Gary Hughes is a graduate student in the University of Montana Environmental Studies Program, who is traveling and researching conservation issues in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. The things he misses most about Montana are skiing in the trees and working with the Missoula grassroots solidarity organization Community Action for Justice in the Americas.

Monday, 26 Nov 2001

PARQUE PUMALIN, Chile

A good pair of rubber boots is an important asset when walking wet, muddy trails through a dense evergreen forest. They are less desirable, however, when hiking a rough gravel road in the warm afternoon sun. Sweaty feet aside, botas de goma are a necessary part of your wardrobe in many parts of the Chilean and Argentine Patagonian forests.

A month ago, Lucas Chiappe of the Argentine environmental organization Proyecto Lemu was happy to see me with rubber boots. Lucas is an avid naturalist and photographer, and he has lived with his family in Argentine Patagonia for more than 25 years. I was helping him clean an irrigation ditch on his family’s organic farm; persistent rains had clogged the ditch with debris, causing it to overflow in the wrong places. “It’s so good that you brought your rubber boots with you,” exclaimed Lucas, as he cleared brush with a machete while I shoveled and raked material out of the swollen canal.

I was visiting Lucas as part of an extended trip in Chile and Argentina to gather information for my graduate projects in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Montana. My hope is that my research on conservation strategies, ecology, and environmental law will support groups like Proyecto Lemu and the Chilean environmental organization Defensores del Bosque Chileno in gaining new international protections for the temperate forests of the southern cone. The proposed protection area is known as the Gondwana Forests Sanctuary and focuses mostly on Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia, though there is interest in broadening the project to include all southern hemisphere forests containing species that can be traced back to the ancient Gondwana continent.

This far-reaching and idealistic proposal to increase protection for the unique temperate ancient forest ecosystems of the southern hemisphere forms the basis for an integrated conservation campaign by an international network of environmental NGOs. Because of the varied goals of the campaign — from protecting wild areas to promoting sustainable forestry — the use of the word “sanctuary” can be confusing. Often the proposal is simply referred to as the Gondwana Project as a way of emphasizing the common and ancient characteristics shared by the temperate southern hemisphere regions.

Though the campaign takes many forms, the vision of the Gondwana Forests Sanctuary for the Patagonian region is based on principles of conservation biology and bioregional economics. The reserve system design that I am researching is based on the importance of the in situ protection of biological diversity by implementing regional planning. The work of Lucas Chiappe and Proyecto Lemu is indicative of this strategy. One of Lucas’ main projects has been to promote a corridor of protected areas for the long strip of north Patagonian forest that extends along the eastern flanks of the Andes on the Chile-Argentina border. The corridor will build on the already established national parks in the Argentine provinces of Neuquen, Rio Negro, and Chubut by creating new provincial parks that will connect the national parks.

Lucas says he really started campaigning for the corridor after participating in the 1994 international temperate forest conference organized by the Native Forest Network in Missoula, Mt. He helped make an award-winning documentary video in 1996 about the proposed corridor, which has contributed to awareness of and enthusiasm for the project. In the past year, many groups involved with the Argentine National Parks system have started promoting the eco-regional corridor, including long-time Argentine native forest advocate Daniel Paz. In August, the natural resource and foreign relations committees of the Argentine National Congress passed resolutions declaring the Gondwana Project to be of national interest, and the eco-regional corridor the best means of demonstrating Argentina’s commitment to the international protected area proposal.

This afternoon, Lucas and Proyecto Lemu seem a world away, although they are really less than 100 miles to the east. Because of the international nature of my project, I have returned to Chile. I am walking along the Camino Austral, north of Chaiten, through Parque Pumalin. Parque Pumalin is possibly the most significant private conservation initiative in all of the Americas; I have had the pleasure to spend several amazing and wondrous days here. Tonight I will stay at Cascadas Escondidas, a former military encampment now transformed into a comfortable campground in the midst of Chile’s Valdivian rainforest, and tomorrow I will travel south along the Camino Austral, further into Patagonia.

One of the key roles for North Americans involved with the Gondwana Project is to draw international attention to threats posed by mega-development projects to the ancient forests in the southern cone. Even after spending a full day lost in the splendor of the rainforest, it is impossible to forget that many dangers lie on the horizon. I have appointments in Coihaique, in Aysen province, to learn more about Alumysa, a $2.7 billion hydroelectric and aluminum smelter project proposed by the Canadian mining company NORANDA. I would enjoy staying in Pumalin longer, but duty calls, and I must travel south.