The Value of Biodiversity in the Face of the Planetary Crisis: Insights from La Araucanía

There are multiple dimensions when addressing the biodiversity values that make up the La Araucanía Region. Throughout our country, from the coast to the Andes mountain range, wetlands, dunes, beaches, lakes, lagoons and estuaries emerge, forming habitats for multiple species. And although Chile is not a megadiverse country compared to other Latin American nations, it has a relevant endemism that is present in territories such as the region of La Araucanía.

La Araucanía is part of a global biodiversity hotspot, with a high presence of native flora and fauna, and places of scenic, cultural, and historical value such as geosites and geoparks [1]– such as Kutralkura –, covering the Andean zone between the foothills, the mountain range and the central depression, where the healthiest ecosystems in the region are located, since there, in the so-called Andean Araucanía, you find the greatest concentration of protected areas [2]. Outside these limits, only relict forests and specific protected places remain such as the natural monument Cerro Ñielol and Contulmo , and the Nahuelbuta National Park in the Cordillera de La Costa.

Another characteristic ecosystem value of the territory is the wetlands. In this regard, it is worth considering that 20 years ago there was no awareness of what this concept meant at the societal level, nor was there familiarity with coastal ecosystems. There have been important steps to make this type of information known and, in 2009, as part of the SEREMI of the environment, we published the first book on wetlands in the region, efforts that have continued with the publication of new cadastres and reflections.

A crucial point about the marsh wetland ecosystems in the region is that, in general, they are concentrated to a greater extent from the central depression towards the coast. In the region there are wetlands such as Mahuidanche and Lastarria [3]that cover four communes (Loncoche, Pitrufquen, Freire and Gorbea) and that have swampy forests or hualves, ecosystems that are being lost rapidly and that we have not been able to protect.

In addition, on the coast there are wetland systems, such as Monkul in Carahue, Lake Budi, then in Teodoro Schmidt there are coastal wetlands as well as the Queule, Imperial and Toltén wetlands, among others, which form a coastal network of great importance, not only for the resident fauna, but also for migratory birds, such as the pitotoy or the zarapito.

In short, we are talking about ecosystems that protect the life of multiple beings and have relevant intrinsic values. In this sense, when we refer to conservation objects or natural and cultural values, it is important to keep in mind that, when we say save the Darwin frog, or save the huillín, we know that they are attractive and charismatic species in the eyes of human beings, and that they do indeed need protection, but there are habitats, ecosystems that host them and that we must protect to protect the species that inhabit them.

Conservation actions and threats in the face of the triple planetary crisis

The triple planetary crisis, that is, climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution, represents a prioritization for the control of threats that we can discuss, but the need to have information and research on ecosystems and species appears as an urgent area that crosses these three areas. It is necessary to know what is happening in aquatic, marine and freshwater ecosystems, since we do not have as much information available compared to the research generated on forests, thanks to the research efforts of recent decades.

At the same time, we know about specific species, but we need to develop more context around the state of conservation of ecosystems and, from there, prioritize actions to advance restoration, management or the corresponding measures. This is something that should advance with the implementation of the Law that creates the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service (SBAP). Thus, prioritizing the execution of measures consistent with the realities of ecosystems is key, especially those that harbor greater biological diversity and endemism.

Another relevant point is education and awareness, because although we are facing new generations that are more sensitive to caring for the environment, they also want quick results; however, we know that restoration projects involve slow processes, such as long-term investments and the involvement of different sectors.

From this perspective, today we cannot conceive conservation without the participation of all actors in society, since its protection is the responsibility of everyone: academia, public and private sectors, various social groups, indigenous peoples and local communities. It is worth mentioning that these actors must position themselves on equal terms in terms of the relevance of their knowledge, and in that sense, the academy cannot be placed hierarchically higher, and traditional and local knowledge must be re-valued. It is necessary to consider the participation of those who live in the territories, and take into account their knowledge on various topics, such as birdlife, medicinal plants and other knowledge.

