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A highway project in Chile threatens one of the world’s longest-living tree species

  • The Chilean government’s intention to build a final section of a highway through a national park has caused concern among scientists and environmentalists.
  • In a letter published in the scientific journal Science, scientists warn that the road will destroy hundreds of the longest-living trees in the world.
  • Scientists are also concerned that the road, which may allow large trucks, would impact numerous other endangered species in the park, including a rare canine and small wild cat.

When Chilean President Gabriel Boric instructed the Ministry of Public Works (MOP) to complete the final section of a highway connecting the southern cities of La Unión and Corral in June 2023, the scientific community made their concerns known internationally.

“Chile’s road plans threaten ancient forests” was the headline of a letter published in the scientific journal Science.

A part of the road will pass through the Alerce Costero National Park, a protected area that preserves one of the world’s longest-living tree species: the alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides). The species grows exclusively in Chile and Argentina, and has been classified as Endangered by both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Chilean government, due to decades of indiscriminate logging.

Currently, the environmental impact assessment for the road works is suspended, following a series of observations made by the National Forest Corporation (CONAF, the organization responsible for the administration of protected areas in Chile) regarding the project, including the felling of almost 800 alerce trees.

According to scientists, this road would not only put an already threatened species at even greater risk—thus violating the treaty that Chile signed during the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in December 2022—but also increase the risk of wildfires, invasive species and illegal logging.

But the MOP argues that the highway will enable the integration of rural areas, thereby improving the connectivity around the town of Corral. According to the Ministry, the highway is an essential work of national interest, which is how the road has secured the legal permits necessary to build within a national park. However, scientists say there are alternative solutions. Meanwhile, environmentalists and local community members claim that the road’s true purpose is to benefit the forestry industry.

Inaccurate information

The highway, known as route T-720, is already partially complete, with just the middle section (the portion passing through the national park) awaiting construction.

This section includes 10 km (six miles) of an old route that was lost in the 1980s when “a bridge was dismantled and stopped being used,” explains Rocío Urrutia, a researcher at the Center for Climate and Resilience Research and one of the authors of the letter published in Science.

Since the road had been almost completely abandoned for the past 30 years, it is currently covered in vegetation and alerce trees, including a population of the tree that has been identified as genetically different.

“They are mature, evergreen forests, and among the best preserved in Chile’s coastal mountains, with a high conservation value,” says Urrutia.

To scientists, the main concern is that there is no clarity on the number of alerce trees that would need to be cut down to finish the road.

“First, there was mention of 148 alerce trees,” says Urrutia, adding that the most recent addendum says 796 trees.

According to Urrutia, Chile classifies the alerce tree as a Natural Monument, so “each tree matters.” CONAF highlights this in one of its observations, indicating that “all individuals must be counted, regardless of their stage of development or size; they cannot be estimated.”

CONAF also notes that “there is a clear underestimation of the figures provided,” based on its findings of a greater number of alerce trees in the area than that declared by the MOP.

Despite the project mentioning that the trees could be moved to another site, “it’s not known with any certainty how this transfer would be made or where the trees would supposedly be protected so they could survive post-transfer,” says Urrutia.

The scientists’ concern is not just based on assumptions, but unfortunately on facts, as they have already observed impacts around highway construction sites, says Antonio Lara, an academic at the Faculty of Forest Sciences and Natural Resources of the Austral University of Chile and main investigator of the Center for Climate and Resilience Research.

In August 2023, during a site visit carried out by Lara and other experts, they found illegal logging of Guaitecas cypress (Pilgerodendron uviferum), a tree classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN, and at least nine dead alerce and cypresses next to the road.

“We’ve seen that the alerce trees are dying [in the areas where the highway has already been built] – because it rains so much in winter, there is a very strong runoff of gravel toward the alerce trees, which is killing them, because the soil starts to be washed away, then the topsoil is eroded, leaving just stone,” explains Urrutia.

A tourist rests on the footbridge of the millennial alerce trail. Photo courtesy of / @fotofanhm.

The unmeasured impacts of the road

Inaccurate information about how the road may affect alerce trees and other threatened tree species is only part of the problem. In the letter published in Science, the scientists say they are concerned about the indirect impacts that the road will have on the ecosystem as well. One such impact is the greater probability of forest fires, in a country where 99% of fires are caused either accidentally or intentionally by humans and occur within a one-kilometer (0.6 mile) radius of a road, according to the letter’s authors.

Rising fire risk is of particular concern due to the increasingly intense fires that occur every summer in Chile, and ,as CONAF notes in one of its observations, the lack of mitigation measures proposed by the MOP against this threat.

“We’re extremely concerned that when people arrive,…the fires will spread, because CONAF doesn’t have enough resources to monitor the entire area along the route,” says Urrutia.

Another concern is the potential rise of illegal logging due to increase road access. Scientific research carried out in the Amazon has long identified a link between the opening of roads and deforestation. What happens in these southern forests is no exception.

