ENDANGERED ECOSYSTEMS: The Inspiring Story of the Ahuenco Park
Text: Andreea Lotak; Photos from Ahuenco Park's archive · 8 min read
On the western coast of the Island of Chiloé lies a privately protected area of 1,120 ha (2,768 acres), which is a lesson on the power that a handful of determined individuals have to produce change. Taking their commitment to conservation one step forward, they decided in the early 90s that protecting an ecosystem isn’t only the prerogative of the government or of projects with major funding. Thirteen associates got together and bought 300 ha that protected the coast and some of the best preserved old-growth forests remaining on Chiloé. That was the first step in the creation of the Ahuenco Park.
Returning from our hike in Tantauco Park on the island of Chiloé, we hoped we could venture to visit Ahuenco Park as well. As it turns out, even when you have two years to travel, tasks and time catch up with you and you have to accept that you can’t do it all. This story is a bit different than what we’ve been putting up on the blog, as we’re talking about a place that we haven’t visited ourselves. However, we did get the chance to meet Gonzalo Pineda, the Director of the foundation that manages Ahuenco Park, after he kindly agreed to get a coffee with us in Castro and tell us more about this interesting conservation project. Its uniqueness and the importance it holds for inspiring others to follow a similar path is what determined us to write about it although we didn’t get the chance to visit. We now have (yet) another reason to come back to Chile.
"He showed us that the state isn’t the only one that can do something for conservation"
“In our case the core concept is ‘conserving together’. There are two key words here: conservation and how we do it - together”, was one of the first things Mr. Pineda told us as we started recording the interview. He then mentioned the contribution that Doug Tompkins had when he started creating the Pumalín Park in 1991 in Chilean Patagonia. “He did something incredibly important at the time: he changed the paradigm. For me as a sociologist it was very interesting. He showed us that the state isn’t the only one that can do something for conservation. Us, as individuals, we have the duty to do our part as much as we can. We bought the first parcel in Ahuenco in 1994, at a time when people were starting to protest against the substitutions of native forest with eucalyptus plantations in Chiloé. But we realized that just protesting was incomplete. So, 13 of us looked into our wallets and pulled out the money necessary to buy the first 300 ha of land in Ahuenco. I believe that civil society has the obligation to act, whether it’s billionaires, millionaires, poor indigenous communities like the ones in Mapu Lahual, hippie groups like us [laughs], nationals, foreigners, it doesn’t matter. We started with 300 ha. Then we got to buy the southern sector, another 500 ha. The third one was the sector that got us to the border of the national park, which we could buy and add to Ahuenco thanks to a generous USD $300,000 donation from a University of California professor from the USA. Now we have 1,120 ha and we’re negotiating the purchase of two more parcels in the north that would get us to the Chepu river.” After 23 years of being around, the park has increased in size and the association has reached 46 stakeholders, including the US professor, who take pride in their collaborative work. “It’s rare in societies nowadays”, says Mr. Pineda about the capacity of taking decisions and managing a conservation area without conflicts within the large group involved. The fact that the park now has a border with the northern portion of the Chiloé National Park means that its impact is even greater: it creates a larger protected area with a corridor for wildlife migration.
"It’s conservation with a socio-economic background"
The idea of “togetherness” so central to this project expands to include the community of Chepu living outside the park. It wasn’t without difficulties, but the foundation has done a lot of efforts to include the people as part of this protected ecosystem. “We see the connection we’ve managed to establish with the community as one of the greatest riches of the park’s patrimony. Our view of Ahuenco is a regional one, one that sees the area as an ecosystem which includes the communities, as well as nature. It’s conservation with a socio-economic background. What makes us proud are the commitments we have with the fishing community, the agreements that we have signed with local tour operators, a common initiative with the local school in Chepu, and our participation in the local celebrations. More recently we’ve started a project to salvage the archeological patrimony of the area together with the community. We’re still in the administrative phase of putting all the pieces together.” After an archeological excavation a few years ago, the sites and the artifacts found have positioned Chepu as the oldest known human settlement in the Archipelago of Chiloé, and the foundation behind the Ahuenco Park has started working on finding ways to bring the benefits of this discovery to the local community. The plan is to create a museum that mixes both the human history of the area, as well as its ecological importance.
"Ahuenco is one of the southernmost points in the world where the Humboldt penguin arrives"
As far as biodiversity goes, the Ahuenco park protects trees that are over 350 years old. Although the endangered Guaitecas cypress is scarce within its boundaries, the ecosystem of these untouched old-growth Valdivian temperate rainforests has a major international importance and is underrepresented within the protected areas of Chile. Ahuenco hosts most of the flora and fauna present on the island of Chiloé, with the highlight being a Humboldt and Magellanic penguin colony that comes annually to the park from September through February. “Ahuenco is one of the southernmost points in the world where the Humboldt penguin arrives”, Mr. Pineda tells us. In addition, there are endangered Chiloé foxes, Darwin’s frogs, guiñas (the smallest species of wild cat in the Americas), Black snails, and pudús (smallest species of deer in the world). “There are very few protected coastal ecosystems in Chile: Tantauco, Ahuenco, the Valdivian Coastal Reserve, the Coastal Alerce National Park.” A feature that distinguishes the ecosystem of this region in Chile is that during the last glacial period these coastal lands were not covered by ice and became a refuge for the flora and fauna which here have a much longer continuity than in the Andean ecosystems. On the island of Chiloé the massive substitutions of old-growth forests with eucalyptus plantations have become a widely acknowledged problem. Eucalyptus wood is mainly used to produce cellulose and in construction. Due to the eucalyptus being an introduced species to the climate and ecosystems of Chile, mainly from Australia, there are real environmental concerns regarding soil erosion, degradation and irresponsible water consumption. On top of this, native forests of evergreen species of trees like the coigüe or the canelo are being cut down for construction and firewood. Every acre of these disappearing forests is therefore worth protecting as fast as possible, and responsible management plans of resources need to be negotiated with the communities.
