Breathing New Life into Chile's Valdivian Forest
Forest carbon opportunities help local communities protect Chile’s ancient forest
This story is part of our Living Carbon series, covering the power of natural climate solutions for communities, biodiversity and the planet. > Explore the Living Carbon stories.
The bankruptcy of a logging company has changed the destiny of a unique area of the world and the people and wildlife who live there. It’s a reversal of fortune that ended up saving one of the world’s last large swathes of temperate rainforest, avoided the release of more than 500,000 tons of carbon emissions, and created a conservation-focused local economy complete with new jobs and opportunities.
The story of Chile’s Valdivian Coastal Reserve (VCR) begins back in 2003, when a lending institution forced bankruptcy proceedings against an industrial timber company. This triggered the public auction of a parcel of land along the Cordillera Pelada mountain range containing one of the largest remaining areas of Valdivian Temperate Forest.
While a forest investment group intended to buy the property’s debt, prior to auction, along with its legally-issued forest conversion permits -– and continue the century-long trend of converting native forest into eucalyptus plantations in this region of Chile – this is not how things played out. Instead, timber industry interests were outflanked by The Nature Conservancy which – with support from WWF and Conservation International – purchased the property’s debt prior to auction, allowing for the creation of a 50,000-hectare conservation area to protect and restore native forests and wildlife and build sustainable livelihoods for people in the surrounding communities.
By purchasing the land in 2003, TNC was able to stop the immediate threat of deforestation associated with the construction of a coastal highway through the property, which had been a major driver of native forest destruction in what became the Valdivian Coastal Reserve. And to halt the ongoing conversion of native forest to exotic plantations, TNC cancelled and permanently retired the legal and transferrable forest management and harvesting permits that had allowed forest conversion. In 2012, TNC donated 9,453 hectares of the property to the Chilean government to help create what is now the immediately adjacent Alerce Costero National Park, which protects the alerce tree species – including the 5,484-year-old “Alerce Milenario”, which may be the oldest tree on Earth.
An Innovative Way to Fund Conservation and Community Priorities
An innovative way to help fund conservation and community work in the region had been part of the project’s long-term financing plan, even prior to the parcel’s acquisition. Thanks to its old growth forests and dense biodiversity, the tree biomass in this area can store the equivalent of over 800 metric tons of climate changing carbon dioxide per hectare, one of the highest rates in the world. That made it the ideal candidate to become Chile’s first Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) forest carbon project, enhancing the potential of this amazing land to be a natural climate solution by avoiding the emissions associated with deforestation, while sequestering and storing carbon in its trees and soil.
The VCR forest carbon project – located in a 1,273-hectare area within the reserve – was third-party validated (certified) in 2014 and became the first REDD+ project in Chile to have its carbon credits verified by the globally-recognized Verified Carbon Standard organization (today known as Verra). In 2014, a Verified Carbon Standard audit confirmed that the project’s actions to prevent further deforestation had avoided at least 461,402 net tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions between 2003 and 2011. In 2015, a second verification audit confirmed an additional 72,252 net tons CO2e of avoided emissions between 2011 and 2014. In total, between 2003 and 2014, the greenhouse gas emissions avoided by the project are equivalent to taking about 114,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a year.
The Value of Natural Climate Solutions
Interventions like this are vital as we act to slow climate change. A recent assessment by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) names ecosystem restoration as one of the top five most cost-effective climate actions we can take by 2030, and deforestation is the single largest driver of emissions from land-use change. That’s why the Paris Climate Agreement states that countries should protect and enhance their forests to create carbon ‘sinks’, like the Valdivian Coastal Reserve, to limit global warming to no more than 1.5°C and avoid catastrophic climate change.
At this moment of climate crisis, we need every tool in the toolbox, including rapid decarbonization of energy and transportation systems, as well as harnessing the natural carbon storage power of forests and other carbon rich ecosystems. If scaled up now, natural climate solutions could provide up to a third of the emissions reductions needed to reach global climate goals by 2030. What’s certain is that we cannot achieve the 1.5°C target without nature – without both protecting our remaining forests and restoring our damaged land and seascapes.
The Forest’s Beating Heart
At its heart, the Valdivian Coastal Reserve is about the forest and the people living in and around it. People like local Indigenous leader Margarita Huala. She believes the biggest change brought about by the creation of the reserve is the influx of tourists visiting the landscape. But she says the most important benefit flows from the rural water project that brought clean, reliable drinking water to the nearby towns of Chaihuín and Huiro.
For local Indigenous leader Margarita Huala, the most important benefit of the Valdivian Coastal Reserve flows from the rural water project that brings clean drinking water to nearby towns.
The VCR project helped Margarita to set up a small business with other women in the community. They began by selling empanadas out of a wheelbarrow and gathering non-timber products from the forest, before opening a local restaurant that thrived until the Covid19 pandemic.
Faced with the tourism restrictions, Margarita’s family started a cooperative to develop alternative ways to generate income, and her husband and children have also found work in the reserve, fixing fences and improving the bridges, trails and walkways used by both the community and tourists. Margarita hopes to see even more local jobs generated, especially during the winter months – and to get the restaurant up and running again. But she already believes that the project has “helped us, as leaders, to defend things that we did not do before.”
