Volcanoes in Chile’s south poised to become centerpiece of nation’s first Geopark

An ongoing project will propose an area of over 4,000 square miles around one of the country’s most active volcanoes for inclusion in a new class of park developed by United Nations’ Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). The official decision will be made by an international committee in July of 2012.

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Chile’s National Forestry Commission (CONAF) is developing a proposal for UNESCO to designate a 4,283 square mile swath of land surrounding the Llaima Volcano as a Geopark. One of UNESCO’s more recent projects, the Global Geoparks Network was established in 1999 to protect sites important for the world’s geological heritage and to promote development in their surrounding communities.

Chile’s project is due for completion in July of 2012 after it began in July of 2009. After review from an international committee, the region around Llaima Volcano is expected to become the first Geopark in Chile.

The proposed region includes the entirety of Conguillío National Park and the China Muerta National Reserve, as well as portions of the national parks and reserves at Tolhuaca, Nalcas Malalcahuello and Villarrica. Three of Chile’s active volcanoes will be included in this region as well as at least five towns with a total population of 23,700 inhabitants.

To date the UNESCO’s Geoparks project is in 77 locations in 24 countries, including eleven locations that were added in the week of Oct. 4, 2010. Proposals for new parks are evaluated every two years by an international committee based on three criteria laid out by UNESCO. First, the regions must have plans for sustainable socio-economic development, usually based in agro- and geo-tourism. Second, they must demonstrate an ability to teach geo-science and environmental issues.  Third, proposals must involve the integration of public authorities, local communities and private interests.

Several government organizations have already invested heavily in the proposed Geopark, including the Chilean Economic Development Agency  (CORFO), National Service of Geology and Mines (SERNAGEOMIN), National Commission for the Environment (CONAMA) and CONAF. In total, investments from these organizations over three years are expected to total around US$1 million.

Unlike other park models, the Geopark is not based around protecting existing environments by completely restricting developement; instead it is designed to allow a reasonable and sustainable expansion within its borders  that can benefit both the natural environment and the people who live within it. “Llaima Volcano is already part of Conguillío National Park, which was established in 1940,” says regional head of Conaf, Oscar Pontigo Arviles. “The Geopark model is different in that it will help the development of tourism.”

Home to the nation’s largest indigenous community, La Araucanía is already a major base for Chile’s eco-, agro- and ethno-tourism industries. Should the Geopark proposal be successful, the infrastructure in place surrounding the Llaima Volcano, one of the country’s richest regions for natural and cultural exploration, will see marked improvements for visitors of all kinds.

This post is also available in Spanish