CONSERVATION IN TIERRA DEL FUEGO: Getting to Know Karukinka
Text & Photos: Andreea Lotak · 10 min read
Spanning over 300,000 hectares that go from the pampas to the coast, the Karukinka Natural Park is an iconic project that the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has in Tierra del Fuego, Chile. Tucked in a valley where rainy clouds always gather, the trail called La Paciencia (Patience) is the place where we hiked for multiple days and where we suffered and marveled. Once back to Punta Arenas we had the chance to sit down with Daniela Droguett, who manages the regional office of WCS Chile, to learn more about their work and about Karukinka.
Within a few hours of starting the hike down La Paciencia, a cold, thick rain made sure that we knew what we had gotten ourselves into. By the time we had set up our tent, everything was either damp or wet. Throughout the almost six days of being on trail the sun shone upon us just enough to give us the optimism to keep going. Among the mud, the fallen trees and the ceaseless rain, we discovered an incredible place: enchanted forests with old logs that had turned into moss and fungi gardens, a stunning biodiversity of mushrooms, streams surrounded by lush vegetation, strong rivers, endemic Fuegian culpeo foxes, skittish guanacos, humbling mountains, and the eerie landscapes of the castoreras. The latter are complex networks of beaver dams that have been altering the landscapes of Tierra del Fuego in Chile and Argentina for decades. An introduced species, beavers are now perceived as the main environmental threat within the park, and many efforts are directed toward controlling their populations and removing dams that have turned rivers into terraced lakes. Karukinka means “our land” in the old local Selk’nam language. Although it’s a conservation initiative on private land, it is a space where everyone can get immersed in the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego and feel strangely at home. The pristine, old growth forests are like a portal to travel back in time to a space still unaltered by human developments. The remoteness of this place is in itself a drive for adventurers from all corners of Chile and the world, but its importance goes beyond that. Karukinka is a sanctuary for threatened ecosystems, endangered species and great biodiversity; a land with a story of exploitation which is now recovering, and a landscape of inspiring beauty. All that made it a top priority conservation destination for our project.
We were eager to learn more about what went into creating and managing the park after a challenging and beautiful week spent there. Forwarding to one sunny afternoon in Punta Arenas, we were sitting in the regional office of the WCS with Daniela and striking up a conversation about their work in Chile, the story of Karukinka and what makes it so special. Daniela Droguett has been working with the WCS for nine years, with the last two being the regional manager. Beforehand she did what she loved best within the WCS: developing the educational program to involve the community in conservation matters. It quickly became apparent that she sees conservation, education and scientific research as the core areas of focus for the organization. Karukinka, which is open for the public, is no exception. Yet tourism, though allowed in the park, is not a priority. Although the chapters and regional offices set their goals according to the individual challenges they each encounter, there is a common thread for them all. Recently the WCS launched a plan called the “Strategy 2020” to focus their conservation efforts in 15 priority areas around the world, which are home to over 50% of the planet’s biodiversity. Patagonia is one of these areas. Following the strategy’s three lines of action - to share scientific knowledge for better management of conservation efforts (Discover); to preserve the ecological integrity of land and marine protected areas (Protect); and to activate a conservation movement among a diverse global audience (Inspire) - the regional office in Chile has defined its own trajectory. Recently, in a joint effort with several other organizations, they’ve started developing a network of marine areas of high importance throughout the entirety of Chilean Patagonia, with the purpose of protecting and providing a sustainable management plan for these biodiverse waters.
"It was the biggest donation in the world done for private conservation until that date"
The Karukinka Natural Park is a concept with a strong power to inspire. In the mission of the project, the park is called “a natural laboratory”: a place that brings people closer to nature and a space where they can learn about conserving and loving this unique ecosystem. It is also the first project that the WCS has had in Chile. It started in 2004 with a land donation, one of the only three projects worldwide where the organization is managing a land that they own. Daniela told us a bit about the story of how this came to be and the environmental challenges they had to tackle from the beginning:
“Some time ago, this land was mostly split among different ‘estancias’, or sheep and cattle ranches. There were some limited timber extraction activities. Then, in the 90s, appeared the Trilium logging company, who bought several of the estancias to start exploiting the wood. They had an ambitious plan to create a real timber extraction industry in the area, so they started cutting down the Notofagus trees: lengas, coigües, and ñirres. Their destiny was to become wood chips, particle boards. They weren’t even going to be used for making furniture. It was a time when this kind of exploitation was well received in the Magallanes region. They were doing it on a large scale around Puerto Natales as well. However, in Tierra del Fuego there was a social and political movement that formed against this initiative. There were others too that were supporting it because there weren’t many options in Porvenir and the surrounding areas to make a living and people were thinking that this would bring jobs. Those opposing it looked for support both nationally and internationally to find ways to stop or stall the actions of the logging operation. Trilium managed to extract the lenga wood from two areas, Puerto Arturo and the infamous parcel 10 within the park where one can see all the stumps left, but from there on they had to stop for not meeting the requirements and due to governmental decisions. Eventually they had to file for bankruptcy because the accumulated debt was significant.
"Goldman Sachs acquired a portfolio of distressed debt which included notes from Trillium Corporation related to the properties in Chilean and Argentinean Tierra del Fuego and determined that they wanted to donate those for conservation. Eventually they selected the WCS to be the receiver of the donation. Therefore, we are now the owner of the lands, with the agreement that they will forever be conserved. It was the biggest donation in the world done for private conservation until that date. When we started to work in the park the beavers were already there, as they have been since the 1950s, together with the mink, another invasive species. The problems created by the beavers have been regarded as the main threat in the area, but there were others as well. Of course, the forest clearing due to timber extraction. Then there was the potential ‘mining’ of the peat bogs. In Chile the peat is considered a mineral good, not vegetation. Therefore they are subject to the laws that govern mining and are open for anyone who is interested in extracting them for different uses. They can extract the mosses and use them for soil enrichment, toilet paper or paper towels as they are good absorbents. They can be used as a fuel too, because under the bogs there are highly flammable fossil residues. You dry them out a bit and they catch fire right away. But now the peat bogs from Karukinka, which are studied internationally, will never be extracted”.
