Sprouts Of Resilience After The Fires Of Altos De Cantillana

Sendero Loma de la Olivera

In December 2023, the Altos de Cantillana Natural Reserve suffered through a fire that destroyed almost 100 hectares. The coordinator of the protected area and president of Así Conserva Chile, Fernanda Romero, reflects on the regeneration seen just a few days later when new sprouts emerged. In addition, she addresses the profound changes in this valley following 13 years of drought.

Immersed in the mountain ranges of the Coastal Mountain Range, among plant species such as litres, boldos and peumos, Fernanda Romero has made her way time and again through the paths of the Altos de Cantillana Natural Reserve in Paine, Metropolitan Region. The ecologist and landscaper –coordinator of the protected area– has been a regular visitor to these areas of the sclerophyllous forest[1] since her childhood. She now represents the fourth generation of her family to inhabit the area and is the official coordinator for the conservation of the reserve’s 12,000 hectares[2].

In December, a fire affected this private conservation area, consuming 100 hectares. Weeks after the proliferation of the fire, Fernanda tells us that new sprouts have emerged from the earth, a demonstration of nature’s regeneration. How can we balance the need to tell hopeful stories when faced with catastrophes? What ways to interrelate between humans and more-than-humans can contribute to risk prevention? These are some of the topics addressed by one of the conservation leaders of Paine, who in 2022 was named Living Human Treasure for her work in the Aculeo basin, which was affected by a long drought but which last winter offered another sigh of relief: the water had returned to its stream.

Fundación Mar Adentro: I understand that at least 16 of your great-great-grandparents are from Paine. How has your emotional, territorial and professional relationship to the area been, and what changes have you seen throughout the years?

Fernanda Romero: The territorial bond is very strong; I’ve given up many things to be here. Although my parents moved to Santiago when I was small and I later continued my studies in the capital, I came back every weekend and holiday season. I moved back permanently to Aculeo when I was 27 and built my house. I feel my roots to it and have found ways to observe what has been happening here. Before the drought, for example, I would say for many years that Aculeo was like heaven on Earth. It was the perfect valley, as the basin was very well preserved. Then, there were activities that impacted the ecosystem, such as the presence of livestock and the construction of housing throughout the hills. I have also witnessed the legal fragility regarding the protection of biodiversity. In this territory, I’ve felt the call of conservation from a sense of urgency. At the same time, I would say that I haven’t just explored conservation from the perspective of science, but from its biocultural and historical value. There have been archeological remains of at least three cultures in Paine: Mapuche, Llolleo and Bato, their predecessors, and Inca.

On a professional level, on the other hand, I’ve coordinated a couple different organizations: one for community-based youth, and a private law corporation called Aculeufu, in parallel to the creation of the corporation Altos de Cantillana, together with an ecotourism company to finance the corporations and activities that are hard to sustain due to the drought and decline in tourism. Altos de Cantillana arose within the framework of the GEF Cantillana project[3], which was born thanks to trust, since my paternal father was the foreman of the owner of these lands[4]. About my role here, I would say that I belong to this reserve, I am part of it.

As for the fires, how often have they happened? How have they impacted the area and what preventative or control measures have been taken?

Regarding the history of fires in the area, I was able to reconstruct the last 60 years a while ago, interviewing people from the community. One of the most intense happened 10 years ago, when a hillside in Rangue caught fire; then, 7 years ago, another hillside had a fire, and this began to become more frequent with the drought. The problem is that, unfortunately, the fires seem like something far away when they don’t burn down houses, as people in the countryside don’t live in the hills but in the valleys; so although there is a memory of the fires, they are seen as distant occurrences.

The prevention of fires in the reserve has been strengthened since 2016, when we were able to build a team and I was officially designated its coordinator. With this team, we’ve now been able to reflect on the December fire. In a way, we were prepared for it to arrive from somewhere else and, in that sense, the fires were surprising, even though we know they usually start outside the reserve and then enter it. We are currently starting a prevention project with the Metropolitan Regional Government of Santiago (GORE) as part of the network of natural sanctuaries of the region.

