Aysén Region of Patagonia Chile
In association with Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF), Round River is performing a landscape-scale ecological assessment for Chilean Patagonia. The objective is to identify priority areas, ecosystems and species, as well as cultural values, for conservation through the development of a Conservation Decision Support Tool for the 11 million hectare Aysén region. Such a large-scale assessment will be the first in Chilean Aysén Patagonia, and will serve local institutions, researchers, and communities to inform management decision-making into the future.
Chilean Patagonia is a region known for its incomparable beauty with a reputation as one of the last wild places on earth. This portrayal, though partly accurate, belies the reality of a landscape where human impacts, and threats, are pervasive. Overgrazing and human-wildlife conflict are on the rise, and development (in the forms of hydroelectricity, aquaculture, and mining) once held in check by the sheer remoteness of the region now lurk impatiently in the shadows. Tourism is also skyrocketing, having increased by 20% in the previous annum, in an influx of both Chilean nationals and foreigners seeking adventure in the far south. Tourism could prove to be a boon for local economies, but only if it is developed in such a way that it conserves, not degrades, the region’s sensitive environments – the rhetoric of sustainable ecotourism is there, but effective ways and means are lagging behind.
An extensive public lands network is present in southern Chile, including National Parks and Forest Reserves in the Aysén region totaling 5.2 million ha, or roughly half of the region’s total territory. Most notable among these is Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest National Park in Chile and fourth largest in South America. However, much of Bernardo O’Higgins (and other National Parks) could best be described as “paper” Parks, with limited enforcement and oversight from CONAF, the government agency entrusted with the Park administration, as these areas remain vulnerable to aquaculture, poaching, illegal timber harvest, and other threats. Similarly, Forest Reserves, also managed by CONAF and comprising a large percentage of Aysén Patagonia, provide no real protection nor has any prioritization been accomplished to identify lands within the reserve system most valuable for conservation and needing protection.
Outside of National Parks and Forest Reserves, Aysén Patagonia is primarily comprised of private lands, mostly in valleys and river bottoms, areas that also contain some of the most critical habitats for wildlife. Such habitats are underrepresented in the current National Parks network (whereas rock and ice habitats are overrepresented).
Our proposed Assessment will identify areas within National Parks, Reserves and privately-owned areas of particular biological significance, and demonstrate where corridors could be most successfully established to connect neighboring wildland areas. It will also lay the groundwork for organizing broad-scale conservation action in concert with, and not opposition of, private citizens and landowners.
The geographical extent under consideration are the lands within the region of Aysén. For the elements most comprehensively representing the landscape characteristics and values, we are proposing the following as a priori targets for a Conservation Decision Support Tool in Chilean Aysén Patagonia:
(1) Wild rivers: The Rivers Baker and Pascua are among the most-wild and stunning in the world. Unfortunately, this has not conferred these majestic watercourses immunity from a proposed megadams project (HidroAysén) which was thwarted only by the narrowest of margins. These rivers remain vulnerable, with the dam proposals having been tabled but not nullified.
(2) Fjords ecosystems: Fjord estuary ecosystems are globally rare, and Chile’s unique coastal ecosystems are rich in marine and coastal resources. In Katalalixar National Reserve, as elsewhere, there is mounting pressure from industrial aquaculture, which threatens to displace local artisanal fishers and destroy marine habitat. Baseline data on these ecosystems is conspicuously lacking, and must be generated in order to document changes brought about by development.
(3) Ice fields-Climate change: The Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields are the largest freshwater reserves in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. Chile is considered “highly vulnerable” to climate change, and the melting Ice Fields are on the front lines. As an institution, CONAF has fixed its gaze on scientific monitoring and ecotourism in and around the Ice Fields, but there are larger questions of ecosystem resilience and socio-cultural adaptability related to the rapid environmental changes occurring in these sectors.
(4) Huemul Deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus): Huemul, a species of cervid featured on the Chilean Coat of Arms, is critically endangered and the subject of increasing conservation concern at regional and national levels. Currently, they occur in highly fragmented populations from central Chile to the Magallanes Region (far south), the most significant (global) population occurring in Aysén.
(5) Guanaco (Lama guanicoe): Guanaco are a species of wild camelid native to southern South America; they are obligates of steppe and grassland habitats, and are consequently rare in Chile. Comprising the primary prey of Puma (Puma concolor) where they occur, they may be considered a key regulator of ecosystem processes.
(6) Austral Vizcacha (Lagidium wolffsohni): These rodents of the Chinchillidae family are rock obligates, and may thus be utilized as an indicator of ecosystem health for montane and alpine environments. They are listed as an IUCN data deficient species.
(7) Non-native Salmonids (Salmonidae spp.): Several species of non-native salmonids, including Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) and Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) were introduced to Chile in the first half of the 20th century for commercial and sport purposes. Impacts of these introductions include habitat degradation, increased competition with and predation of native fishes, and disease transmission, resulting in 100% of native freshwater fish species being considered as threatened or endangered. This situation is seriously complicated by important economic relationships between Salmonids and communities at both broad (i.e., industry) and fine (e.g., fishers, guides) scales.
(8) Indigenous group(s): Historically, a considerable portion of Chilean Patagonia was occupied by the Kawésqar, or Alacalufe, a nomadic seafaring people who predominated in the coastal sphere. The ways and means of effectively involving these peoples in this planning will be explored.