In the 19th and 20th century, when sovereign Chilean and Argentine peoples moved south from their long-standing colonial settlements, in order to explore Patagonia, they found miles and miles of dense forest. All throughout the forest were countless giant Raulí and Coigüe trees – as the native Mapuche people called them –many of which were over a thousad of years old. These explorers saw the forest as lucrative opportunity to extract resources from the region, and shortly thereafter lumber mills began sprouting up all over, one of which still operates in our host town of Neltume. The birth and growth of the lumber industry in the area quickly upset the balance of the ecosystem that the Mapuches had preserved for so long. Similarly, in southern Appalachia, when American explorers arrived in the region, they found massive Chestnut trees dotting the hillsides and were quick to act, chopping them down for timber.
If we continue tracing these two regions’ timelines, we find that in both cases, as local wood resources were depleted, the timber industry’s growth slowed, and people began searching for alternative means to support themselves in these isolated environments. By this point, these woodlands were largely decimated by unregulated logging, with the largest, eldest trees all cut down and harvested for timber.
At present, an important industry in both southern Appalachia and Patagonia is ecotourism. Despite being hit hard by logging, these places are undeniably beautiful, and attract thousands of tourists each year (Neltume recorded 120,000 tourists last year). What’s ironic is that these regions were both reduced to a fragment of what they once were in their pristine, unexploited states, which begs the question: how would their appeal be different had they been able to avoid, or better withstand the impact of the logging industry?
With the transition from logging to ecotourism came government intervention as well as new entrepreneurial ventures. These took the form of establishing protected areas such as national and state/provincial parks and forests, biological reserves, and creating new laws to keep surrounding areas clean. For example, in southern Appalachia, the federal government created Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and in Chile, Torres Del Paine National Park, and the private enterprise of the Reserva Biologica Huilo Huilo, our DukeEngage worksite, were established.
Although Huilo Huilo certainly appeals to those looking to take in Patagonia’s natural beauty, in my time here, I have found that it seems to lack a special draw. Unlike other ecotourism destinations, the absence of a universally recognizable landmark or endemic organism has kept Huilo Huilo a secret for the most part. This inability to attract large crowds has had trickle down effects resulting in a lack of investment in the industry, and thus underdeveloped infrastructure compared to other tourist destinations. Excursions and activities are readily available; however, they have a low standard of quality and are not as well equipped as one might expect, giving the impression that activities in Huilo Huilo are spread too thin. There are plenty of exciting activities well suited to Huilo Huilo’s environment, but businesses need to do a better job of playing to their strengths by focusing on what’s unique to the region: glacial lakes, volcanoes, and indigenous culture.
Upon arriving at the Huilo Huilo Foundation, I was surprised to find out that the Biological Reserve is actually on privately owned land and was founded by Mrs. Ivonne Reifschneider in 1999. Clearly, Ms. Reifschneider must believe in the potential of the area as a touristic destination and feel that the region’s natural beauty and species are worth protecting; hopefully others can agree.
Before arriving at the Huilo Huilo Foundation in Neltume, I expected the local tourism industry to be more developed than I have found it to be. Rather than finding a number of high-end hotels and resorts and gift shops on every corner of town, we were met with a few quaint hostels and cabins, and the Huilo Huilo Hotel, the only hotel in town.
While they are small organizations, the Foundation, in tandem with the Hotel, play vital roles in the community surrounding Huilo Huilo. The Foundation sponsors regular community events such as weekly bike rides and brings in dentists and doctors from metropolitan areas every year so that local people can gain access to medical care that they would normally have to travel over 100 kilometers to obtain. Additionally, the Foundation has organized artisan workshops to teach locals to make handmade crafts and provides a platform for the sale of these crafts.
Just last week, our DukeEngage group helped run this year’s Huilo Huilo ‘Kong Kong’: an event aimed at bringing together employees from the Hotel, the Foundation, and the local lumber mill (the three largest employers in the area). The Kong Kong (native name of a species of local owl) serves as a forum for people to learn about the work of their peers and the role that the foundation plays in the community. During one of the activities that day, everyone was split into groups and asked to brainstorm what would be different if the Foundation did not exist. The response of one group struck me deeply. They said, “many women would still be in the home. Cooking and cleaning. The workshops give women an outlet to learn new skills and put them to work. They allow women to get out of the home and earn their own money.” At this point it became clear to me how crucial the Foundation is to the betterment and growth of this town and its people. While Huilo Huilo may not be a blockbuster tourist destination, it makes up for its shortcomings in development and organization with an overabundance of a less glamorous yet equally important quality: community.