Saving Chile’s redwoods

A new direction for the Valdivian rainforest

Our group of 13 ecologists and biologists gets off the 1970s 4WD Mercedes school bus. We heave our packs onto our shoulders for the trudge northward through the Valdivian Rainforest along the southern Chilean coast. For the next four days, we will visit three isolated villages and trek miles of untouched land. We are here to bring attention to this vast wilderness and the indigenous communities that would be directly affected by two potentially devastating encroachments: large-scale forest conversion projectswhich would turn native forests to tree farmsand a proposed highway stretching from the coastal town of Valdivia south towards Puerto Montt.

The Coalición para la Conservación de la Cordillera de la Costa (CCCC), a federation of more than a dozen Chilean organizations, began the fight against the coastal highway proposed by the Chilean government. Francisco Solis, coordinator of the CCCC, assembled environmental groups and indigenous leaders to work to reroute the road inland.

In March of 2002, international and Chilean groups formed the Chile Native Forest Campaign (CNF). Guided by Aaron Sanger, director of ForestEthic’s Chile program, the alliance drew public attention to the sale of endangered forest products and worked directly with US corporate customers to stop doing business with Chilean suppliers until they changed their forest practices. I gaze out over the boundless Pacific blue at Bahía San Pedro, the end of the road and the beginning of our trek. The wilderness and water stretch far beyond my vision. Rain is commonplace, but today I am lucky and the sun shines.

We plod along the narrow dirt track winding its way upward through the forest. Except for an earlier solo trip taken by American David Teklen, director of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) Valdivian Ecoregion Project, we are the first gringos to visit the Huillichelocal members of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous nationon their turf. And though we each bring individual perspectives and skills to this venture, our group of five Chileans, four Americans, an Australian couple, a Swiss, and a Canadian share a common vision: to preserve this breathtaking and unique area.

The Valdivian Rainforest holds a significant portion of Chile’s temperate rainforest, and is ranked by Conservation International as one of the globe’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. This area is unique because it was never glaciated. More than 90 percent of the flowering plants and over 70 percent of the animal species here are endemicthey occur nowhere else.

The biodiversity is astounding. The forest and its rivers harbor wildcats, monito de monte (tiny marsupials), river otter, pudu (the world’s smallest deer, at 18 inches high), Darwin’s frog, and many plant species. This southern temperate forest is referred to as siempre verde (forever green) due to the many broadleaf evergreen species.

The forest holds two conifers as well: the manio and the alerce. Known as the “redwood of the south,” the alerce is a gargantuan tree that is exceeded in lifespan only by California’s bristlecone pine.

The alerce is critical in the struggle to preserve this area. High demand for its desirable wood led to increased logging on the private lands that make up the vast majority of this forest. “International demand for alerce is a major factor in the degradation and destruction of the Valdivian Rainforest,” states Gary Hughes, Chile Forest Policy Fellow with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Illegal harvesting is a critical issue as well. We are proposing an international ban on alerce products because we can’t distinguish between wood that is cut legally or illegally.”

Radiata pine (also known as Monterey pine) plays a key role as well. During the 1990s, Chile lost more than five million acres of its native forest and, says Sanger, became the location for “the world’s largest expanse of radiata pine tree farms.” As a result, the CNF is attempting to stop the US import of solid wood products made from radiata pine. Not surprisingly, the US is the leading importer.

I am overwhelmed by the serenity of this place, only about 50 miles from bustling Osorno where we boarded the bus. “The route we just traveled across the Cordillera de la Costa was built for the Huilliche,” explains Solis, as we face the distant Bahía San Pedro. The Huilliche want to communicate with their neighbors, while preserving their native culture.

The roads, which reach fingerlike out to the coast, provide a valuable service to isolated coastal communities. People living in those villages gain access to medical care, outlets for selling and purchasing essential goods, and the ability to interact with the outside world: environmental organizations, tourists, businesses. “Now they can have easier access to the rest of Chile and beyond,” Solis adds, as we continue and the bahía fades from view.

“Easier” is relative. The road to Bahía San Pedro is impassable in the winter, when heavy rain turns the tracks to mud. Even in the occasional summer dry spells, the eight-hour, fifty-mile bus ride is arduous. The bus fills up in Osorno. Passengers picked up in the small villages must sit in the aisle on sacks of grain and vegetables.

Access is one of the key concerns of the CCCC. A paved road farther north leads into the village of Bahía Mansa, the end point of our trek. Tree farms line the highway over the Cordillera de la Costa. Bahía Mansa is a multitude of unsanitary, ramshackle houses with a huge influx of weekend tourists. The relative inaccessibility of Bahía San Pedro is a chief reason for the serenity and simplicity that exists there.

The proposed coastal highway would open the land to logging, tree farms, and development, destroying crucial habitat and permanently affecting the Huilliche’s traditional way of life. Roads carved into the cordillera within the past 30 years show the consequences: large tracts of native forest turned into clearcuts, or into radiata pine and eucalypt tree farms. As Hughes says, “Where the roads go, the plantations go.”

