to the characteristics of the zones where they are located. The first, the Center of Ayacara, located in continental Chiloé in the lake region, has helped found the first Environmental High School. This academically rigorous school focuses on natural resources and impacts the lives of 2,000 families and 200 students who take part in the High School Project. In 2005, Luis created a center in Vilches Alto, located in the region of Male, that is focused on community-led preservation. It includes research and education that focuses on the impact of climate on local species and on how ecotourism projects can be developed. Since its inception the center has worked with 3,000 people from different backgrounds, highlighting their achievement when it comes to community development.The third, and more recent, is located in the area of Cerro Viejo to the interior of Curacaví, in the region of Valparaíso. This is a project of public and private cooperation and is already generating important results. The project focuses on halting deterioration of the swamp ecosystem in Puangue, in the coastal mountain region, that affects 300 people who live and depend on the swamp’s resources. For this end, Luis has opened a Center for Investigation for the Conservation of the Swamp Puangue in addition to launching an ecotourism project to aid in the sustainable resolution to the disappearance of ancient ecosystems in the Metropolitan Region. Although still in the early stages of development, this third center has already brought about new municipal by-laws that regulate the Punague Swamp. A conservation education program is also in its first year of operation.

The Person

Luis was born in Santiago, one of three children. He began working at age ten to help his father sell goods in the marketplace. This taught him how difficult life is for many Chileans who have few educational or labor opportunities. Luis also witnessed the big efforts made by rural families that migrate to the city in the search of education and better opportunities for their children. During his time at university Luis became increasingly interested in the intersection of science, environmental studies, and rural populations. With Chile’s environmental problems escalating to disastrous proportions, Luis was surprised he could not find answers in college to fundamental questions. How was such poverty possible in a country with such rich natural resources? How can science cultivate such great minds yet be unable to practically solve a country’s most pressing needs? How can biologists validate their work in the social field—not just in labs—and provide answers to rural sustainable development that many in the country are trying to solve?Thanks to the contribution of his professors, he was able to understand and use the knowledge and methodical tools that would be key in his later work. His university professors allowed him to realize that science is an enormous tool for human development. Luis attributes his wife, also a biologist, to enabling him to succeed in his endeavors.