It has also been a complex decision, the need to make firebreaks, as it can imply cutting down vegetation and, eventually, possible bureaucratic limitations. Every year we have training sessions on fires, but I think we hadn’t had widespread awareness until now. Fires aren’t real until they happen to us, and it shouldn’t be this way.

We understand that the flames in December occurred when a tree branch fell onto power lines. In this sense, maybe all the power lines should be underground, but to make this a reality the decision-makers need to have it as an option for prevention possibilities. When there is a fire, people lose, so we need to understand the impact of the fire to transform us into prevention agents.

I understand that some sprouts have begun to re-emerge after the fire. How can we understand this fast capacity for regeneration, and what lessons can it inspire for the protection of ecosystems?

This year, the wonder of regeneration is not a trivial matter, as it is related with the 600 mm of precipitation that fell in the way; a normal amount pre-drought, which explains the current exuberance of Aculeo. This is why the area was able to conserve the ground humidity. Today, we have sprouts at the base of trees that reach up to 50 cm, especially with litres and other trees. We also formulated a restoration plan for the site of the fire which considers the collection of seeds for planting and / or nurseries.

In terms of lessons learned, we have a line of work based on field environmental philosophy, which proposes the conservation of study subjects, not objects. In this line of thinking, fire is an element of nature whose force creates impact but also allows us to appreciate collective conscience and the regeneration of ecosystems.

Nature is regeneration and resilience. People inhabit other temporalities, and it’s good to remember that it isn’t about the survival of the strongest, but about who can adapt. My grandparents also lived through droughts, when the hill was bare due to the cutting of firewood for steam engines and, before, Aculeo was a desert and a tropical forest. If we try to conserve, it doesn’t imply a status quo. As humans, we also must take action to incorporate technologies that can stop climate change. It is an issue of mobilizing willpower.

Regarding hopeful images in the face of the socio-ecological crisis we are going through, last winter it was widely reported that the Aculeo lake –which is close to the reserve– had water again. In your opinion, how can we balance the need to tell hopeful stories against the dynamic reality of nature?

Often, as humans, we have an individualistic hope, so it’s necessary to have a critical sense, as we evaluate everything according to our own scale. In addition, there is a need for real and contextualized information, as there are people who have never heard of conservation; people that live in this same valley.

While a fire is more visible, sometimes we don’t pay attention to the intrinsic resilience of nature. Another perspective that perhaps isn’t known is that a drought can be more devastating than a fire, at an ecosystemic level, and those stories must be told as well. The Earth is on a constant timeline, and as humans we are part of that “script” and have a large amount of influence on it.

I think the reason people don’t have inherent hope is, to a large degree, because of the disconnection with nature, which also affects mental health. I have some of my grandmother’s seeds; I love shelling them and planting them, as well as knitting. Today, there are people who have never connected with the therapeutic dimension of this contact, and the current technology distracts us.

Nature is what human beings need to be well. Today, young people are enclosed in cubicles, and the same thing happens in the educational system. Nature is a fractal: we see cycles in thousands of years and also every year, when a tomato is born, grows and dies. We can have hope that each spring there will be tomatoes. I say this because people don’t know, they think tomatoes grow on trees; they are disconnected.

In your role as administrator of the reserve, what collective experiences have impacted the habits of the surrounding community?

The sense of community has been lost, in a way, if we compare it to traditional country life. Now people support each other, but it is something that grows stronger whenever there is an emergency. What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to gather enough people for a course on putting out fires, but if there is an actual fire the community activates itself to put it out. There is an idea of how a good community should be, and we’ve tried to create instances for it and make ourselves responsible for creating connections with nature; for example, through education, although in practice it is the responsibility of the State. We seek to unite communities beyond disastrous events by organizing events where we can meet for other reasons than sharing painful moments.

