A peninsula at risk

A leafy forest covers parts of Chile’s Hualpén Peninsula. Image: German Poo-Caamaño via Flikr

By Fabián Barría

Sea, cliffs and forest. That’s the natural landscape that tourists enjoy when they visit the Hualpén Peninsula, a nature sanctuary in the central-south of Chile and that shelters dozens of endemic species. Experts warn that the place could be irreparably damaged if a real estate project is approved in the middle of it.

The people who visit the Hualpén Peninsula say it is like going to another planet. Literally. The leaves of the trees cover the sun  and in the distance you can feel the marine breeze and the waves. The area in the Biobío region features two natural landscapes: forest and ocean.

Another planet?

Yes. There are few places left on Earth where the native flora is allowed to grow without a human threat. That is why in 1976 the Chilean government  protected the region by declaring it a nature sanctuary.

Yet if the Hualpén Peninsula had feelings, some experts say that  it would be shivering with fear of a looming real estate deal that could bring thousands of residents there.

A nature sanctuary is a terrestrial or marine place that offers conditions and special opportunities for geological, paleological, zoological, botanical and ecological investigations of areas whose conservation is of interest to science or the government.

This coastal region consists of  more than 2.660 hectares of private property protected by Chile’s Council of National Monuments.  Its weather ranges between warm mediterranean temperate and humid temperate, giving refuge to a variety of species. Some of them are at risk of disappearing. They include the Humboldt penguin, which is listed as vulnerable, and the chungungo, which is listed as endangered.

The species

The zone is a natural habitat for introduced and native trees and a perfect place for nesting. It is possible to find at least 70 types of birds,  at least 14 of them endangered. The trees include the  peumo, olivillo, litre, boldo and queule y pitao – the last two in critical condition.

Chile’s Ministry of the Environment reports the presence of such birds as the pelican, yunco, piquero, golondrina, huala, peregrine falcon and the almost threatened gray shearwater.

These species coexist with several beaches that are visited by adventurers who must walk for several minutes or risk driving on gravel roads that border dangerous cliffs.

The project

The Hualpén Peninsula in the central-southern zone of Chile and has an area of 2,662 hectares. Image: Fabián Barría via Google

Last July, the Agrícola Agrinama S.A. company proposed the real estate project Mirador del Alto. It would turn part of the nature sanctuary into a residential area, bringing as many as 5,000 people, according to reports signed by the owner of the company, Vicente Navarrete.

The Environmental Impact Evaluation Service, the governmental institution in charge of approving or rejecting large-scale projects that cause environmental repercussions, is analyzing the idea.

The company assures that the $57 million investment plans to create an urban area in a harmonious, sustainable and natural preservation environment.

Its design contemplates converting more than 167 hectares of forest  into housing lots, green areas and streets for automobile traffic in 11 stages

In a report, Agrícola Agrinama S.A. promises “to give access to the public, which today is very scarce, to be able to appreciate the natural beauty of the sector through the creation of outdoor spaces and, at the same time, to favor in the area of the generation of a sense of belonging to the future occupation of it, which will result in greater care of the natural environment.”

The project would meet the regulations regarding the use of the land, according to the local municipality of Hualpén. However members of the evaluation committee have raised doubts related to how the developer plans  to protect nature.

The committee has asked  the company to rectify several errors in its presentation  through an addendum. And it has asked it to clarify  the treatment that will be given to water and sewage, the damage to animals that may be generated by construction noise  and how to control the dust emanating from the construction.

The consequences

“Installing real estate projects in this sector is an aberration,” said Guillemo Herrera, a biologist with the University of Southern California in the U.S. “In this case it is serious because it’s in a nature sanctuary.  There are few places like this left.”

Herrera says that this type of project could be built elsewhere and if it is built here that much of the natural wealth in the Biobío region will be lost.

“It’s not enough to bring your wallet and offer money,” he said. “There are things that simply can’t be done.”

The first problem is fragmentation of the habitat, he said. That reduces a large area of native flora and fauna, to a smaller one, removing the space needed for the natural development of the ecosystem.

When you intervene in these environments, you take away space from the animals, Herrera said.  ”There are some that are very elusive. It’s a way to displace them.”

Juan Cancino, a marine zoologist at the University of Wales, says that the project doesn’t just bring in more people.  “It comes with pets – dogs and cats – which are the most terrible, because if they escape they can ruin the flora and fauna,” he said.

He calls on those who promote the project to “commit themselves to the State to build a path that is not the passage of animals that are not typical of the area.”

Cancino adds that the Hualpén Peninsula is the last living piece of the almost extinct coastal forest of the Biobío region that in ancient times was shared with the neighboring Maule region.

“Everything has been invaded,” he said. ”We must make a special effort to continue with this configuration of coastal species.”

The ties

The Navarrete family, owner of Agrícola Agrinama S.A., is known for controversial real estate projects. In 2011 it was part of a project in Panul forest, in the Metropolitan region, which met without much success. A citizen group called the Network for the Defense of the Precordillera in La Florida denounced that it was trying to destroy the last native forest in the area.

The family owns other well-known companies in Chile. One of them is Oxiquim, one of those that together with Enap, GNL Quintero, AES Gener and Codelco, are thought by some as responsible for an environmental crisis in Puchuncaví and Quintero, in the Valparaíso region, due to a toxic cloud that damaged the health of  hundreds of people, according to the local news site La Tercera. The origin of the contamination is still unknown.

At least until October 2017, the company was controlled by the Navarrete brothers, as confirmed by a document from the Superintendency of Securities and Insurance, a government institution that oversees the entrepreneurs. Now, the board of directors is presided over by lawyer Fernando Barros, known for having advised the president of the Republic, Sebastián Piñera, in his blind trust.

Barros was also a partner in the law firm Barros y Errázuriz, belonging to Gonzalo Molina, husband of Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt. For these reasons, last August some members of congress denounced the government before the Comptroller General of the Republic, according to the news portal BioBioChile.

Schmidt overcame the controversy after assuring the national media that she has “all the independence to work for the people”.

The defense

The project would take 16 years to generate a gradual growth of people and automobiles in an area where there is no native forest, Gustavo Muñoz, the project manager, told to the local newspaper Diario Concepción.

The manager said that already 700 cars a day during the summer enter the Pedro del Rio Park on the peninsula.

He believes that the project could help better distribute the visitors, using the land in a better way through new spaces and accesses.

The next steps

Agrícola Agrinama S.A. has until January to clarify the requests from the Environmental Impact Assessment Service. It could  request an extension.

Meanwhile,  social media users have started campaigns with photographs and videos to stop a project that they say could damage the ecosystem forever.

The laws on the environment contemplate that the institutions pronounce about the clarifications. If necessary to rectify even more aspects of the project, the company could present a complementary addendum.

If necessary, an extraordinary addendum could clarify more edges of the plan. Only then, will the evaluation committee issue a report suggesting approval or rejection of the project. Later, the highest authority in the region and its regional secretaries will decide the future of the Hualpén Peninsula.

Fabián Barría was a participant in a recent Knight Center for Environmental Journalism workshop for Chilean journalists and journalism students.

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