Although the threats posed by the planetary crisis are global and, in some way, known to those of us who work in conservation, it is necessary to take into account their intersections and the consequences they entail, such as the loss of habitat, whether due to fragmentation, urbanization or deforestation, among other causes. On the other hand, we have not been able to measure the impact on biodiversity loss that climate change entails, with the displacement or death of species that are not capable of adapting to new environmental conditions.

An example is the Araucaria araucana, which has survived thousands of years, resisting fires and various geological and hydrological changes, but that a few years ago, became ill due to the effect of a fungus after many months without snow. Likewise, it is necessary to measure the effect of exotic invasive species such as the wild boar, the yellow jacket or the mink, which takes the lives of various wetland birds. Let us not forget, on the other hand, the fires spread by high temperatures and, of course, the lack of education in nature understood as a threat, since we must become aware of the urgency of protecting biodiversity and the risk of its loss for human life, since only if we manage to restore and conserve natural ecosystems, the sustenance of life, will we be able to face the effects of climate change.

Challenges on a global and local scale

The Araucarias Biosphere Reserve [4], which is conformed by various protected areas of the La Araucanía region, is part of an initiative that seeks to increase the ways to contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable development of local economies, in relationship with the ecosystem services that the territories provide to contribute to human well-being. Likewise, these reserves aim to enhance the value of the conservation of biological and cultural diversity, to provide logistical support through research, monitoring, education and training, in accordance with objectives set by UNESCO.

Today, it is necessary to link global challenges in the light of a local perspective in permanent feedback. One of the relevant aspects at the country level is the current implementation of the SBAP Law which, as we know, completes the environmental institutional framework in Chile. In this challenge, we are in a stage of organizing the installation of a Service that brings multiple instruments that will be an opportunity for an institution to care and protect biodiversity as a priority in consideration of its value at different levels (ecosystems, species, genes, etc). We are in a stage of institutional organization where La Araucanía is positioned as a territory of great interest in terms of its protected areas, ecosystem services and ancestral knowledge that are connected with biocultural practices linked to sustainable local economies.

Currently, the lines of action for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in the region focus on wetland ecosystems; law enforcement of these urban ecosystems; the creation of scientific dissemination material; the deployment of the so-called RECOGE plans (Recovery, conservation and management) of species as relevant as Darwin’s fox, the huillín or the dolphin. In addition, we are developing projects that cross information between territories, such as Chile and Mexico; evaluation of projects, and of course, the work with the Biodiversity Operational Committee that has existed since 2006 in the region, of a public-private and academic nature, constituted as a working group that has surveyed biodiversity in all its areas.

These are just some of the initiatives underway in the region of La Araucanía. The work ahead is permanent, intensive and urgent, so it is important to insist on the imperative of listening to the different regions of the country, where the authorities must strive to grasp the importance of biodiversity conservation beyond the beauty of landscapes or specific campaigns to raise awareness about certain species. Here, in La Araucanía, in fact, there is still a great pending issue, which is the preparation of a comprehensive regional study on biodiversity, and to do so we must continue generating information that allows us to manage resources, allies and the notion of priority that this issue requires.

Marta Hernández Guzmán

Marta Hernández Guzmán, professional from the SEREMI of the Environment, Region of La Araucanía. She is a Biologist in Natural Resources Management from the Catholic University of Temuco. Diploma in Territorial Environmental Planning, with a Postgraduate Degree in Environmental Management (Catholic University of Temuco), a Master’s Degree in Public Management (Universidad Mayor) and a Diploma in Integrated Management of Coastal Areas (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile). Her work experience has been in various topics, such as generation and processing of geographic information; evaluation of projects in the Service of Environmental Impact Assessment SEIA, waste, clean production agreements, secondary standards, as well as projects for national and international funds. In recent years she has focused on the management and conservation of biodiversity in different perspectives: threatened species, wetlands, protected areas, exotic species. Likewise, she has also been editor and co-author of different dissemination materials associated with the biodiversity of the La Araucanía region: Biota Bulletins numbers 1 to 8, two Regional Wetland Books, two Environmental Education Bulletins, Bird Guide to the Coastal Ecosystems of The Region of La Araucanía, among others.