Chile’s Environmental Challenges

Chile has been a major destination of nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers of every persuasion for years. I feel very privileged to have spent time in this incredibly beautiful area. That said, I saw a few things that were not quite so picturesque and some that were downright disheartening in terms of environmental neglect.

Our first destination in Chile was a very small fishing community called Hornopirén (translates to ‘ice oven’). We took two ferries, a bus and walked the remaining mile to get to our lodgings, an eco-campground called El Cobre (the Spanish word for copper). El Cobre is a bit removed from the rest of Hornopirén and right on the edge of the Pinto Concha Hornopirén fjord. After we got past the lush greenery, the towering mountains and the dolphins playing along the edge of the shore, we noticed the rather inventive use of various types of plastic, glass and trash. Beyond its wooden plank pathways up to gorgeous lookout areas and an extensive garden, El Cobre is unique in its efforts to repurpose things that would otherwise end up in the landfill or the ocean.

An example of Robert’s “reuse” philosophy.

Chile has no government organized recycling program. In order to reduce the impact of visitors to the area, El Cobre’s owner and care taker, a man named Robert, separates the waste generated by campers and his cafe into compostables, plastics and bottles. He fills the plastic bottles with whatever garbage can’t be burned or composted and stacks them up to build retaining walls or divide garden beds into sections as in the picture above. Glass bottles are used to line the paths that connect the various sections of El Cobre.

Fjords are inlets of the ocean. They are typically narrow and situated between steep ridges. Fjords are saline but due to their increased contact with land, a significant amount of freshwater runoff dilutes their salt content. As you stand on the bank of El Cobre and look out across the Pinto Concha Hornopirén fjord, you can’t see any houses or roads on the surrounding land. There’s no obvious human interference … except for the lines of buoys floating in the water. The one in the picture below is a mussel farm but just as common if not more so are salmon farms. These salmon and mussel farms dot even the most remote regions of Chile’s fjord system.

Pinto Concha Hornopirén fjord as view from El Cobre.

There are massive holding tanks along the sides of Hornopiren’s roads. The tanks are filled with juvenile mussels and salmon. They are hatched and reared in fresh water and then transferred from the on-land tanks to the nutrient rich, brackish of water in the fjords. They are fattened up and then harvested and shipped, often to the USA. The fish are then distributed to companies like Walmart and Costco where they are sold at bottom dollar.

Chilean salmon and mussel farmers can sell these otherwise pricey fish for so cheap because their operations are totally unregulated in terms of treatment of employees, environmental impact, and expansion. Due to the remoteness and ruggedness of the fjord region, very few people live there. Consequently, employees must commute from larger cities to the farm location. They are usually away from their families for weeks at a time and receive poor wages in exchange for long hours and dangerous working conditions.

The excess nutrients from the fish feed and waste is throwing the delicate ecosystem of the fjords out of balance. Algae in the fjords consume those nutrients and bloom, spreading far and wide in the water column. These massive algal blooms reduce the clarity of the water and increase its temperature which negatively effects other marine organisms. Home to many aquatic species that can survive only in the unique balance of fresh and salt water, the fjords of Chile are know as a biodiversity hotspot. This essentially means that there are a great number of distinct species in this particular area. Conservationists have made a particular effort to identify and try to protect these biodiversity hotspots. This allows them to concentrate their limited resources and funds on one area while protecting the greatest number of species.

Chile has made some effort to control salmon and mussel farms. They’ve created laws to limit the number of farms and to space them out. The problem is that these laws only apply to new farms being built. All existing farms have been “grandfathered” in and face no legal repercussion for their high numbers or proximity to one another. Employees that try to unionize in order to achieve higher wages and better working conditions are fired on the spot. Farm owners know that there are enough people who need work that they will always be able to find employees desperate enough to tolerate the danger and marginal pay that comes with working on a salmon or mussel farm.

Walmart has been called out — at least on a small scale — for their involvement in such environmentally and socially negligent systems. Walmart representatives even paid the fjords a visit to assess the situation. In spite of this, no changes have been made. You can still buy Chilean farmed salmon for dirt cheap at your local Walmart.

