“Only One Month in, and I Feel We’ve Made an Impact” by Park Cawley ’19

Park Cawley ’19
Majors: Environmental Science and Mathematics
Round River South America: Chile – Patagonia, South America
Spring 2017

Most people, myself included at the beginning of my trip, perceive Patagonia to be this pristine and untouched wilderness in South America. The iconic Fitz Roy in Cerro Torre is the unmistakable logo for Patagonia; the company and the region. However, through working with Round River in this incredible place, I have come to realize that Patagonia, as some assume, is under threat and in a few decades, Patagonia will only be known as the company that worked so hard to save the place it was named after.

I spent a day in Santiago before the program even started to get briefly immersed into the culture and to test out my language skills (passable but not quite good). I encountered some of the friendliest people I’ve ever talked to as they would almost always give a casual “hola” as this gringo walked by, staring at the architecture and colors that they take for granted as well as posters for the Patagonia region promoting ecotourism. This last bit would become more important than I would know.

Arriving in Balmaceda with the rest of the eight, we were almost immediately met by one of our instructors, Shay. She gave us all hugs, welcomed us to the program and the region, and helped load all of our big backpacking backpacks, day packs, and duffels into an awaiting truck and bus to take us to our first destination. We saw the beautiful Andes and greenery that you hear about and see in pictures as well as an Andean Condor (Vultur gryphus) flying by. But we also saw another side. Forest fires had wiped out giant swaths of land and to combat erosion, pine trees were planted on the hillside and quickly became invasive and pushed out native species. Anthropogenic impacts were causing another of Chile’s iconic species, the Huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus), to exist in fragmented populations and be driven towards extinction.

Throughout our time in Coyhaique, Cochrane, Puerto Edén, and Tortel, we gained a different lens at which to look at Patagonia. Hydroelectric dams were not just altering ecosystems by forming reservoirs, but they were forcing indigenous peoples like the Mapuche off of their land and by flooding it, removing their connection with their identity. We learned that many words are specific not to an object, but the location of that object too. People are named after where they were born. If they are not able to see or visit the land, they lose their language and who they are as a people. On the tourism side, the building of dams results in an inconsistent water flow that can result in hydropeaking, when dams are released and water rushes downstream and can overwhelm an area that usually has a smaller flow. For whitewater athletes, this means the dams can take away rivers like the Río Pascua or Río Baker with gnarly class V and VI stretches and instead, timing with dam release would be the best and only way to experience what the river used to offer. HidroAysén has attempted to install many dams along rives in the Aysén region (where I’m currently staying and will spend the majority of my time) and in 2014, the national government made the decision to not allow HidroAysén to construct their proposed dams. However, this was one case of conservation winning. Another instructor of mine, Feña, was born near Santiago and had his river, Río Maipo, dammed up a few years back. He tells us how devastating the process was, from proposal to completion, and his most beautiful song he plays on the chirrongo, similar to a mandolin but with ten strings, is about his river being taken away from his people. Hauntingly beautiful, it reminds me how some people are fortunate enough to have a platform to share their plight while others are shut out and the focus is taken off of them and onto the economic gain that will come in the near future at the degradation of the ecosystem in the long run.

As someone who loves national parks (shout out to Acadia National Park in Maine!), I never considered what would happen to a town that is surrounded by a national park and suddenly not legally allowed to use any natural resources that exist right next to them. Puerto Edén survived and still does by using the waters to harvest cholgas, mussels, but when the Red Tide came in 1996, 90% of the town left, leaving 60 people to continue living together and relying on a lab that takes weeks to see if a particular haul will either provide a necessary source of income or could kill the eater. The Ciprés trees (Pilgerodendron uviferum) are off-limits for harvest if they are alive, but fair game when dead. The trouble is distinguishing when one has been made dead or was found dead. It takes a long time to rot and burns better than other types of wood in the area. Harvests happen all the time and the bare skeletons of a burned and harvested P. uviferum forest can be seen on the boat ride there as well as other places nearby. A goal of ours was to talk with the locals to see if ecotourism to the region could provide a different way of sustaining their town. The Southern Hemisphere’s biggest glacier Pio XI is ten hours away by boat and scientists and adventurers have gone there to explore and understand this unique geological feature. The fishermen also have used rancho cholgueros, little structures scattered among the fjords where they harvest massive piles of the mussels, and some structures still stand, albeit in differing states of functionality. An idea might be to have the town as a staging ground for trips to see the glaciers and possibly renovate the ranchos so they could provide housing for those trips or anyone wanting to just explore the fjords. However,  this is a project that will continue through the end of this decade and beyond as we try to understand if there is anything we can do and, most importantly, if this is wanted by the people of Puerto Edén.

In Tortel, we learned about the sphagnum harvest. I only knew sphagnum from my ecology classes as that red or green moss in the bog that holds lots of water and is very squishy. However, it has economic value too. The Japanese use it as a way of preserving flowers for transport as well as diapers. To supply this demand, massive patches of sphagnum are torn out of the ground by rake or machine. This leaves a literal and figurative hole in the ecosystem that can make it extremely hard for the area to rebound. If we could identify the rate of regrowth, we could offer a more exact measurement of what a sustainable harvest would be as opposed to saying simply remove less of it. So we walked around in a bog, taking data from transects and qualitatively estimating harvest for three days. We got to understand the ecosystem more and talked with some harvesters about their perceptions. There is also the side goal of stopping a “sphagnum kingpin”, as one of instructors described him. He transports his harvest from Tortel on the ferry that stops at Puerto Edén and on to Puerto Natales to get shipped away. Gathering information could result in it becoming harder for him to move his product and at least help us win one small battle in this long war. We set up a regrowth plot in the bog and the next sets of Round River students will continue where we left off and figure out the growth rate of sphagnum.

Only one month in (as of October 22), and I feel we’ve made an impact. From teaching kids in Puerto Edén about the marine mammals they can see from their school (many dolphins have been sighted already) to assisting a cholguero harvest mussels for a curanto, aka massive seafood feast that included mussels the size of my hand and cooking bread with cow’s rib fern (Blechnum magellanicum) leaves separating layers to almost daily visiting a cute coffee shop in town to work and buy their delicious drinks, I am proud of the interactions we have had and the research we are doing. Patagonia is a beautiful place and one that I hope to return to in the future. But for that to happen, I have to continue doing what I can to ensure that there is a future to return to.