Innovative Community-Based Conservation Model Gains Traction in Patagonia’s Natural Areas

Local group works to preserve biodiversity and traditions in southern Chile

Innovative Community-Based Conservation Model Gains Traction in Patagonia’s Natural Areas
A “gaucho,” or cowboy, and his dog rest next to a lenga forest in El Avellano Mountain Range, Chilean Patagonia.
Tomás Munita

A group of local residents in the remote Chilean commune of Río Ibáñez achieved an important milestone this week when the local government agreed to support a request that the national government designate El Avellano Mountain Range as a Protected National Asset—which, if granted, will give the group the right to sustainably manage the land.

Characterized by the towering granite walls of the mountain range, the area stretches across 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) in Patagonia, boasts a wealth of biodiversity, and is home to emblematic species such as the old-growth lenga forests and the endangered South Andean deer. It is also home to arrieros and gauchos—icons of Patagonian culture known for their long, solitary treks with cattle through the Andes.

The Protected National Asset request is the first step in the group’s innovative efforts to use community-based conservation to preserve not only the area’s biodiversity, but its rich cultural history and traditions as well.

Since early 2020, the Municipality of Río Ibáñez has partnered with local arrieros, tour operators, and property owners to pioneer a model that integrates the traditions of arrieros and the strong local identity with responsible tourism practices and biodiversity conservation, thus strengthening the relationship between communities and their environment. This model is also intended to help residents prepare for an increase in tourism—which, if not strategically planned, could negatively affect the health of the ecosystem, as well as the livelihoods and customs of those who have historically lived in the area.

Río Ibáñez community
Río Ibáñez community and municipality representatives join staff from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Programa Austral Patagonia, and the nonprofit organization Aumén at a technical meeting in early 2020 in Cochamó, Chile, in support of the proposed Protected National Asset.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

As a “gateway community”—a small town that serves as an entry point to a natural site—for Cerro Castillo National Park, Río Ibáñez plays a key role in the sustainable development and management of protected areas throughout Chilean Patagonia. And as support for the model grows among communities and the region’s local government, gateway communities have more opportunities to share best practices. Earlier this year, for example, before the effects of the pandemic shut down travel in many places, a delegation from Río Ibáñez visited the gateway community of Cochamó, in the Los Lagos Region of Patagonia, to learn how residents handled their growing tourism industry while sustainably managing the territory, balancing the protection of tradition with tourism and conservation.

In Río Ibáñez, successful conservation and sustainable management of the new Protected National Asset using the group’s community-based conservation model could serve as a blueprint for other gateway communities in the area and worldwide.

The Pew Charitable Trusts joined the nonprofit organization Aumén and the Austral Patagonia Program from Universidad Austral de Chile in providing technical support to the group working to conserve and sustainably manage the proposed Protected National Asset.

Francisco Solís Germani directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work in Chile’s Patagonia region.