“Without the reserve, I think it would be destroyed because before the forestry companies were just logging and logging. They cut down and burned the native forest. They did not even give firewood to hospitals or homes. It was all destruction. It is better to have The Nature Conservancy here because their word is to protect. They preserve what is left, or what they can save – animals, birds, everything.”
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Breathing New Life and Opportunity
All the earnings from selling carbon credits are reinvested in the forest to bring new life and possibilities to its nature and communities. Since 2014, US$ 3.2 million has been raised from carbon credit sales and used to advance the project goals, including forest restoration and replanting native species to protect biodiversity and carbon stocks; as well as improving the well-being of local communities through sustainable livelihoods, water and sanitation, marine protection and artisanal fisheries, women’s empowerment, strengthening local access and resource tenure, and environmental education.
One popular VCR initiative is to give local people the opportunity to train to become park rangers, some of whom recently collaborated with TNC to launch a guide to the forest’s flora and fauna that combines local knowledge with science. To build this knowledge, VCR is also taking part in nature projects, including monitoring amphibians and freshwater ecosystems, and is pioneering the use of wildlife camera traps in Chile.
Local teacher Ricardo Guaitiao, who is in charge of the local El Huape School, has witnessed the positive impact of environmental education and local engagement in the reserve since he arrived 10 years ago. “Before, you could see in children a bad culture of killing everything that moved. For example, on field trips, if they saw a lizard their first instinct was to eliminate it. Children today know the importance of life, and that it’s not harmless to eliminate bees or spiders.” He sees first-hand how the group activities organized for his students instill a sense of ownership and responsibility for the nature around them, and how it transcends to their parents and families. In some cases, it inspires young people to take on apprenticeships to become guides or work on forest restoration in the reserve.
Conservation without people is not true conservation. While the logging company excluded Indigenous and other local communities from the area, TNC prioritizes cooperation with local people to protect nature and ensure that communities can reach their fishing grounds and collect non-timber products in the reserve. The goal is for people to prosper without destroying their natural heritage, including through sustainable cattle grazing and a range of microenterprises. Many of these new small businesses are run by Indigenous women, based on their traditional handicrafts and local food, to bring extra income for their families.
“Before we had to live as spectators, watching all the damage the company did when they applied chemicals to the forest and caused damage in an area where we have sea urchin and piure. It took a long time for the populations to recover.”
- Adelaida Arriaza, President of local cooperative Grupo Ganaderos del Valle
Adelaida Arriaza is the President of Grupo Ganaderos del Valle, a local cooperative that raises cattle in specially designated areas of the reserve identified through a study with an agronomist at TNC. Her team works closely with VCR rangers to tag and monitor the cattle and make sure they do not harm the native trees. This kind of cooperation is a marked contrast to Adelaida’s previous experience when, for 16 years, she was the leader of the local artisanal fishermen’s syndicate while the logging company still owned the land. She recalls that, “we had to live as spectators, watching all the damage the company did when they applied chemicals to the forest and caused damage in an area where we have sea urchin and piure. It took a long time for the populations to recover.”
“Although it is true that the logging companies provided work, I believe that at the time we did not take into account the damage that was done to the forest. Today we have learned to take care of nature, and to live with it, which is the most important thing.”
The funds raised by selling carbon credits have helped to protect the natural wonders of the Valdivian Forest while creating new sources of income and opportunity for local people, including members of the Indigenous Mapuche and Huilliche communities.
Renewed Pride in Natural Heritage
Partnerships and joint activities with communities are strengthening local stewardship of the land and driving a renewed pride in the natural heritage. And there is so much to be proud of. The Valdivian Forest survived the last ice age to nurture globally significant ecosystems, like the Olivillo coastal forest and the ancient Alerce, the world’s largest and longest-lived tree species. This land of extremes also harbours an incredible wealth of wildlife, including the pudu – Latin America’s smallest deer, one of the world’s largest woodpeckers (Campephilus magellanicus), the rare southern river otter, and a tiny tree dwelling marsupial – Monito del monte (Dromiciops gliroides) the “little monkey of the hill” – considered a “living fossil” by scientists. Conservation efforts helped discover Darwin’s fox in the area in 2012, and another species – the “comadrejita trompuda” or long-nosed caenolestid (Hyncholestes raphanurus)) – was also observed inside the reserve in 2019 thanks to camera trap monitoring, having never been seen in the area before. These findings make it even more important to protect unique places like the VCR.
The funds raised by selling carbon credits have helped to protect these natural wonders while creating new sources of income and opportunity for local people, including members of the Indigenous Mapuche and Huilliche communities.
The Valdivian Coastal Reserve continues to be a pioneering living forest carbon project, delivering benefits to local communities and biodiversity, and trialing methodologies that can help other regions develop their natural climate solution projects.
But perhaps, Adelaida Arriaza’s words remind us of the project’s most important achievement: “Today we can breathe clean air into our lungs thanks to the forest we are protecting together with The Nature Conservancy.” And what could be more important than that?
Stories of Nature's Climate Solutions
In this series, we showcase innovative carbon projects in Africa, northeastern Pennsylvania, Chile's Valdivian Forest, and the Emerald Edge along North America's Pacific coast.