A Sanctuary at the Bottom of the World
Lucas Chiappe, eco-activist, farmer and photographer from Argentina's spectacular Patagonia region, is leading an international coalition with a bold vision: creating a sanctuary that encircles the bottom of the planet to preserve the earth's southern-most forests. The Gondwana Forest Sanctuary is the first plan to conserve millions of acres of forests in four countries.
The Sanctuary will be home to protected sub-Antarctic rain forests that are the oldest and most unique temperate ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere. Between 500 and 140 million years ago, South America, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica were part of a single supercontinent called Gondwana. Plate tectonics caused Gondwana to begin splitting apart, spreading a southern beech forest ecosystem to southern regions of modern-day Chile and Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and southern Africa.
Only seven examples of such ecosystems exist today, representing less than one percent of the world's forests. Despite being some of earth's most ancient and fragile surviving forests, they are endangered due in part to a lack of awareness of the critical role they play in biodiversity, and the efforts of multinational corporations destroying them to make paper and chip board.
The momentum behind the Gondwana Forest Sanctuary began when Chiappe moved to the beautiful Epuyén Valley in the northern Patagonian Andes in 1976, and 14 years later founded Project Lemu to promote the protection of the remaining native forests in the valley. The project has expanded to promote the inter-agency cooperation and legal reforms needed to create and strengthen protected areas. It owes much of its success to the creation of independent, self-sustaining local groups that work to spread the ideas at the grassroots level.
Staff members visit various localities in the region and present talks, videos, slide shows, and workshops. During such visits, Chiappe and his associates facilitate the creation of small groups of enthusiastic individuals who are committed to the cause of environmental protection. These later expand into larger groups and work to further Project Lemu’s mission.
Chiappe and his team spent years struggling against strong financial and political interests in the Epuyén Valley. After logging activities destroyed 1,500 trees in one of the last virgin forests of Cerro Pirque, causing severe soil erosion and a devastating fire, the government relented and permitted an exhaustive investigation. It revoked the logging rights and ultimately authorized the creation of Cerro Pirque Provincial Park, the first provincial park in northwest Patagonia.
After attending a conference organized by The Native Forest Network in Montana, Chiappe was introduced to cutting-edge conservation strategies, such as the interconnection of National Parks with biological corridors designed to save species that migrate over long distances. Soon after, he joined forces with colleague Malu Sierra, Director of Defenders of the Chilean Forest, to launch a campaign for the creation of the Gondwana Forest Sanctuary.
In 1998, Chiappe helped organize a gathering of representatives from Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. They met in Chile to plan a campaign for the Gondwana Forest Sanctuary to combat the massive woodchipping, sawlog and mining operations occurring in native forests. Using an intercontinental approach, the Gondwana Campaign fosters “a greater ethic of pride in, respect for and conservation of the unique forests of the southern hemisphere.”
The supporters of the Gondwana Forest Sanctuary envision a global commons for the world's southernmost native forests. By protecting, reconnecting and restoring the life of the southern-most Gondwannic forests, an international sanctuary gives local, national and international communities a new model for how humans can relate to the land.
"I really believe that the creation of this international sanctuary is an opportunity to commit ourselves to the protection of one of the most fragile biodiversities on earth – not only for the four involved countries – but for the sake of humanity," he said. "This is the most precious heritage we can leave the next generations."
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