Through audiovisuals from TNC’s Valdivian Coastal Reserve in southern Chile, Chilean artist Denise Lira-Ratinoff brought a sensorial experience to the UN Climate Summit in NYC in September 2019. The exhibit invited participants to explore the Valdivian rainforest, including the sounds of birds and animals found nowhere else on the planet. The Valdivian Coastal Reserve is the focal point for TNC’s climate action work in Chile. The exhibit included presentations by the reserve’s park ranger, Danilo Gonzalez. He is a member of the local indigenous Mapuche-Huilliche community who joined TNC 13 years ago. His mantra “knowledge is conservation” describes his role as an environmental educator at the Reserve.
Knowledge is Conservation
Danilo: When I worked in the sea as a diver and a fisherman, I thought that the problems that affected the ocean were just limited to the ocean. I did not think of the forest and did not see a connection. But when this opportunity to work at TNC arose and I entered the forest, I realized that there were the same problems in the forest as in the ocean. I am speaking in relation to the protection of nature, of conservation and laws. I understood that these problems arise because no one knows about them. I was inserted into a beautiful area that I didn't know about, and that the community didn't know about. And because we didn't know, we didn't care much about its conservation. When we started, and when I started to walk the trails of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve, new things came to me every day, along with the understanding that there is a responsibility to preserve all this. My work is constant learning. The only way to preserve this is to transmit that experience. I try to have these conversations with people, with students and school children. The only way to conserve nature is to share experiences and bring knowledge to people.
Denise: And so that’s where the idea “knowledge is conservation” came about?
Danilo: During my daily life and my work, I have come to know different ecosystems. I have realized what wetlands signify, for instance. For the community, wetlands were just places that did not mean much. Often, we would dry up small spaces of wetlands to build on and we thought that was fine. But now we understand the importance of the wetlands for water. Working in the Reserve, I learned that peatlands are large carbon deposits that store water, much like a great sponge. And each of the species in that place plays a role. Today, my neighbors no longer see a swamp, they see a place full of life, a place full of birds that needs conserving. This new way of looking at things is also related to tourism and the concept of added value. Now they see the added value of having a cabin located next to a beautiful place, and they understand the importance of this.
An Oxygen Factory
Denise: Tell me about the oxygen factory idea.
Danilo: We’re convinced that to a great extent we are living a life of total consumerism; this is something that we have to accept. And when we talk about consumerism, we are referring to the capacity to produce. And people ask, what do you do? Where do you work? And people say, I work in mining, a salmon farm, whatever. Well, I say that I work in an oxygen factory. They work for a salmon farm, I work for you. Conservation is not yet well understood as a concept, it is not understood as something that helps everyone. I use the word factory because factories work with one objective: to produce. We work the oxygen, the water, we even help to maintain the temperature, and it is not only for TNC, it is for the planet. I have no idea for how many, but hopefully we are working for millions of people.
Looking after Water Sources
Denise: And what happened with the water?
Danilo: In 1997, we started to feel the need to create a committee to look after our drinking water because the water we had was not enough for everyone in the community. With the eucalyptus plantations—an exotic species that drains the soil—which we ourselves also planted in our land, we realized how the water-level had dropped. Over the years, we had to ask our neighbors for support, we asked TNC to allow us to use a certain number of liters per second of water from a river basin in the Reserve. We have now learned to take care of the basin. It is clear that this place has to be preserved because this is where our water comes from. The community itself has restored the site and the committee knows that this is how we should be looking after our water.
Denise: Has your relationship with wildlife changed through your experience in the Reserve?
