5000 Mile Project: When is a wood not a wood?

Katharine and David Lowrie

5000 miles 300x225 5000 Mile Project: When is a wood not a wood?We have all been taught the merits of planting trees. One by one, “The Man Who Planted Trees” popped fat acorns into the bare hill sides of Provence in Jean Giono’s spirtiual tale. Gradually the shepherd created a forest in a beautiful allegory of hope.

Chile, the country in which we are doing our run is currently shrouded in forests, from its mystical “Tolkienesque” southern temperate rainforests to its comical stands of Araucaria or monkey-puzzle trees. Indeed of the 75 million hectares of land that comprises this thin slice of a country, approximately 21 % is covered by forests. In comparison, the USA boasts 33% of forested land and the UK a measly 12%.

So should we be congratulating the USA and Chile while beating the UK for their respective wealth and lack of woodlands? The answer of course is rather more nebulous than the gaudy statistics report. Because, as our feet dodge the pot holes of Chile’s Patagonian highway, the “Carretera Austral” – the woodlands we’re viewing – as with many of the woodlands in the USA and the UK, are not all as savoury as the word “wood” necessarily suggests.

First there are the subtle purples of the deciduous Nirre and Lenga and the soft greens of the ever-green Coigue, Chile’s southern beeches, knotting high into the knuckles of the Andean cordillera. Under their canopies graze the endangered Patagonian huemul deer, while the sound of drilling Magellanic woodpeckers resonates through their crowns. Then there are the rigid lines of Monterey and lodgepole pine marching in homogenous ranks. Their canopies create an oppressive black cloak over the forest floor and in stark contrast to the “bustle” of the native woodlands, an eerie silence prevails.

These plantations, like those of many other countries including the UK and USA, were planted where native woodlands once stood due to their incredibly rapid growth rates. With the help of substantial government subsidies Chile’s forestry sector has bloomed. In 2005 forestry products compromised 13% of the country’s total exports and by 2009 Chile become the world’s ninth leading exporter of construction wood and wood pulp. Not bad for a country of 17 million.

But what of the future for these plantations? In addition to presenting an angular blot on the landscape, the exotic conifers shed pine needles that increase the acidity of the forest floor. Invertebrates find it difficult to exist in such conditions, leading to poor humus production and a decrease in soil fertility. The lack of leaf-litter also affects stream ecosystems which depend on these nutrients as a major energy flow and food source.

Then there is water; both the lack of and abundance. Each night, wherever possible, we seek woodlands to camp in. They provide both a respite from the howling Patagonian weather and allow us to melt into the landscape away from prying eyes. When we have found shelter in native woodlands, streams bubble from the thick damp carpet of leaves and an umbrella of droplets collect in the many recesses of the old trees and layers of plants beneath. In contrast the conifer plantations are arid. Wells and streams have even been reported to dry up in their vicinity.

Unlike the sponge-like qualities of the native woodlands, gradually replenishing ground water stores, the thin layer of pine needles are unable to absorb the yearly two to four metre torrents of Chile’s temperate rainforest zones. This leads to increased run-off and increased flooding incidents.

Pile on top of this concoction of impacts the soaring fire-risk of conifer plantations due to their resinous qualities, tight packing and single-species planting and the need for agrochemicals to rid the monoculture of its “pests”, which in-turn run into streams and contaminate soil.

You might then sprinkle a healthy dollop of soil erosion in the mix. This predominately occurs during two stages: “nursery” and felling, with the subsequent burning of residues. Soils become completely exposed to water and wind leading to the loss of a reported, “500 to 2,000 tons of soil per hectare per year in Chile” (Otero, 1990).

Above all, it is life. A total lack of it in the new plantations. The Codeff, Chile’s flora and fauna conservation organisation, cites plantations as a threat to the survival of various species, including the critically endangered and endemic Darwin’s fox, the vulnerable southern pudu deer and the near-threatened little forest monkey opossum.

So in a nut-shell (or should we say pine cone) biodiversity nose-dives in the new plantations in Chile and across the world, as species richness and abundance crash and key resources critical to human survival; water and soil are compromised. And for what? A hand-full of short-term jobs? A pile of ply board and fax paper dumped on the factory floor in the UK, Japan or USA?

All woods are not “good” woods. There are plantations with the combined usefulness of a lump of concrete. There are semi-natural native woodlands which still retain their field layer and grand old trees, but with areas of new-planting. Then there are the ancient woodlands which echo century-old footsteps of hunter gatherers and lovers. That are bursting with bird song and home to such extraordinary creatures as Chile’s vulnerable Darwin’s frog, who incubates his young in his mouth!

In the UK only 2% of these precious habitats remain. In Chile large tracts still cling to the slopes of the Andes and sweep unmolested into remote valleys. Here is where that misused, misplaced, redolent little word reigns in full glory. These are “woods”… for now.

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  • simplie brilliante

    Lilke the “green deserts” of eucalyptus in Brazil, Spain and Portugal.

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