For Peat's Sake
Gray, Will, Geographical
Originally a charitable gift from one of the world's largest banking corporations, the Wildlife Conservation Society's Karukinka reserve in Chilean Patagonia contains some of the Southern Hemisphere's most important peatlands. But these vital carbon storehouses remain under threat, and a unique eco-endurance competition, the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race, is helping to raise awareness of the importance of protecting this wild land. Will Gray reports
A few years before the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market almost brought the world's financial system to its knees and turned banking and securities firms into pariahs, one of those firms, Goldman Sachs, committed a remarkable act of generosity. Having acquired 272,000 hectares of land on the Chilean half of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego in December 2003 as a result of a legal settlement with the Trillium Corporation, which had tried to establish a logging operation on the island, the firm's charitable fund handed the land over to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
It was one of the largest private donations of land for conservation in history, and gave the WCS control of some of the world's southernmost old-growth forests, not to mention its most significant peat bogs. Dominated by lenga, a deciduous tree similar to the beech, this wild, windswept land is home to guanaco (a wild relative of the llama), the endangered culpeo fox, the Andean condor, and the Magellanic woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in the Americas.
The first act of the advisory board put together by the WCS to oversee the reserve, which is composed primarily of a mix of scientists and members of the private sector, principally Chileans, was to name the reserve Karukinka, meaning 'our land'--the original name given to the area by the island's now-extinct indigenous inhabitants, the Selk'nam. Since then, the WCS has established a permanent presence of park rangers and begun research into the ecology and migratory processes of the reserve's guanaco population.
Goldman Sachs' generosity extended to the provision of several years' worth of financial support, but now the WCS must look elsewhere for the funds it needs to maintain the reserve. It's hoping to tap into Chilean Patagonia's growing tourist market, and is in the process of opening several hiking trails and a lodge in the region. The area's plight has been publicised around the world thanks to the presence of the Wenger Patagonian Expedition Race (WPER), an eco-endurance challenge that takes place in Chilean Patagonia each year--at times within the reserve itself (see The last wild race).
Goldman Sachs' gift originally took the form of two large, unconnected blocks, but in 2007, the WCS finalised a deal with the local community that gave it title to a further 40,636 hectares to create an ecological corridor between the two tracts of land. It later added another 40,000-hectare strip of land along the coast.
One of the most pressing concerns has been the eradication of beavers, which were introduced into Tierra del Fuego in 1946. Since then, their populations have expanded significantly, and their darns cause extensive damage to riparian areas. But it's the protection of the reserve's peat bogs that has commanded the most attention.
Peat, which in Patagonia sits beneath a layer of unique red, orange and green sphagnum moss, is formed by the accumulation of plant material in a water-saturated environment. The lack of oxygen and acidity of the water inhibits the decomposition of the organic matter, leading to its slow build-up.
By holding this material in a sort of suspended animation, the world's peatlands act as an extremely significant carbon storehouse, holding in the region of 500 billion tonnes of it--twice as much as is incorporated into all of the trees in all of the world's forests--accumulated over tens of millions of years. …