democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Fighting the wildfires that threaten Chile’s peatlands is vital for us all

We must protect South America’s southernmost tip – a large carbon store – not just for the Indigenous people who call it home, but for the world

Tristan Partridge
3 February 2022, 12.01am
Forest fires are burning thousands of hectares of forests and wetlands rich in carbon in Chile
Ernesto Lagos/CONAF/Flickr

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.

The archipelago stores 4.8 gigatonnes of carbon, which has accumulated over more than 18,000 years

This is something that has been highlighted in recent months by Jorge Flies, the governor of the Magallanes region, which is home to Karukinka Park. In August, Magallanes became the first region in Chile to declare a climate emergency. Tierra del Fuego has a vital role to play in tackling that emergency. The world’s most southerly concentration of peatlands is located on the archipelago, storing 4.8 gigatonnes of carbon, which has accumulated over more than 18,000 years. Tierra del Fuego’s peatlands are also home to species that are not found anywhere else in the world. Protecting these lands is vital for the protection of biodiversity.

The fires in Tierra del Fuego come at a time when the frequency and scale of wildfires are increasing around the world due to climate change. South America has suffered particularly intense wildfires, with more than 300,000 hectares razed in Argentina, 20,000 hectares in Uruguay and 9,000 hectares in Chile’s Araucanía region in the first week of January.

While the fires that burn in Timaukel are still relatively small, there is the risk that weather events could cause them to worsen and spread, reducing ancient and diverse woodlands to shrubland and ash. For the Selk’nam, it would be a devastating loss. Their sacred lands lie in the Timaukel region and, for marginalised people currently fighting for legal recognition in Chile, the struggle to save their home is literally a matter of life and death.

For centuries, the Selk’nam people have suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, their community organization continues to seek to connect more than 800 Selk’nam descendants in order to maintain their shared cultural, artistic, spiritual, territorial and linguistic connections. It is a struggle that is of universal concern, as injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. This is why the Selk’nam’s fight to protect Tierra del Fuego is especially significant and deserves worldwide support.

This article was originally published on Chile Today. Read the original here.

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