The penguin colony on the coast of the Ahuenco Park
Naturally, since the park is so rich in biodiversity, we asked of scientific initiatives within its boundaries. “We’re an open space for such projects and have multiple agreements and partnerships in this direction. University students in practice have offered environmental education programs in the park and have given tourist information. These students are basically volunteers, but we think that ethically speaking we need to insure them some basic benefits for the work they’re doing. We offer them the transport from Ancud [the nearest town to Ahuenco], accommodation and food, as well as 80% of what is obtained from visitor fees from the campsites and entrance to the penguin colony”, started Mr. Pineda. “We have had many students coming to do their doctorate theses in the park. We offer them the accommodation because most of the research done in the park has been through these students or through university professors that have come to realize more in-depth studies.” Being a relatively small operation, the park hasn’t had the necessary funds to do research on its own, we learn from Mr. Pineda. And because funding for such a unique project like the Ahuenco Park is a curiosity for us we ask the question and receive an interesting answer, which made us think of a sort of conservation timeshare.
"We can show that people with more limited financial resources can still make a difference"
“We do have very high maintenance costs. Our operational costs are about USD $25 per hectare per year. CONAF [the Chilean authority that manages national parks, reserves and forestry] spends USD $1/ha/year. Our funds are firstly paying the ranger’s salary. Then basic maintenance: trails, three horses, the campgrounds, the cabins. The way we fund ourselves is mainly through a monthly contribution from each of the 46 stakeholders. We each pay CLP $40,000 [USD $60] monthly. Then there is the revenue coming from the park, through the campsites for example, or from the CLP $2,000 [USD$3.00] entrance fee to see the penguin colony. We’ve obtained USD $20,000 from public funds in 23 years”. Then came the large donation from the US professor whose contribution got Ahuenco to the border of the Chiloe national park three years ago. “One person gave us a lot. We asked Phil: ‘out of all the privately protected areas, why us?’. His daughter had heard about our story and then shared it with him. He said he chose to donate to us because we had over 20 years of experience, with more than 40 stakeholders in an area protecting a very important ecosystem. It was the inspiring story of the individual power and dedication to protect an area, our story, which determined him to give us the money. It can inspire others to think about what can be done without waiting for the state to protect an area. We have in our team of stakeholders: biologists, sociologists, veterinarians, lawyers, agronomists, the former director of the Museum of Natural History from Santiago, photographers; people from an upper middle class layer, with a good level of education and professional experience. We can show that people with more limited financial resources can still make a difference, but giving credit, of course, to those that afforded to undertake more massive conservation projects. Two of our previous stakeholders that have passed away have had their ashes brought to the park. It’s an attachment to something that we’ve succeeded in doing.”
"If we focus on promoting tourism, it is so that (...) we can bring the benefits of visitation to the local community"
As our discussion is coming to an end, we truly regret not having had the opportunity to physically explore the park because, beyond its inspiring story, it is also a beautiful corner of pristine nature. Sustainable tourism is part of the park’s management vision. It’s less a question of quantity, however. Annually there are around 500 people coming to visit, including the stakeholders and their families, with a large majority arriving between December and March. A basic campground and two cabins can accommodate those who want to spend the night. A ranger and his family live in a nearby cabin as well. “We recommend to allow at least three days for visiting”, adds Mr. Pineda. “Within the 46 of us we have all sorts of ideas and values. Some want to eliminate the campground. However, the campground is a tool for conservation, I believe. It’s a key strategic point. If tourists show up and there’s nothing, they will camp wherever they want, they’ll set up the tent on the beach and leave behind trash. If we have this campground we can direct them towards this one spot where it’s easier to contain the impacts.” The community in Chepu is one of the beneficiaries of the park’s opening to the public. “If we focus on promoting tourism, it is so that together with the local tour operators, after establishing necessary norms and regulations and assessing the capacity of sustainable visitation, we can bring the benefits of this visitation to the local community. In Chepu there are four or five different tour operators. They mostly offer services for crossing the river and for visiting the penguin colony and the park. There are 8.5 km of walking to get to the colony after the river crossing, partially outside the park and partially through it. The trail is not too difficult and it’s an experience in itself. We constantly look to improve relations with the community and to get mutual benefits that can enrich the park and the community.”
"Their environmental consciousness has evolved a lot"
One such initiative that Mr. Pineda recurrently mentioned during the interview is the environmental work in which they have involved the community. Whether it’s about protecting the park, or responsibly managing coastal resources in the region, at the core of what Ahuenco means seems to be the idea of conservation done together. “The fishermen some 30 years ago used the penguins’ meat as bait for fish. That was their practice. Nowadays, we’re all together protecting this penguin colony. Sometimes it’s them that call our attention if they spot practices that are invasive to the penguins when there are organized visits to the colony. Their environmental consciousness has evolved a lot.” While some of the fishermen have become tour operators, tourism wasn’t the main trigger for this change. According to Mr. Pineda, it was the result of many years of work with the community and of generating awareness of sustainable practices.
Although we didn’t visit Ahuenco, its story inspired us from afar. It’s encouraging to think of what people can do when working together, and how successful an initiative can be when driven by a strong commitment to conservation. We left the café in Castro and said goodbye to Gonzalo Pineda knowing that one day soon we’ll have to come back to Chiloé just to visit this amazing conservation project.