2019 Christianson Fellow Mariel Lutz is spending six months in Chile to assist in water conservation projects with The Nature Conservancy. While the major focus of her work is the Santiago Water Fund to sustainably manage the Maipo River Basin, she also helps conservation efforts in Chile’s Valdivian Coastal Reserve—a unique and threatened ecosystem. Here she shares her first trip to the Reserve.
As the plane gained altitude, I got my first full view of Santiago from the air. Buildings rose up from the ground and carpeted the valley, then ended just as quickly as they had appeared, falling away to farm fields and the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. After heading south for about an hour, we landed in the city of Valdivia and I started my journey to The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Valdivian Coastal Reserve.
From Valdivia, we took a ferry to reach Chaihuín, the small town on the northern edge of the Reserve. The road to Chaihuín hugged the coast and I glimpsed the Pacific Ocean, its whitecaps crashing on the rocks below. Things felt so different from the bustle of Santiago, and a calm vibe wove its way down from the surrounding hills and into the office situated on the Chaihuín River.
The road through town is paved but it switches to dirt soon after you enter the Reserve. I took this winding dirt road along the water and by houses and farms as I made my way to Huiro, an indigenous Mapuche community within the Reserve. The Reserve works with the local communities to ensure that both the environment and the people thrive, as each one relies on the other. Many local people work at the Reserve or with TNC to develop sustainable agricultural practices in the community.
This was my first experience in a rainforest of any kind. I watched as different trees, flowers and views flashed by my window and I simply sat there, wide-eyed, soaking it all in.
The rangers and I wound through the Reserve via pickup truck and stopped at a trailhead, where we entered the forest. The bright sun and dusty roads had made the environment seem dry, but as soon as we ducked under the cover of the trees the forest came alive. Lush plant life surrounded us on all sides as we walked down a boardwalk through a grove of Alerce trees, some of which were more than 1,000 years old.
Our next spot was the northern border of the Reserve, along the Chaihuín River. I walked with one of the rangers along the river and took GPS coordinates for a map that workers at the Reserve can use to collaborate with local farmers to determine where cattle can roam. On the way back we stopped to get another set of coordinates to help plan and develop a trail.
My project with the Valdivian Coastal Reserve involves developing connections for the Reserve. I’m currently investigating potential partnerships, such as U.S.-based study abroad programs and academic connections. The first step is to invite these organizations or professors to visit the site and observe the physical and environmental resources of the Reserve. The goal is to eventually transition these relationships into more long-term collaborations where visiting students can spend a few days to a month at the Reserve and visiting professors could conduct research at the Reserve.
In order to develop these connections, I’m creating informational materials, such as a summary document of the available infrastructure, unique features to visit in the Reserve, and resources in the nearby towns. The increased visibility from developing these relationships could help the Reserve elevate awareness surrounding the environmental importance of this unique and threatened landscape. This could improve the Reserve’s ability to obtain funding to carry out environmental projects and introduce more people to the value of the Valdivian temperate rainforest ecosystem and the beauty and importance of the natural world in general.
It could also lead to collaboration on important research focused on subjects relevant to the Reserve, such as reforestation strategies, sustainable agriculture practices, and plant and wildlife conservation strategies.
After being mostly in Santiago for the first two months of my time in Chile, the Reserve showed me an entirely different ecosystem and area of Chile. I so appreciated getting to explore such a beautiful and special place and I’m glad TNC was able to protect it so that people can benefit from it in so many different ways.
The conservation of this land has prevented the construction of a coastal highway and stopped the continued conversion of the native forest into a eucalyptus plantation. The beauty of the Reserve is not just the ancient trees or unique species. The Reserve supports the local communities, both human and natural, and the way these two don’t hurt, but help the other is the true wonder of the Reserve. The Valdivian Coastal Reserve is a great example of what integrated conservation work can be and how to support people and nature, as they truly are one and the same.