A giant and ancient alerce near Chaiten.

The fjords are not Chile’s only exploited natural resource. The county has two tree species that have been designated as natural monuments. The alerce (in the cypress family) and the monkey puzzle tree (a type of evergreen). The alerce is the second longest lived species of tree in the world. It is frequently compared to California’s redwood for the strength and durability of its wood. The monkey puzzle tree (sometimes referred to as the Chilean pine, though it has no relation to the pine family) bears cones which contain large seeds. Those seeds or piñones, are a staple in the diet of Pewenches, a subgroup of the Mapuche, the indigenous inhabitants of Chile. Like the alerce, the monkey puzzle tree has very hardy wood and a very long lifespan. In fact, the monkey puzzle tree has been around so long that it is referred to as a living fossil.

South America is home to the second largest temperate rainforest in the world — a good portion of which exists in Chile. The alerce especially depends on the high rainfall and relatively constant and moderate temperature that characterize the temperate rainforests. Monkey puzzle trees grow in this region as well but their habitat specifications are a bit broader; they can grow in many coastal regions as well. Beyond habitat for these unique trees, temperate rainforests are home to a countless number of other plant and animal species that can’t survive anywhere else.

Young monkey puzzle trees in Parque National Heuheuque.

The other, more unfortunate similarity between the alerce and the monkey puzzle tree is that they are both endangered. Ever since the development of agriculture as the primary means of obtaining food, forests of Chile (and many other places) have been cleared to open up land for farming. Even before modern logging techniques were developed, Chile’s sprawling, ancient forests were cut down by hand or set on fire and allowed to burn uncontrollably.

The alerce and the monkey puzzle tree were logged extensively for the quality of their wood to build everything from homes to bridges. In the 1970s, Chile’s government declared both trees natural monuments, protecting the remaining populations from logging and human interference of any kind. This measure was obviously a step in the right direction for preserving these two ecologically and culturally significant species, but the rest of Chile’s less superlative tree species are still being logged and exported. In fact, these days Chile is logging native forests in order clear land to make room for tree plantations.

Almost all agricultural land was once native forest.

These plantations grow non-native tree species like Monterey pine and eucalyptus. Both are fast growing and invasive. These qualities have made them very profitable as plantation trees around the world. Both species are fire adapted, meaning they tolerate the presence of fire and recover well from it because they have been in direct contact with fire for centuries. The Monterey pine is native to California which experiences, and in fact needs, lots of fire to keep its forests healthy.

Temperate rainforests that get up to six meters of rain per year like those in Chile are not accustomed to fire. Old, extremely slow growing trees do not respond to fire in the same way that slim and quickly regenerating trees like eucalyptus do. Since Chile has added these fire-adapted species to their landscape, they have been experiencing — you guessed it — significantly more wildfire. Fires may start in plantations, but will quickly spread to native forests — burning hot enough to kill even mature trees. They spread to towns, destroying homes and businesses.

It was hard to see the effects that the salmon and mussel farms and deforestation had on the beautiful land of Chile. My group spent a lot of time talking about how these problems could be remedied. Money, of course, was always a major factor in these discussions, but even more prominently we argued about whether or not something should be done about these issues. As tourists from a very different country with very different ways of living, what right do we have to condemn the way that Chileans are treating their land? Is it fair that we demand Chile stop farming salmon and stop cutting down trees just so we will have a beautiful place to visit and photograph? The other side of the argument is that we are all citizens of the world and as such we must take every measure possible to protect it.

We acknowledge that Chile is abusing it’s natural resources like its fjords and forests in order to build an economy lucrative enough to sustain it’s growing population. Having done this over and over in the United States, we wonder if we have the right or responsibility to stop this trend. Are we justified in stopping this nation from providing an income for its people because we are concerned that the people trying to earn a living off the land are acutally just handing their beautiful country over to a few greedy business men who are making all the profit?

It’s a debate that will be on my mind for many years to come.

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