The Chilean government says the road would offer a scenic alternative to congested Highway 5, as well as providing tourist dollars to the Huilliche communities. “The road is seen as a handmaiden for the expansion of Chile’s wood products industry in the Valdivian ecoregion,” counters Sanger. “Unknown and known beneficiaries would profit in the future.” Until recently, Bosque SA, a Chilean-owned timber company, held 150,000 acres, the Chaihuin Venecia, near the proposed highway construction site. Arauco, another Chilean forestry giant that holds nearly two million acres of forest in Chile, is currently the largest landowner in the Valdivian Rainforest.

In January 2003, the CCCC and government agencies signed an agreement that stated the government’s commitment to studying alternate routes for the proposed coastal highway as well as creating and managing protected coastal areas.

Two months later, Bosque SA went bankrupt. The Chilean Supreme Court then reversed a lower court’s decision and struck down logging permits on the property in September of 2003, greatly reducing its market value. Fleet Bank of Boston, the chief creditor on the property, took control. Rainforest Action Network and an anonymous contact within Fleet Bank conferred, and the bank agreed to sell the land to an NGO. The Nature Conservancy bought the land at auction in November of 2003, and will eventually transfer title to a Chilean environmental group.

In June 2003, Chilean President Ricardo Lagos introduced a new native forest protection law that had lain dormant for a decade. If passed, this law would play a key role in providing long-term protection for Chile’s endangered forests. “It will likely take another 20 years to put in place all the management and other structures needed to permanently save the Valdivian coastal rainforest,” WWF’s David Teklen warns.

He’s right. As we approach the village of Manquemapu, a two-hour walk from Bahía San Pedro, we see a man floating alerce logs downstream to be shipped out to an unknown market. The isolated community, lying in a verdant valley below the trail we’re hiking, is selling alerce shingles for roofing. At this point the Huilliche primarily make use of dead or downed trees, but this could change.

“Our goal is to encourage eco-tourism here, rather than logging,” says Solis. “We are working with village leaders to set reasonable prices for guides and other services. Maybe we can convince them preserving alerce will benefit them in the long run.” An information kiosk for visitors is already near completion. That evening, Solis and Teklen meet with village leaders to discuss further plans for trail construction and transportation across the Rio Manquemapu, a swift river that runs through the village.

We wake early the next morning for a 12-hour walk to the village of Condor. The terrain is steep and demanding. We pass numerous stands of old-growth alerce, and two locals building a shelter for weary travelers to use instead of attempting the village-to-village marathon.

Six hours later, we break for lunch in a ravine. A few of us cool off in the stream before clambering up the opposite side of the narrow valley. From a single spot, one can see hundreds of species of plants. I shudder to think what it would be like to stand here amidst endless miles of pine tree farms.

The CNF led to an agreement signed in November of 2003 by Chile’s two largest wood product companiesArauco and CMPCand US/Chilean environmental groups led by ForestEthics. “The [companies] publicly committed to stop converting and promoting the conversion of Chile’s native forests to tree farms,” says Sanger, “and to further protect the approximately one million acres of native forests they own in Chile.” On the day the agreement was signed, CMPC’s spokesperson committed to “develop more sensible ecological and social management for its plantations.” The agreement will help protect the Mapuche from the ruinous effects of industrial tree farming. Existing tree farms surround many indigenous communities, contaminatiing them with pesticides. Tree farms are also greedy consumers of water, creating shortages for neighboring communities.

The village of Condor is clean and stunning. Hundreds of meters below us, a few houses are nestled adjacent to a sandy beach. Cliffs extend into the ocean and the sky, creating a bay sheltered from Pacific storms. No commercial developments, clear cuts, or tree farms scar the land.

We set up camp on the beach. I stroll along the bayshore before night falls and watch dolphins leap just offshore into waves blackened by the darkening sky. The stars are overwhelming. Neither light pollution nor air pollution veils the heavens. This is what it must have been like, I think, before the advent of civilization.

Our pace is less hurried the next day. We walk only five hours to Playa Rada Ranú, a deserted beach near the village of Hueyelhue, getting there minutes before sunset.

Tomorrow we will hike out to Bahía Mansa and go our separate ways. I am sad that we will have to leave, but I feel confident that we will have a positive impact. We are not alone in our wish to preserve this forest and its people. Private landowners are starting to make gestures toward conservation. The Chilean government plans to establish a new national park in June, combining the Valdivia Natural Reserve, Alerce Costero National Monument, and Quita Luto. Much work remains to afford permanent protection of the Valdivian Rainforest. But thousands of people throughout the world are working together to protect this beautiful, remote, and diverse land.

Darren Guyaz is a freelance photographer and writer who lives in Missoula, Montana.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our biweekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.