burned trees Patagonia
burned lengua tree
valle Leones burned

Clearing fires in the valley, 1939-1955

The region:

In the prehispanic colonisation period the local native peoples provoked burns in the steppe and forests, as attested by several writers: George Musters (1870), Francisco Moreno, Andreas Madsen (see Publications). Fires were deliberate, there are no naturally occurring fires as there are no thunderstorms in the region (climate particularity). The pattern of these fires was different from the XX century’s fires: they were small and  very localised, people moved further and nature had the possibility to recover.

“ “Pristine” areas are artifacts by humans. In Chile they exterminated megafauna

and changed the landscape (15000-10000 years ago). In Monte Verde

the first permanent americans (South and North) burned underbush  

2 times a year” - “ The World Without Us”, Alan Weisman.

The region lost almost all its ancient forest cover mainly through the deliberate total clearing fires following the colonisation of the first half of the XX century, from approximately the 1900s to the 1950s, depending on the progress of the colonisation to South. Clearing the land from forest was a condition for receiving a land title for it by the new “occupants” of the land. The main clearing method was burning. It is well attested in publications on the history of the region, for example in this, describing the process of distribution of land to colons via the “occupation of land by fire”: Colonizacion Rio Baker.pdf , and many other, see Publications. Companies had a legal obligation to “colonise” - “obligación de colonizar” - using the same methods.

The history of this ecological disaster provoked by the fires of the last century was particularly silenced: according to recent publications about 3 millions hectares of forest were burned in Aysén in that period,

accounting for at least 50% loss of the total vegetation cover of the region, and massive forest ecosystem losses in the 1930s-1940s, nearing ecosystems collapse:

Patagonia crying.pdf                     A good summary of the tragedy of the forest in the region:

Geographic silences.pdf                La tragedia del bosque chileno.pdf

The trees you see on hills in the region are results of these fires.

The open space you see in the region and its “tremendous”

landscape used to be an ancient forest in the beginning of the XX century.


The original pre-colonial ecosystem of the valley was ancient

Nothofagus (southern beeches) forest.

No original peoples were living in this part of the region, some moved in from other regions following colonisation.

There are no thunderstorms in this area, specificity of the climate.

The absence of natural or man-made fire occurrences shaped a forest ecosystem where fire was not part of the normal ecosystem cycle.  Total and fast clearing burning was therefore a annihilating disaster for local nature.

The land was distributed and its original land titles assigned to the properties, forming the actual PPAP, in the late 1930s. These properties were cleared by fire in 1939, all 1800 hectares of the PPAP were burned.

Subsequent overgrazing and soil changes did not allow the forest to regrow.

Little ecological memory is left after the fire history of the region. It cannot be used to restore forest ecosystem resilience. Usually after forest fires a strong ecological momentum remains in vegetation, some in wildlife, and ecological amnesia in insects, but in this case time was lost for all momenta. 

No indigenous culture left, no traditional ecological knowledge or hight values assigned to the living nature and wildlife can help the assessment or revitalisation of the pre-fire forest.

There is still some possibility to transform the effects of large disturbance by fire into some minor positive effects for the ecosystem: deadwood, insects, food for birds and bats, etc.

ecological disaster, valle Leones 1939

The area of the PPAP in 1939,  after the burning, photos from A. Heim’s book.

High areas of the PPAP now, where the burned trees have not been used for firewood or otherwise cleared because of difficult access:

Ancient forest forest burned in the 1940s in the valley

Large lengua tree burned in the 1940s in the PPAP

Fires Patagonia
Deliberate fires Patagonia

Like a warm tear of dew -

A drop dropped in the eye.

There, in the heavenly high,

Someone is crying for you.

                         Marina Tsvetaeva, 1920

Словно теплая слеза -

Капля капнула в глаза.

Там, в небесной вышине,

Кто-то плачет обо мне.

Burned lenga tree (Nothofagus pumilio)

01.2018 - October 2018