"All the species residing in forest ecosystems in the region are concentrated here"
When she mentioned the peat bogs, I had a flashback of being in the middle of probably the greatest expense that I’ve seen in Patagonia. I looked toward our friends in the distance, with heavy rain and gusts of wind turning the landscape into a primordial scene where some humans that had migrated to the wrong corner of the world were trying to find their way out to survive. The day before we had stood in the middle of this, with somewhat clear skies, in awe and taking pictures of the colorful bogs. I hear the voice of our friend saying in resignation and with a sense of humor: “Asi es la Paciencia!”/“This is how Paciencia is!”. It rewards you with amazing scenery, wildlife and flora, but at the price of its hostile and ever-changing weather. So "what makes Karukinka so special in Tierra del Fuego?" we asked Daniela.
“It’s the depository of the highest forest density that exists at that latitude. Around it the ‘pampas’ and low vegetation dominate the landscape. Therefore, all the species residing in forest ecosystems in the region are concentrated here. Apart from wildlife, we consider the diversity of the vegetation itself: extensive forests of lenga and coigüe, large peat bogs which regulate the hydrology and capture large quantities of CO2. This is a contribution that Karkuinka brings not only to the region, but to the world. These peat bogs and forests are probably absorbing carbon in the air and pollution coming from other distant places. As far as wildlife goes, the guanacos have found a refuge here. There’s a lot of them living in Karukinka. It’s a habitat for the endemic Fuegian culpeo fox, and there are many species of owls and of birds of prey. On the coast we have a reproductive colony of Southern elephant seals which is one of the only three that exist outside of Antarctica. The great majority of these species stay here year-round and some migrate regionally”.
"It’s the ultimate goal of the park: for it to be more than a visiting site, to be a place of more meaningful experiences"
As part of the park’s mission to be a natural laboratory, and due to its unique characteristics, we learned that there are lots of scientific programs that take place within its boundaries. Scientists and researchers from Chilean universities, as well as from abroad, have spent time here documenting the effects of climate change, studying the peat bogs, assessing the marine biodiversity, and counting the amazing mushroom species. Aside from scientific programs, Karukinka is also hosting multidisciplinary initiatives where art students have come to find their inspiration here and then spread it to others through their work. Slowly the conversation made its way to the sensitive area of tourism mixed with conservation. It’s a gray zone. It has to be done responsibly in order to respect the goal of preserving the park’s ecosystems.
"Tourism is not yet a focus for the park. Firstly we have to keep analyzing how the ecosystems behave. Within the management plan there is a part dedicated to public use, which includes investigators, researchers, scientists, tourists, students, the community. People can come to learn, to get inspired. Obviously, the campsites and the trails available are part of this public use plan, but our work isn’t mainly dedicated to tourism. Opening the park is also a big responsibility because over 300,000 hectares of land is a lot and we have to choose well where we invest our efforts and resources. Our rangers’ mission is firstly to monitor conservation in the park. So whether I want more tourism, I don’t know. Personally, no… (laughs). As far as the organization’s view goes, until we’re sure we can do it sustainably and with a good internal infrastructure, we probably want to keep it limited. Ideally, the whole region of Tierra del Fuego would focus on ‘tourism of special interests’. It’s so remote, it’s expensive to get here, it’s almost impossible to reach us. This naturally attracts only those who really want to find a way to do it, not the masses. We would love if the people who visit Karukinka see it as a learning experience, who don’t just come for the beauty, but also to understand why it’s being preserved and why it’s important to conserve such ecosystems. Ideally they could understand why the WCS is invested here, and also why us, as human beings, need to protect nature more. Our lifestyle is centered around taking something out of nature and its biodiversity, on exploiting its resources, so we also need to give back. We’re the custodians of the park, but every visitor, everyone who goes there can become an ambassador of why these conservation efforts matter. It’s the ultimate goal of the park: for it to be more than a visiting site, to be a place of more meaningful experiences. I’m probably thinking of an ideal world, I don’t know how possible that is. But we do want to at least have responsible visitors, people that leave no trace, that bring out their garbage. On the other hand we don’t want to develop an expensive, elite tourism either because it segregates the locals. We have to find the balance in order to allow the community to know what their land has to offer. We’ve worked with school children from Porvenir and almost none of them know southern Tierra del Fuego. That to me is terrible, but also a motivation to bring them here because they are the future, they should be growing into adults who have learned to love their land”.
Finishing the trail and getting out of Karukinka, we were beat up and grateful. There were many moments where we stopped and just stared at the landscape around us. As we made our way along the Paciencia trail, soaked by the rain but then encouraged to continue by the warm sun shining rarely upon us, we understood well what a blessing it had been that this land was under protection. Around it the barren mountains stand as evidence of a different destiny, where exploitation wasn’t stopped in its tracks. Visiting such a place with consciousness and respect for its ecosystems contributes to its conservation mission, through entrance fees, donations, and through shared knowledge and experience. In the ending statement of the interview, Daniela summed up the vision for the future of the park: “we’re an organization who is genuinely concerned with the conservation of this area, not as a form of activism, but more with the consciousness that it should involve the local community as well. We know we need to grow further as a park and for that end we are working on developing a plan and new strategies to receive visitors, but always in a sustainable way”. As the flow of tourists to Tierra del Fuego and to other remote areas grows, it’s up to us as individuals as well to take responsibility for our actions in such places.