Víctor Duran

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2017
Vigilantes de Lagos
This description of Víctor Duran's work was prepared when Víctor Duran was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .


Victor has created a unique model for the protection of lakes given they are the main source of fresh water in the world. He empowers citizens and organizations by training them to carry out science to generate useful information that can subsequently be employed in communicating with authorities and considered in their decision-making process. In this way, the successful implementation of prevention plans and the de-contamination of lakes becomes possible.

His model employs scientific concepts for the preservation of lacustrine ecosystems and scientific tourism. This allows surrounding communities to learn and know about these fresh water reserves, as well as all the people who visit the lakes. In addition to educating and generating awareness among citizens, this model prepares them to inform, communicate and become leaders in the protection of their own ecosystems – as well informed and active Changemakers.

The New Idea

Victor has become the father of an environmental movement of lake´s preservation in Chile, creating awareness not only in people to become active changemakers for the conservation of lakes ecosystems, but has also introduced concern at the national level at the government level to establish the frame to protect lakes.

Víctor is building a citizen network of lake guardians across the country, to protect the lakes and their ecosystem. With Fundación Red de Nuevas Ideas, he is equipping them with the tools and knowledge to take awareness and protect the lake ecosystems in Chile. He has adapted the techniques used by scientists to test bodies of water so that children, youth, and adults can monitor their local lakes and combat environmental pollution. His “Lake Guardians” become informed individuals with the capacity to directly influence public policy and regulations surrounding their lakes.

Víctor recognizes that citizen participation is crucial to protecting the environment. People can self-regulate and protect environmental resources instead of relying on government and/or academic institutional intervention to monitor and reduce pollution. By investing in the community- and specifically in young people- he is establishing a new generation of eco-conscious citizens, on a continent where there was not awareness about the issue.

This re-training of the community into a network of changemakers and ambassadors of lake protection is unique in Chile and in Latin America. His idea is to empower a national network and cross the country to build a Latin American network of Lake monitors. He is now working with Universities in Colombia and Argentina to start the project: University of Mariana de Nariño and Universidad del Comahue. The idea is to work community by community and build the network across Chile and Latin America, to finally have an international Lake Guardians network, with their own identity and with a mission in common.

The Problem

There are over two hundred lakes in Chile, and each of them has a completely unique ecosystem Most of them are formed from the Andean glaciers, which melt into rivers that fill the lakes and then lead to the sea. These lakes are the most important freshwater resource in the world. The human actions of deforestation, fish farming and agricultural practices, industrial processing, urbanization, sewage systems, etc., have severely impacted these lake ecosystems in a process known as cultural eutrophication.

Water pollution from lakes is a problem that is not being considered a priority in Chile at the government level today, as we still have fresh water for consumption. However, scientists predict that in 25 years, we will need to use lakes water. If they are contaminated we will not have fresh water reserves. Thanks to the work of Víctor, the Ministry of Environment has begun to make efforts to regulate the environmental quality of the lakes. However, it is a process that requires economic effort and constant monitoring that the Government is not willing to make.

On the other hand, there is a lack of information on the citizen level of the importance of water preservation. It's not even taught in schools. Experience indicates that individual simply associate lakes with water and do not see them as the tremendously fragile ecosystems that they are. Thus, without sufficient citizen involvement and interest, water quality monitoring and regulation will not occur, many of Chile's lakes will become irreversibly contaminated, resulting in further endangerment to humans and other natural life.

In terms of political context, like many other countries, Chile has national primary water-quality regulations, which exist strictly to protect human health. However, in part due to its unique governing system, there are almost no secondary water-quality regulations (standards that focus on protecting the lakes’ ecosystems). Secondary regulations may include a visibility standard or maximum levels of certain minerals, among other parameters: things that do not affect our ability to drink water, but do affect the delicate balance of the lake ecosystem. Since each lake is different, secondary standards must be developed and applied on a local basis, and blanket federal regulation on the secondary level would be illogical and ineffective.

Considering today the existence of a regulatory framework, it is possible to legislate and work with communities to monitor the lakes.

The Strategy

Víctor devised a strategy that allows the preservation of lakes by giving communities the information and empowerment to take the preservation of the lakes in their own hands.

Victor aims to generate awareness by empowering community members to be protectors of their local lakes. Víctor firmly believes that community awareness and participation are the only way to enable healthy and flourishing lacustrine ecosystems. Through his nonprofit organization La Fundación Red de Nuevas Ideas (Network of New Ideas Foundation) and specifically the National Lake Guardians Project, he is fostering citizen involvement and interest in saving Chile’s lakes.

To engage the community, Victor organizes spaces to raise awareness and sense of urgency, through his mobile laboratories that he installs in schools and public spaces of the cities. The public spaces used are mostly granted by the municipality of the community, which are freely accessible to all public. He works with local schools, teaching workshops and classes to the students to create awareness and develop environmental literacy from a young age. These schools become motivated to carry out their own investigations on related topics even though the Chilean government hasn’t mandated extensive education on the topic of environmental conservation. Víctor has also written a manual on limnology, the study of inland waters, to be distributed in schools around the country. Through this book, which is currently used in various universities, he is raising awareness. Interested individuals are invited to join Víctor’s team of Lake Guardians. Víctor invites them to navigate and take samples of the lake and monitor it´s current status. To date, he has worked with 30 schools in different communities and with 4 municipalities making activities to educate people. One of the activities that has done most in public spaces are fairs in which people can approach and learn from the ecosystem in a practical way, measuring the pollution of the lake and checking the presence of neurotoxins.