The work we have done with schools –in Rangue and Pintué–[5] has aimed to connect people and their own territories. The social crisis around the drought managed to connect us, in fact, because the magnitude of the disaster led people to give in. There were varied interests; from boatmen, farmers with rights to water…a completely different universe from what happens in a reserve that cannot become disconnected from the work carried out here.

You have been working with these schools since 2016. What types of lessons have come out of this work with school communities?

Ten years ago, we worked with children of farmers and rural families. With time, the profile of the students has become more urban and homogenous, and their vulnerabilities have increased. We have been carrying out educational actions in the schools around the reserve since 2005, and starting in 2016 we drew up a long-term project for educational actions every year. We’ve been given courses related to science and that is a great responsibility; we have worked at all levels.

We are currently aiming to teach at least one or two classes in the classroom and one as a field trip to the reserve. Before the pandemic we had begun traveling to other conservation areas associated with Así Conserva Chile. They were overnight pedagogical trips, but these days the challenges have changed; teachers say that they don’t have the proper conditions to address issues such as the hypersexualization of children, so it is necessary to instead think of resources for psychological interventions.

There are structural issues in the educational context and it is important to remember that, as conservation professionals, we live in a sort of bubble due to our contact with nature. An important lesson in that sense is that we cannot lose our perspective of reality. At the same time, one of the biggest challenges is working with frustrations and understanding that we can’t solve all these challenges just from conservation-led education, but we can have a clear horizon to move towards.

In conclusion, what perspectives on the relationship between humans and more-than-humans, in your experience, could inform analyses to prevent natural disasters in the future?

The field environmental philosophy proposed by Ricardo Rozzi, as I mentioned, points to the need to see beyond landscapes, forests or a mass of vegetation, as we must be able to perceive the diversity of trees, bacteria or animals. Most people don’t know what we are talking about when we speak of nature, conservation and the environment. These areas are usually related to pollution and recycling; that is, the realities most within reach for most people.

We must stop seeing landscapes, and instead see them as living and complex ecosystems; that is, it is a living ecosystem that burns, not a landscape. It is necessary to understand the impact of ecosystems on people. For example, residents of Santiago must remember that we owe our water to the mountain range and that we inhabit land that was formed by processes throughout thousands of years. The rise in food prices and the increase in food imports must be linked to the fact that we are becoming less able to produce food in relation to soil scarcity. We must understand the chain of relationships that make our lives possible.

Fernanda Romero

Fernanda Romero, ecologist, landscaper and Master in Wilderness Areas and Nature Conservation from the Universidad de Chile. She is general coordinator of the Altos de Cantillana Natural Reserve and president of the Así Conserva Chile association. In 2022 she was recognized as a Living Human Treasure for her work in conservation and ecological restoration in the Aculeo basin. She has led flora research throughout Chile and currently works for the conservation and restoration of biodiversity in the Reserve, located in the Altos de Cantillana mountain range, Metropolitan Region.



[1]According to the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB), the sclerophyllous forest is an ecological system that delivers nature to living beings and provides ideal conditions for the development of life. Among the species that make it up in our territory are the peumo (C. alba), the boldo (P. boldus) and the hawthorn (Acacia caven), as well as the Chilean palm, or Jubea chilensis.

[2]The reserve covers the municipalities of Melipilla, San Pedro, Alhue, Isla de Maipo and Paine.

[3] The Regional Ministerial Secretariat (SEREMI) of the Ministry of the Environment of the Metropolitan Region (RM) in 2011 executed the project called “Conservation of Biodiversity in Los Altos de Cantillana”, also known as “GEF Cantillana”, where the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), acted as implementing agency of the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

[4] The painter Joaquín Solo de Zaldívar and his family have managed this reserve for several generations.

[5] These are schools with 200 to 250 students, with pre-basic and basic training that are located at the foot of the reserve.

Violeta Bustos Vaccia

Interviewed by Violeta Bustos Vaccia, head of communication at Fundación Mar Adentro. Journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Researcher and teacher in the field of digital communication and content creator.