Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Chile’s Mother of God Island to Receive Govt. Protection – Environmental Patrimony Grounds Cited – Island has no Counterpart Anywhere else in Chile

French And Chilean Explorers Highlight Unique Characteristics Of Isolated Southern Island

(Jan. 14, 2008) An isolated and inclement island in far southern Chile’s Region XII is gaining some worthy attention and much needed protection, thanks to moves by the Chilean government and to a series of Franco-Chilean expeditions.

Isla Madre de Dios (Mother of God), located about a day’s boat trip north-west of Puerto Natales, is a largely unexplored, 270,000-acre area of rock, wind and sea that - unlike most of the other countless islands in the mind-bogglingly intricate Patagonian archipelago - belongs to neither a national park nor reserve.

But just recently the island received a measure of protection from the government’s Ministry of National Patrimony, which included it among the estimated 900,000 acres of land the government body now controls throughout the country. Any private interests wanting to develop on the island, in other words, must now go through and be approved by the Ministry.

“We clearly have information that tells us this place is highly valuable in terms of patrimony – environmental patrimony,” Pablo Mecklenburg, head of the Ministry’s patrimony division, told the Patagonia Times (a sister publication to The Santiago Times).

“Part of our task, specifically the division I lead, has to do with taking care of and protecting our natural patrimony in Chile. We think that this is a territory that under the country’s existing protection schemes (the national park and reserve system) enjoyed very little representation. We took this action in order to preserve this space, which has no counterpart anywhere else in Chile,” he added.

The island has also benefited of late from a series of joint French-Chilean expeditions led by a group called Centre Terre. The group, which includes experts from Chile’s Universidad de Chile and Universidad Católica, is helping shed light on the island’s rich biological, geographical and cultural assets.

Last week the group embarked on its third expedition since 2000, when they first began the onerous task of exploring the island’s long and intricate perimeter. This time around the Centre Terre scientists and spelunkers plan to visit the island’s western and northern faces.

The modern day explorers also plan to revisit several of Madre de Dios’ unique and frighteningly deep caves and crevices. One of those caves, “el Sumidero del Futuro” (the Sink of the Future), is thought to go down at least 376 meters, making it the deepest in Chile. In addition, the Centre Terre team will return to the 305-meter “Sima del Descanso” (Chasm of Rest), which they discovered on their last expedition, in 2006.

On that same trip, the group stumbled across some 50 cave paintings thought to be made by former Alacalufe inhabitants. The Alacalufe are an indigenous people that inhabited the Patagonia archipelago long before the arrival of European explorers and traders. Evidence of Alacalufe presence in the zone dates back to 6,000 B.C. In the 17th century, when the nomadic indigenous group first made contact with Europeans, their population is estimated to have been between 2,500-3,000.

In 2003, an 80-year-old Alaculfue woman named Fresia Allessandri passed away, bringing the dwindling tribe one step closer to extinction (ST, Oct. 30, 2003). Allessandri (born Jérawr Asáwer) took her name from former Chilean President Arturo Allessandri, who was Chile’s leader at the time of her birth.

Most of the remaining Alacalufe, also known as the Kaweskar, reside near an Air Force base on Puerto Eden in Chile's Region XI. A recent count indicated that there were 12 full-blood members of the ethnic group based there, two of whom are students and only return for holidays. Other people of Alacalufe origin have moved to the southerly towns Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, where most work in traditional artisan goods or in the local fish-collecting trade. Ethnologists have been making attempts to record the unique language spoken by the Alacalufe people while they still can.

“We, together with this group from France, want to continue collecting information about the island’s archaeological and biological aspects,” said Pablo Mecklenburg. “Once we’ve finished, we’ll decide what use to make of the island. And when I say ‘use,’ I do so taking liberties with the language, because the use could be total conservation.”