Víctor works with children, youth, and adults. Education is key to his mission, and all of his work seeks to increase the environmental literacy of both Chilean citizens and members of the local government. He has taught over 1000 monitors of all ages, to teach them and to complete these monthly water quality tests. Despite working with the whole community, Víctor believes that the path to establish lasting change is through engaging youth especially. Victor trains teachers to teach children about environment, giving activities to do with them. Also, high school students are encouraged to teach children from their own schools.

Víctor is currently working with the Ministry of the Environment to establish high school science labs so that communities can provide youth with hands-on monitoring and scientific research experience and can also have the lake-monitoring equipment necessary to self-regulate. Most of them have never seen a microscope before, making this experience new and exciting. They start feeling that they can make changes into their community in a very practical and realistic way.

Also, most of the young people who have learned from Víctor have studied environmental professions, and many of them are now in public positions, contributing on the solution of this problem.

Now, Víctor is working directly with the community surrounding Lake Villarrica to create a decontamination program. The quality of water in the lake has been regulated, monitored, and determined to be unacceptably contaminated. This change in public policy in Villarrica alone has an impact on more than 100,000 people who live close to the lake basin. The success of this case has opened the door to doing the same in other lakes in Chile and Latin America, expanding impact and gaining the support of the Regional Secretary of the Araucanía region. Víctor intends to expand this method of generating awareness and creating agents of environmental protection to the rest of Latin America as well, and has already begun working with Argentina and Colombia.

It’s crucial that these preservation strategies are developed with the help and input of the lake monitors, the general community, the local government and authorities, and local businesses. He knows how to make every sector, from his role, take a leading role in this issue.

To raise awareness not only with the people surrounding the lake, and to sustain the project, Víctor has generated a scientific tourism business for the tourists who visit Lake Villarrica each year. This sustainable model allows him to continue spreading awareness about the importance of maintaining healthy ecosystems, and to expand the contributions that individuals can make to water protection.
Víctor’s strategy of awareness-building also extends to media engagement, in which various outlets are invited to participate in his activities and report out on the progress and findings. In addition to engaging the media, Victor has also developed content for various documentaries and reports/articles about the subject of environmental protection.

In the next 6 months, Víctor's work will consist of giving identity and enhancing the specific mission of the Lake Guardian´s network. This is fundamental in order to move beyond and expand the movement. By identifying those than can be future leaders and multipliers of this initiative, Victor assures that the project moves on despite his direct intervention. Lake Guardian´s will sign a Commitment Policy through which they engage actively with the mission and through annual sessions they will share experiences and adjust strategies. Victor will create as well a web platform to keep this community of changemakers connected.

The construction of new laboratories for the education of children and young people has already been approved with public funds, a breakthrough that demonstrates Government's commitment to supporting Victor's work and acting as an important ally. In this line of action, Víctor is already working with the public School Valentin Letelier of Villarrica in the first prevention plan in which they will reforest the area and serve as pilot experience for the plan of decontamination to be carried out next year.

Finally, his long-term goal is to strengthen participatory democracy at all levels through innovation in formal and non-formal education and empowering citizens in decision-making. He also wants to democratize science and make it accessible to the community motivating young people and children to contribute to the care of our planet.

The Person

Víctor was born and raised on the shores of Lake Villarrica. As a child, he was extremely curious and passionate about navigation and investigation, and he always went out to sail in his grandfather’s wooden boat to explore the different beaches of the lake. Over the years, Victor began to notice the change in transparency of the water, changing from crystal clear to murky. He also realized that the lake was becoming increasingly contaminated by the noise and hydrocarbons emitted by motor boats each summer– and the problem has stayed with him ever since.

As a teen, Víctor had to decide between competitive cycling and going to university. He chose university, where he studied medical technology and wrote his thesis on the enteroparasitosis, or parasitic infections, of the community immediately surrounding the lake. After graduation, he founded the Corporación Red Eco 90 (Eco 90 Network Corporation), which employed young people from all over Chile to develop and promote environmental awareness. In addition, he also founded the Corporación de Protección e Investigación de Medioambiente (Corporation of Protection and Investigation of the Environment), a more technical group, to do extensive scientific research. Today, the young people who were involved with both of these organizations are now parliamentarians, scientists, and more, and most continue to have an immense impact on environmental policy and protection efforts. In the 90s, Víctor worked in Germany and the United States to learn more about global eco-protection and conservation efforts.

In 1994, he was named the first Regional Director of the National Commission of the Environment (CONAMA) and began to work on developing secondary water-quality standards and a conservation plan for Lakes in Chile. In this stage is where he realized that this issue is not a national priority. Making changes from the public sector is slow and laborious and also once the lakes are formed, monitoring them requires great effort and is very expensive.

In 2000 he criticized the public system, after seeing the slowness of the changes, to return to the bases: to work with the communities to achieve the systemic change that has always sought. Work with the communities has always been one of Victor's greatest strengths. That same year, he began to build the New Ideas Network Foundation to raise awareness from the community, working collaboratively with all social sectors.