Wildfires are burning through thousands of hectares of forest and carbon-rich wetlands in Chile, and the Selk’nam Indigenous community, who call the area home, have been sounding the alert. Their message is urgent and meant to be heard much beyond the Timaukel region of Tierra del Fuego on the southernmost tip of South America.
The Selk’nam say there is a great deal more at stake than their native habitat. These are their ancestral lands, but the old-growth forests and peatlands are the planet’s wealth.
Peatlands are a unique ecosystem. They cover just 3% of the planet’s surface but when healthy and moist, they store more carbon than all the Earth’s forests. When peatlands like those in Tierra del Fuego burn, they not only release carbon into the atmosphere, but lose the ability to serve as a carbon sink and, therefore, to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The Selk’nam community organization, Covadonga Ona, believes Chilean government agencies are moving too slowly to deal with the fires. Onemi, the interior ministry department that deals with emergencies, issued a yellow alert on 25 January, when it became apparent that Karukinka Natural Park, one of the world’s most ecologically rich protected areas, was under threat. On 28 January, this was updated to a red alert. There has been criticism on social media of the resources and equipment provided to the firefighters. Bárbara Saavedra, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society in Chile, the non-governmental organization that manages Karukinka Park, has called for more help to tackle the fires than has been pledged by the government and the National Forest Corporation of Chile (CONAF).
The local geography complicates the effort to fight the fires, with fire trucks forced to travel long distances to fill their tanks with water. The municipality of Timaukel is having to bear the fuel costs.
But the costs of further delay or inaction are great. Not just for the Selk’nam, or for Chile or South America, but for the world.
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