Community Efforts Bring New Park to Little-Protected Area of Chile

Santiago region is home to more than 7 million people—but less than 1% of the country’s protected areas, until now

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Community Efforts Bring New Park to Little-Protected Area of Chile
A group of hikers enters the Olivares River valley in the foothills below Chile’s newest national park. Parque Nacional Glaciares, in the Andes Mountains outside Santiago, covers terrain above 3,600 meters (11,811 feet) and requires a two-day hike from these foothills to reach.
Leonardo Latorre

Chile’s uniquely long north-south geography—the nation spans more than 2,650 miles of South America’s Pacific Coast—gives the country a broad spectrum of ecosystems, ranging from the world’s most arid desert, the Atacama, to some of the planet’s major glacial fields. And while conservation efforts historically have been focused in Patagonia, designation of the newest national park—a high-altitude area not far from the capital of Santiago—marks an important step for protecting nature in the country.

Chile has long stood out among the world’s countries for protecting a large swath of its territory—specifically, 42% of its ocean areas and more than 20% of its land, with a high percentage of those protected areas concentrated in Patagonia. This latest park designation extends protections into the country’s most populous area, which until now contained less than 1% of the country’s protected areas.

Santiago’s new Parque Nacional Glaciares (Glaciers National Park), in the Andes mountain range, should be celebrated for several reasons. First, it will protect 185,611 acres in an area whose 368 glaciers supply more than half of the fresh water that the capital area’s 7 million residents rely on. And the park will protect a wide array of wildlife, including more than 35 vertebrates, such as condors, Chilean eagles, pumas, and guanacos, which are South American camelids related to the llama.

Area residents and organizations led the successful drive for the park’s creation. In particular, they formed the #QueremosParque (We Want a Park) group and led a campaign that was instrumental in persuading authorities to establish the park. Over the past four years, the group secured more than 200,000 signatures and garnered more than 200 organizations’ support.

Claudio Orrego, the Santiago Metropolitan Region’s governor, hailed the park’s creation. “This will be an important national park for Chile, given its proximity to Santiago, which means that millions of people will have access to this natural space,” he said.

“Creating this park is essentially ‘democratizing’ the area’s natural beauty, because it’s giving people access to places that belong to all of us,” Gov. Orrego said. “These mountains have long been Santiago residents’ backyard, but this will make them more like our front lawn.”

Although securing the park designation is a significant and important achievement, it’s just a first step. As #QueremosParque’s leaders have pointed out, locals sought to protect 350,890 acres of public land, yet the new park covers only the portions of the area’s peaks above 3,600 meters (11,811 feet), leaving unprotected about half of the area proposed for safeguarding.

“Protecting these glaciers is necessary, but it’s not enough,” Gov. Orrego added.

The Olivares and Colorado river valleys remain outside the park’s borders, meaning that only those with the physical and financial wherewithal to climb the 12,000-foot peaks can access the protected area. Also excluded from protections are the region’s high-altitude wetlands, which help sustain much of the region’s biodiversity, including species such as the Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), one of the world’s most endangered felines and the most endangered in the Americas.

The Andean mountain cat, the Americas’ most endangered feline, is among the species that live in the still-unprotected areas surrounding the new park. Rodrigo Villalobos, scientific coordinator for the local conservation group Guardianes del Gato Andino, says his organization has captured images of adult male and female Andean mountain cats along the Colorado River canyon, which gives him hope that “there could be cubs as well.”
Guardianes del Gato Andino

Chileans increasingly see value in protecting the country’s remarkable natural areas and are returning to visit them following the relaxing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Case in point: More than 3.5 million people visited the 1,779-acre Santiago Metropolitan Park in 2022, up from 300,000 in 2021.

The Parque Nacional Glaciares story is off to a great start, but it’s far from over. The Pew Charitable Trusts hopes that this tale will soon have a happy ending in the form of protections for the area’s remaining 165,279 acres to conserve the entirety of this land and fresh water for future generations.

Halfway protections just won’t do.

Francisco Solís Germani directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Chilean Patagonia project.

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