Danilo: I belong to the Mapuche-Huilliche ethnic group. My last name is Huala, which means wild duck. We have been losing the Mapuche culture over the years because we had to protect ourselves from all the harm that has been done to our people. And so we began to lose our relationship with nature. In our Huilliche culture, nature sends us messages. In that context, the pudú is a messenger. If this small deer entered a house, it was warning us of some situation. As we lost these basic beliefs, we started to believe it was something bad altogether, and we began to blame the messenger, the pudú. But all the messenger is doing is warning you. When I was a child, when the pudú came to someone’s house, bad luck had to be eliminated by eliminating the messenger. In 2006, we started doing environmental education workshops and we tried to change these concepts. In 2009, we saw that this worked when a family father took a pudú to the Reserve because his daughter told him not to kill after she had attended one of our environmental workshops. Thus, we see that changes have occurred in popular belief and education. Recently, a family brought us a huiña wild cat that had eaten almost all their chickens. They returned it unharmed and that is incredible. Impressive.
The Story of the Palo Santo
Denise: Do you remember in the Los Colmillos nature trail we talked about that tree, the palo santo?
Danilo: The palo santo is a tree that has thorns, and its leaves are very tasty for animals, even for pudús. In our Mapuche tradition, there is no such thing as a supreme being, like humans. We believe that the tree, the river, the mountain and the sun are all beings. When the palo santo was being made, it asked for help from nature. It asked for protection because it could not grow like the other trees because all the animals wanted to eat its small leaves. So, it then asked for thorns to protect itself. But then when it had thorns, it had no friends, like birds. They couldn’t nestle in its branches. So, it then asks nature to let it grow and have friends, and nature gives it thorns as far as grazing animals could reach. In fact, when one sees the palo santo, the thorns cover the first meter and a half of trunk and then it grows leafy like any other tree.
Denise: What other things have changed in the community with conservation?
Danilo: Until 2000, our community was a fishing cove. As a community we did not have a direct link with forestry work. We had our houses and our boats, nothing more. When the Valdivian Coastal Reserve started as a project in 2005, some people began to imagine new opportunities, such as tourism. In the fishermen's union there were 11 women and they teamed up to create one of the first restaurants in the zone; that was the first tourism initiative. They started in 2005 and 2006, when very few people had arrived. But they were visionaries. In general, fishermen in Chile are quite macho, and when the women started this, we didn't believe in them much. Today, we see that there are more than 100 cabins, more than 6 or 7 restaurants that in the summer are all full. We now know that there is a possibility of change. We see that a whole family can experience this. Our children start to see other possibilities of work. Everything is made easier, roads are fixed, there is drinking water, and studying in the nearby city of Valdivia is suddenly an option. In fact, my son now studies natural resources, something that was unthinkable before. Our oxygen factory gives life to other factories that are related to feeling a part of society.
Going Back to the Past
Denise: Is it possible to turn the clock back? Do the communities want the timber companies to return?
Danilo: The communities no longer want forestry companies. When I was 5 years old, in 1975, nobody had any problem getting into a truck full of razed native alerce trees. We used the trucks as a means of transport, and I would ride on them to go see my grandfather. Today it is unthinkable that a forest truck can pass through these lands. People don’t want them for the damage they can cause. This makes us see that there has been a change.
Denise: What is the importance of monitoring?
Danilo: When older people visit the Reserve, they ask wise questions. They ask me, how can you show that there has been a change in the area with conservation? I tell them about monitoring, I tell them about the new species we have found. I tell them about the production of water that was previously lost. I tell them how today, near a restoration site in the forest, in a watershed, we can see a 200% increase in the flow of water in that basin. Before, there was no water there, but when we were there with the sound engineers this week recording a video, we had to leave because of the extreme noise of the water. People ask us about our work with the local communities. And we tell them about the cattle, the third greatest global threat to biodiversity in protected areas. How do we control this? By working with the community. Within the Reserve, we work with groups of cattle farmers organizing spaces and zoning. Tourism, too, is a good thing but it can pose a threat, and therefore, zoning is important.
At the End of the Day
Denise: The forest is full of its own microclimates, its own life, its own cycles. Tell me how the forest rests at night.
Danilo: When the forest rests for the night, a new forest wakes up. At night there is another dialogue, other noises. Nature never sleeps. Nature is a factory that never stops.