Navarino Island’s Forest in Miniature

It is part of Patagonia’s natural heritage – a microscopic world of tremendous diversity that emerges in the midst of the enormous lenga trees. A microcosm of mosses and lichens for one to discover, magnifying glass in hand.

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Jorge López Orozco

Beneath a canopy of huge trees and magnetized by the imperious cold, the magnifying lens in our hand heightens the beauty of the miniature forest. We are in the Omora Ethnobotanical Park of Navarino Island in southern Chile, observing the microuniverse of mosses, liverworts and lichens growing on the bark of a tree. The experience of encountering these tiny life forms fills us with amazement. It isn’t difficult to guess why this micro forest is considered as one of Patagonia’s greatest treasures.

Navarino Island is one of the last Patagonian territories before reaching the freezing southern seas that separate the American continent from the Antarctic. In this extreme land, nature rises up majestically before us. Mountains shaped like a snow-capped jaw, such as the series of peaks called Dientes de Navarino  (Navarino’s Teeth), are home to the miracle revealed by the magnifying glass.

The park is located four kilometers west of Puerto Williams, the world’s southernmost settlement where just 2,000 persons live. The beauty of the route one must travel to reach the Park makes it understandable why these nature sites are the object of widespread international recognition. To the right is the Beagle Canal, a branch of sea that joins the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, with deserted bays and beaches facing the north coast – Tierra del Fuego. On the left, the lenga forests, characterized by their huge trunks and green foliage in the warm months, their branches interlaced and occasionally leaving openings that provide glimpses of the Patagonian Andes.

The temperature is low: around 7ºC at most in the summer, plus the ever-present frigid wind that chills the skin. Chile’s northernmost  municipality would seem to be a virgin paradise scarcely touched by humankind. However, the relationship between this geography and humankind is an old one. It is estimated that the first inhabitants of this territory arrived 6,000 years ago. They were the Yamana Indians, skilled seapeople who possessed a complex spirituality characterized by beautiful myths.

Nomads who were expert canoers and marine hunter-gatherers, they mainly lived on fishing and shellfish gathering, hunting for seals, otters or the coypus (an animal similar to a beaver), penguins and large fish. The use of canoes, fire management and their prodigious endurance of a harsh climate were their allies. Today their descendants live in the outlying areas of Puerto Williams and number almost a hundred.

Trekking through Omora

Omora Ethnobotanical Park is the world of the magnifying glass and the microcosm. Since 2001 it has been a mandatory referent for those interested in environmental themes, thanks to grant of a concession for 400 hectares to the Omora Foundation, whose members are academics of North American and Chilean universities, for state-of-the-art biological research.

“The main function of this place is to establish an adequate relationship between its human and natural components. Man cannot be separate from nature, nor vice versa – this has been the state of things in Navarino for thousands of years,” Dr. Christopher Anderson explained. A founding member of this initiative, Dr. Anderson welcomed us to the Park.

We see a path before us that winds into the deciduous Magellanic forest made up of three species of nothofagus: ñirre, lenga and coihue, followed by tundra in the upper areas. Humidity is high, there are few bright, sunny days, and 800 millimeters of rainfall each year – precisely the factor that has triggered the growth of this jungle in miniature.

To learn about Omora, you have to walk. Our trek is guided by one of the university students from Chilean and foreign universities who come to the Park to carry out their research projects. The island is famous for its biodiversity. In 2005 Unesco declared it a Biosphere Reserve, along with Cape Horn.

Microworld

The silence of the forest, its verdure and the peace that is felt in nature’s bosom, are the prelude to the most important sector: the forest in miniature. Enrique, our guide, who is studying Biology in Punta Arenas, invites us to come closer and observe the bark of a tree, where we see a tiny green carpet unfold in varying textures and tones. It is populated by moss and lichen, and at first sight isn’t too compelling.

At this point we are handed a magnifying glass and a different vision begins. Enrique is methodical in his explanations as he points out scores of types of flora that grow within an extremely tiny space. It was this biotic account that surprised scholars and, through various investigations, led to their certainty that preserving Navarino Island’s ecosystem was of the utmost importance.

“This is the Amazon, but a pygmy version,” says Dr. Anderson. The statement is appropriate because the island is inhabited by 5% to 7% of the total World population of lichens and mosses, a similar ratio to that between the jungles of Latin America and the planetary total. Our classroom lecture continues. “A tree can have 50 different kinds of moss or lichen that grow on average 0.1 millimeters a year. Nothing…or almost nothing.”

Magnifying glass in hand, they analyze the differences between the species and point out to us their homeopathic properties, which are constantly studied with a view to their medical use. This flora has remarkable capacities, including a direct relationship with the environment as a predictor of global warming and of the rate at which the Patagonian glaciers are melting. When the rock loses the ice the first of its settlers are the mosses and lichens – such is their importance.

The Woodpecker’s Drumming

For some 90 minutes we venture into the local ecosystem. There is much to be learned along the way, from the differences between the trees to how to recognize the resident birds. Scores of bird species are found on Róbalo Bay, Omora’s location, the most significant sighting being that of the Magellanic Woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus), the island’s emblematic bird.

The characteristic sound of the woodpecker’s drumming on a dry tree trunk accompanies us on our walk. We come across small birdhouses at regular intervals of a few meters and are told that  they are part of the monitoring performed by UMAG, or the University of Magallanes, that has made it possible to capture over 6,000 birds and gather an enormous amount of information for the scientists. There is much to be studied in the island’s natural surroundings.

We stop in front of a canelo tree. “This tree’s bark holds components for healing scurvy. The Yamanas discovered this much time before contemporary studies,” Enrique tells us, as he points out what has recently been discovered about the place.

Our discovery walk and Enrique’s talk could have continued for a long time. This corner of our planet is still under study and all of this lost land’s mysteries have yet to be revealed. It is a powerful and open invitation to all who still believe that the Earth is a place to be explored.

• How to Get There
1. By Air: Punta Arenas – Puerto Williams. DAP, O´Higgins 891, Punta Arenas, Tel. 61-616100, ventas@aeroviasdap.cl Punta Arenas – Puerto Williams: 10:00  Puerto Williams – Punta Arenas: 11:30 (Daily flights except Sundays)
– Flight Time: 01:15
– Passenger Capacity: 19 persons.

2. By Sea: Punta Arenas – Puerto Williams. Transportadora Austral Broom- – Av. Bulnes 05075, Punta Arenas, Tel. 61 – 218100, www.tabsa.clcorreo@tabsa.cl Departures from Punta Arenas: Wednesdays. Departures from Puerto Williams: Saturdays. Duration 34 hours. Basic accommodations.