A few months ago I was invited to speak at a conference on the environment and sustainable development, being held in Ushuaia, in the Argentinian part of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. Having been touched and inspired by the remoteness and wild beauty of this area during a previous visit there in 1977, I was glad of the opportunity to return to what the local people call ‘Fin del Mundo’ — the End of the World.
Tierra del Fuego was named the Land of Fire by the Portuguese navigator, Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520, because of the many fires lit by native people which he saw on the beaches. Separated from the mainland of South America by the straits which bear Magellan’s name, Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago of one large main island and numerous smaller islands situated between latitudes 54° and 55° south. It is a wild landscape, comprising in the north of bleak, windswept plains, and further south of dramatic, jagged mountains — the tail end of the Andes — containing many glaciers and indented by countless fiords, channels and inlets. Only 1,000 kilometres from Antarctica, and with no other land at this latitude, the winds blow unrestrained by topography around the south of the world until they hit Tierra del Fuego, drenching the western part of the archipelago and much of the mountainous areas with rain and snow.
Away from the most exposed places, forests thrive in Tierra del Fuego. There are only five native species of tree there, three of which are southern beeches of the genus Nothofagus, and while they are sometimes stunted or gnarled by the wind, in more sheltered locations they grow into tall forests. In the wetter parts, they are festooned with mosses and lichens, forming lush temperate rainforests. The trees also directly support some interesting and unusual plants. These include Darwin’s fungus or Indian bread — a fungus which causes the trees to produce large burls, on which the round, bright orange, edible fruiting bodies appear — and the hemi-parasitic southern mistletoe known locally as ‘farolito chino’, or ‘little Chinese lantern’. This remarkable plant grows on the branches of its host tree, forming a spherical spray of bright yellow branches of its own, and in winter the sheer numbers of them on some of the bare-branched deciduous lenga trees give the forest the appearance of autumn.
Walking through these forests, I was struck by their beauty, and also by their uniqueness, for there are no other forests that far south on the planet. Tierra del Fuego is about as distant from the equator as my native Scotland is in the northern hemisphere, and superficially the forests appear quite similar. They even contain closely related species, such as small, insectivorous sundews and berry plants of the genus Empetrum. However, because of Tierra del Fuego’s location, it is the only place on Earth where sub-antarctic forest grows. The trees there are literally the Forest at the End of the World.
When I first visited Tierra del Fuego in 1977, the human population was about 20,000 and Europeans had only been living there for 100 years. However, even in that time, they had a major impact on the area. Ruthless exploitation by sealers and whalers had virtually eliminated sea lions, penguins and whales from the region, and the 4 tribes of native people had died out completely, largely because of diseases brought in by settlers. Introduced animals such as rabbits and beavers were affecting the native ecosystems, while domestic livestock, including cattle and 800,000 sheep, were overgrazing most of the open plains and some of the forests on the large island. Despite all this, however, much of the archipelago was still relatively pristine and undisturbed, and one national park on the Argentinian side, and several in Chile, had been established.
Returning 17 years later, it was soon apparent that a lot of changes had occurred in the intervening period. Encouraged in part by government tax incentives, the human population had increased dramatically, to about 80,000, and the small town of Ushuaia had become an urban sprawl, complete with traffic congestion, factories polluting the previously-clean waters of the Beagle Channel and shops filled with the latest technological icons of our modern consumer culture. The giant crabs with their metre-long leg spans, which had been abundant in the surrounding waters in 1977, were gone — overfished to the point of local extinction — and red tides of poisonous algae had occurred in the area for the first time. Four wheel drive jeeps and off-road vehicles were being driven over forest tracks and sphagnum bogs, damaging the fragile vegetation, and fires had burned large areas of forest alongside the principal road on the main island.
The more I travelled around, the more evidence I saw that the same environmental destruction which had taken place over centuries in countries such as Scotland is being compressed into a couple of decades in Tierra del Fuego. The unrestrained short-term exploitation of nature which has left so much of the Highlands of Scotland as a barren ‘wet desert’, devoid of forest, most of its wildlife, and people, has been exported in a form of economic imperialism which pays little respect for our fellow species or the wellbeing of the Earth. In this, Tierra del Fuego became for me a microcosm of what we collectively as humanity are doing to the planet right now.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the forests. With some of the region’s most abundant natural ‘resources’ already exhausted through overfishing and excessive hunting, economic attention is now being shifted to the trees. In the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, 250,000 hectares of land have been bought by a US multinational logging company, which promises to carry out ‘indefinitely sustainable forestry’ in these sensitive sub-antarctic forests, where fallen trees would naturally take a very long time to decompose, and regeneration can be very slow. Part of the area planned for this ‘harvesting’ adjoins Tierra del Fuego National Park on the Argentinian side of the border, and local conservation groups have serious concerns about the effects of such logging. Other forest areas are directly threatened by conversion to woodchips for export to Japan, while overgrazing by cattle and sheep is preventing any regeneration of the trees in many places, including some parts of Tierra del Fuego National Park.
On every continent, I’ve seen the demands of our materialistic culture leading to such destruction of the last undisturbed forests on the planet. I’ve also learned enough about the history of ancient cultures such as Mesopotamia and classical Greece to know that their civilisations ended, or went into rapid decline, when they cut down all their trees. In Tierra del Fuego, therefore, the question which kept running through my mind, ‘What hope is there for the Forest at the End of the World?’, took on a deeply symbolic double meaning for me. If we go on destroying our forests, it will lead to the collapse of our industrial civilisation, as surely as it did for Mesopotamia and Greece. The end of the forests will also be the end of the world, as we know it.
The answer to my question became apparent during the conference I spoke at. In contrast to the local government officials and military officers who were invited for the formal opening of the conference, my talks were attended largely by young people and schoolchildren. With the heightened environmental awareness shared by younger generations around the planet at this time, they formed a receptive and understanding audience for the main point of my talks — that Tierra del Fuego should avoid repeating Scotland’s ecological disaster of near-total deforestation. Listening to their ideas about keeping cattle out of the forests, starting native tree nurseries and fighting to prevent large scale logging of the forests, I saw the sparkle in their eyes and felt the passion in their hearts. If they, and indeed all of us, can translate our care for trees into positive and practical action, there is indeed hope for the Forest at the End of the World.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1996 edition of the Trees for Life Calendar)
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