If I had to call a place home, it would be Patagonia, a land of glacier-carved fjords, crystal-clear rivers, rainforests, jagged mountain peaks and active volcanoes. 

It is a beautiful land, advertised in magazines and the poster child of high-end clothing stores and travel brochures, but to me its significance goes so much deeper. My family can be traced back to rural Chile where we have been dependent on the country’s rich natural resources for decades. My parents grow their own food and carry on the traditions of southern Chile in their cooking; even today my father makes our bread at home. To me, Patagonia has meant freedom.
I grew up during a time of political oppression, where freedom of ideas, speech and expression were under the veil of an authoritarian dictator, Augustus Pinochet. We were told how to think, speak and behave; stepping outside those instructions was fatal for many. It was a time that left deep wounds and divisions in my country, wounds that are still healing.

The ocean is our life support system, providing every second breath that we take. We must take care of our blue planet, so it may continue to take care of us.  

Longing for freedom, and emboldened by a sense of urgency for action, I found myself channeling my energies to fight for another cause, protecting nature. What began as a first walk in the forests of Chile turned into a lifelong path of sharing and connecting others with that beauty, campaigning and helping governments to protect the wild and free places that still exist in this world.     

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Maximiliano Bello

I began my conservation path at the top of the mountains; I stumbled upon an opportunity to join an international mountain climbing team, a chance encounter that led to me posing as the team cook and entertaining foreign guests in the Andes. Climbing became my connection to nature, to the woods, to the snow-capped peaks of Latin America. 

It also became my window to the world, taking me to Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Morocco, Japan, Australia and beyond.  What I didn’t realize then, but I understand now is that the mountains, and nature for that matter, is always calling and once you hear it, there is no return. Chile is a long, thin country, in between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean; no matter where you look the mountains stare down at you and the ocean is just over the horizon.
The beginning of my story is not much different to that of many others from Latin America. So many have lived under oppressive regimes, so many have felt trapped and stifled and scared. So many have been told for far too long that they were not leaders because they had to follow. 

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Maximiliano Bello

Nature opened a door for me that changed the course of my future. What began as an exercise in freedom turned into a lifelong passion. My main areas of focus now are protecting large areas of the marine environment and its inhabitants. I am proud to say that Chile has become a global leader in protecting its ocean, coasts and land.

This last month, President Bachelet signed decrees finalizing the establishment of three highly protected marine areas in Rapa Nui, the Juan Fernández Archipelago and the Islas Diego Ramirez and Paso Drake, protecting 1.3 million km2, almost 43 per cent of Chile’s ocean waters. The signing of these decrees marked the culmination of the hard work of local communities, support from numerous local conservation groups and the backing of international organisations.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Maximiliano Bello

Mexico built on this momentum late last year when President Peña Nieto declared the Revillagigedo Archipelago a marine reserve, fully protecting 149,000 km2 of its marine waters. And just last week, President Temer of Brazil announced the creation of two large protected areas around the Archipelagos of São Pedro and São Paulo and Trindade and Martim Vaz. Looking further to the south, Argentina has started discussions in Congress to protect its own marine heritage.

This last month, President Bachelet signed decrees finalizing the establishment of three highly protected marine areas.

The region is coalescing behind a common cause – protecting the ocean. In Quintana Roo, Mexico, earlier this month, Ministers of Environment and government representatives from all over Latin America came together to identify and discuss priorities for conserving our ocean at the first ever Asamblea del Oceáno Pacífico (Pacific Ocean Assembly). These Ministers were joined by Canadian Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, who is looking to make Canada a leader in marine protection and is prioritizing the ocean on the G7 agenda.

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Maximiliano Bello

The Asamblea (convened by Ocean Unite in partnership with The Economist, The Lucile & David Packard Foundation, The Walton Family Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts), brought to light some of the critical threats facing our ocean: climate change, overfishing, ocean acidification, plastic pollution, illegal fishing and habitat degradation.  The meeting also identified essential actions governments can take to address these threats and build ocean resilience. The ocean is our life support system, providing every second breath that we take. We must take care of our blue planet, so it may continue to take care of us.  
In Latin America we have turned the tide in marine conservation. We are leading from the south. The Latin America of today is building a legacy in the ocean world and this legacy is all about freedom and empowerment of its people, and respect for its beautiful natural resources.
One of the most important lessons I have learned from Patagonia is that everything in nature is connected. The mountains, rivers and ocean all depend on one another.  If we are to save the ocean we must work together. I am proud that Latin America is paving the way. We have found a beautiful new freedom  in our leadership. Who now will follow us?

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action.