“Build a road, they’re going to steal the wood anyway,” says Lara. “We’re not inventing these things; roads increase the threats.”

Despite being a protected species, the alerce, with its valuable reddish wood, continues to be the target of loggers.

A felled Guaitecas cypruss (Pilgerodendrum uviferm). In a marshland located 23 km from route T-720, 16 felled trunks of this species were found, in addition to seven dead unfelled trees. Photo courtesy of Fundación Forecos.

A further concern is a potential increase in invasive exotic species such as Ulex europaeus, a thorny shrub from Europe that has already been observed along constructed sections of the highway. Dogs, which are a major threat to native wildlife, are yet another worry.

Although there are already dogs in the area that belong to local communities, CONAF notes that “it is not comparable with the flow that will significantly exceed the current situation and should be considered the worst scenario.”

CONAF says that the of MOP “takes no responsibility for the impact that the greater volume of traffic along the route will have, which will be difficult for the Alerce Costero National Park authority to control.”

In fact, according to the organization, the project does not even address the impacts facing species such as Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fluvipes), listed as Endangered by the IUCN, or the smallest wild cat in the Americas, the kodkod or guina (Leopardus guigna), listed as Vulnerable. Both species could be impacted by dogs attacking them or spreading diseases, as well as ending up as road kill due to increased traffic.

Distrust about the real motive behind the highway’s construction

Although “the road is supposed to just be for tourist purposes,” says Urrutia, this is not clear from the environmental impact assessment.

“The [MOP] continues to propose and plan for traffic of trucks with more than two axles, even though route T-720 is to be used exclusively for tourist purposes given its condition, geometric design and location within a national park,” according to CONAF.

According to the Movement for the Defense of Coastal Alerce, the highway project favors private interests, especially those of forestry. Chile’s forestry industry is Latin America’s second-largest producer of pulp thanks to the country’s vast amount of pine and eucalyptus monocultures, covering more than three million hectares. According to the NGO, the new road would provide a direct route from the Pan-American Highway and La Unión (which according to the 2022 Forestry Yearbook is home to largest concentration of planted hectares in the province of Ranco) to the Port of Corral, Chile’s most important port for exporting wood chips.

“The Cumuleufu region, which is where route T-720 ends and the route that leads to La Unión begins, is an area completely overrun with forestry companies, which need a safe route to the Port of Corral,” says Luis Llanquilef Rerequeo, leader of the Adrián Llanquilef Leal Mapuche community, located in the commune of La Unión.

Development strategies for the Port of Corral confirm that one of the priorities is improved road access, including the route between La Unión and Corral.

“The transportation of land cargo to the Port of Corral has significant logistical and operational limitations, which is why it is advisable to focus on improving road access to Corral from regional production centers,” reads a report prepared in 2016 by the regional government of Los Ríos.

The T-720 road in the Alerce Costero National Park prior to the improvement works that widened the road to 15 meters (a 9-meter-wide platform, with a 6-meter-wide road). Photo courtesy of Fundación Forecos, 2015.

The MOP argues that one of the reasons for building the road is to support the Port of Corral, which Urrutia translates as meaning the Ministry “wants to transport goods” over the new road.

This has increased doubt over whether the road would really be exclusively for tourism leading to distrust among scientists and environmentalists, as “obviously the traffic of trucks will have a much greater impact,” says Urrutia.

The MOP also argues that building the highway will provide connectivity to communes in Corral and La Unión.

“We’ve been waiting for many years for this possibility of connecting [Corral] with La Unión, which is a route that we need in the event of a disaster, for example,” the Mayor of Corral told local media.

Meanwhile, Eliana Azócar, a town councilwoman, pointed out that “although La Unión doesn’t have as serious connectivity issues as Corral, it’s true that we could have a direct route to Corral, therefore offering them all of La Unión’s services, so that in difficult times the people of Corral have somewhere to go.”

For scientists, however, Corral’s connectivity could be solved by improving an already existing road that connects the port city with Valdivia, the regional capital.

“The road is in disrepair, but it does have a suitable route and not only connects Corral with Valdivia, but also with La Unión,” says Lara, adding that “people live around that road, so it has much greater social profitability.” He also notes that scientists have been pushing for improvements to this road, rather than the construction of T-720.

“We’re concerned that national priority is being given to something that shouldn’t be prioritized because there are other solutions, and that pressure is being pushed on an ecosystem that is already in danger of extinction, and all the more so in a national park that should be the pride of the Los Ríos region,” says Urrutia.

According to the authors of the Science letter, “Chile’s proposed road completely ignores the COP15 agreement,” to which countries committed to stopping biodiversity loss. They continue, “the government must honor its commitments and prioritize the protection of the country’s most endangered species.”

Banner image: The Alerce Costero National Park is a protected area that preserves one of the longest-living tree species in the world: the alerce. Photo courtesy of

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on July 20, 2023.

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