March 29, 2014

Impacts of Fire in Torres del Paine

Tourist testimonial in Torres del Paine, 2012. 
© Sernatur
by Marcela Torres

More than 16,000 hectares (39,537 acres) were destroyed by the fire caused by the irresponsible conduct of a tourist that forced Torres del Paine National Park to close between Thursday, December 29, 2011 and Wednesday, January 4, 2012. Until last week, CONAF –the government agency in charge of managing protected areas in Chile- still had firefighters putting out new fires in different sectors of the park.

Although most of the fire is now under control and the park is slowly picking up its normal pace, a permanent environmental damage has been caused in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Because the only person accused or starting the fire is an Israeli citizen and this is the second time in 2011 that a tourist from that country caused a disaster in the park, the Government of Israel announced that it will send a delegation of experts in reforestation who will pass on the experience obtained from recovering forests in the Carmel area, a year ago. In addition, it will make a direct contribution in trees, by setting up a greenhouse especially designed for the reforestation of Torres del Paine.

However, the native forest that was destroyed is composed of trees that grow very slowly and reach maturity when they’re approximately 200 years old. They also need to be protected from the cold, the wind during the winter and the dryness during the summer.

Therefore, it’s not just a matter of replanting small trees, but also of providing them the necessary conditions to grow. In addition, it’s important to consider that large part of the fire was expanded underground and affected the area’s soil. Wildlife living in the park will probably return to the damaged sectors only to find them completely barren and will have to move elsewhere in search of food and shelter.

Several national and international teams of researchers are already studying the environmental impacts of the fire in order to contribute to prepare an effective recovery plan.

Economic Impact

The forced closure of the park also affected local economy, which largely depends on incomes generated by thousands of foreign tourists that visit the area during the high season, between November and February.

It is estimated that tourism business owners lost $2 million dollars, although this is still a preliminary figure to which we need to add what they will have stopped receiving during the season. Many of them have made great efforts to avoid lay-offs because their employees were relying on the salaries they would obtain these months.

Despite the park’s partial opening, data provided by the authorities reflect that visits have dropped 50% in January. The Chilean Government has allocated resources to support micro and small tourism enterprises in the area and has launched an aggressive international promotion campaign to maintain the flow of visitors to the park in 2012 and 2013.

Opportunity for Responsible Tourism

This sad experience in Torres del Paine National Park reminds us once again of the importance of promoting responsible tourism. The lessons learned apply both to the destination and its visitors, revealing the need to carry out awareness campaigns with all stakeholders involved in order to ensure that future generations can enjoy this beautiful place in Patagonia.

This entry was originally posted by the author on January 28, 2012.

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