The humid Patagonian Andes are covered by forests of nothofagus - remnants of an antique Antarctic flora that disappeared some millions of years ago covered by the ice of the Southern Pole glaciations. This unique plant genus is distributed only in the southern hemisphere, mostly in temperate areas of Australia, New Zealand and South America that long ago were connected through Antarctica as part of Gondwanaland.
In the wetter Pacific coastal areas forests are generally of coigue, tepa and manio trees - the abundant rains giving rise to siempre verde - forever green - forest cover.
On the higher elevations of the Patagonian mountains a special forest is found, the lenga woods of the cold-adapted nothofagus pumilio trees, whose foliage turns bright red and orange in fall (autumn). In some areas these unique woods are formed by huge ancient trees with branches hanging with lichens and populated by almost tame birds such as the large Patagonian red-headed woodpecker. In contrast with the alpine zone this forest forms an intricate krummholz of stunted, crooked trees that spread over the rocky environment. In summer, a mold grows over the trunks and branches of these trees - in the past it was harvested as a delicacy by the Indians.
The understory of the lenga forest is a carpet of beautiful flowers such as the yellow amancay that form tapestries of golden color. The beauty of this species, endemic of the southern South American forests, is renowned and has produced many striking cultivars that are now used for floral arrangements all over the world.
Where the canopy is broken, dazzling scarlet Enbothrium, yellow Berberis bedecked with mauve edible berries and deep red Pernettya emblazon the ground. Many species of rare, unique wildflowers can also be found, and in humid areas rare orchids and and pink oxalis interweave in a tapestry of color with delicate primulas.
Fuschia magallenica borders the Carretera Austral in great profusion providing a wonderful display - almost a hedgerow.
Massive nalca plants grow pretty well everywhere - giant rhubarb-like stems at least eight to ten feet high with leaves six feet across. The very young stems can be peeled and used much in the same way as our familiar garden rhubarb. They provide good shelter in the rain in a similar way to Poor Man's Umbrella in Costa Rica, and we've often seen people sheltering under them - especially cyclists!
CHILE'S FORESTS - GENERAL
Chile has the highest rate of biodiversity of the world's temperate forests due to its many diverse ecosystems and varied landscape and climate.
These forests may seem to be located 'at the end of the Earth' - they form a biological island in the far reaches of the southern hemisphere, with the Pacific ocean to the west, Antarctica to the south, the Andes mountains to the east, and the Atacama desert to the north.
The native forest include the world's second largest expanse of temperate rainforest dominated by the siempre verde - "forever green" - forest type that is unique to southern Chile and Argentina. Temperate rainforests are rare, originally covering just 0.2 percent of the Earth's land area. They are more endangered that tropical forests and today more than half have already been destroyed. More than one quarter of the world's remaining temperate rainforests are in Chile.
Wood specimens shown here are from coigue, lenga and tepa.
Tree species endemic to Chile include the alerce, whose typical lifespan (over 3,000 years) is exceeded only by California's bristlecone pine, and the monkey puzzle tree that represents the world's oldest surviving tree species. There are more than 50 species of tree in Chile's forests - 38 are listed as endangered!
The remarkable biological diversity of Chile's forests has unfortunately met unrivalled destruction. Some 5 million acres of Chile's rare and magical native forests have been destroyed to make way for industrial tree farms to feed the giant US wood product companies intent upon maximising their products (regardless of the ecological consequences). As a result Chile now has the world's largest expanse of radiata pine tree farms creating a vast and monotonous landscape vista of unchanging color and architecture. The expansion of non-native tree farms is the biggest threat to the survival of Chile's native forests. For small and medium forest owners there is more money to be made in the short term by trashing forests, as currently there is no economic alternative: they are neither trained nor financially motivated to sustainably manage native forests*.
The demand for wood chips is also increasing pressure on Chile's forests with much of it sourced from native forests. Almost 95 percent of native forest wood chips go to Japan's pulp industry with companies securing long-term access while placing themselves at minimum risk and responsibility of compliance with (lax) national forest laws. Japan imports more than 80 percent of the total volume of wood chips produced worldwide.
A second problem negatively affecting the survival of forests are new plantations of genetically modified trees. We've all heard a little about genetically modified foods, but the development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the forestry industry is less well known, with long-term unforeseen, and damaging, changes in the altered or 'guest' genome. In Chile, genetically modified plantations have been in development since the 1990s.
*If the small and medium landowners are not pressured to sell their land to timber companies, then they often hire fly-by-night operations to help them illegally cut in their native forests to sell the logs to wood chip mills.
Deplorable statement from Chile's former president Eduardo Frei: "We must not let the environment stand in the way of economic growth."