Engaging with local communities to envision rewilding project

By Meredith Root-Bernstein

Feature image: Another one of the released guanacos at Cascada de las Ánimas © Matías Guerrero

Developing a model of rewilding for central Chile that focuses on restoring lost functionality within socio-ecological systems.

Along with local collaborators and volunteers, I have been working to scale up a rewilding project in central Chile that we started in 2013. We recently founded the NGO Kintu to facilitate our work. Our goal is to develop a model of rewilding for central Chile that focuses on restoring lost functionality within socio-ecological systems. Our particular focus is on restoring silvopastoral systems and successional trajectories to endemic sclerophyllous forests.  

Central Chile is one of five Mediterranean climate zones and a hotspot of endemicity.  It is also the area of Chile with the highest human density and has been extensively converted to agriculture. On top of this, the region has suffered from a long drought, which is putting pressure on agriculture and fragmented woodlands. One species missing in these landscapes is the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the native wild llama.  Whilst indigenous peoples sustainably gathered its high-value fibre, Spanish colonists hunted it to local extinction in the lowlands starting 500 years ago. It survives in the high Andes and parts of Argentina, Bolivia and southern Chile.

Cascada de las Ánimas, our current research site © Matías Guerrero

Checking up on one of the released guanacos at Cascada de las Ánimas © Kintu

Our research to date suggests that the guanaco is a keystone species and ecological engineer. We believe guanacos, which are generalists and adapted to living in dry and marginal areas, could improve woodland resilience to current drought and other disturbances, and can be a resource for local tourism and luxury wool production according to revived capture and shearing techniques (currently being redeveloped in Argentina). We have shown that guanacos can find an ecological niche in central Chilean habitats (which many Chilean conservationists doubted), and indeed seem to carry out ecosystem engineering. In addition, we have carried out a pilot release, one of the first legal native animal translocations or reintroductions in Chile. Having shown ecological and legal feasibility, the next steps to scale up the project involve working with local people at potential release sites. We aim to assess project feasibility from the social perspective, develop collaborations and cooperation, and resolve or at least understand potential conflicts that could derail the project, such as property access disputes.

We plan to start in the area surrounding Cascada de las Ánimas Nature Sanctuary, the site where we released four guanacos as a pilot project in 2017. We will use several survey instruments that we have used elsewhere in Chile (Lindon & Root-Bernstein 2014; Root-Bernstein et al. 2020) to understand local attitudes to guanaco reintroduction among smallholder farmers, cowboys (arrieros) and people using forest resources, and gain their perspectives on how a rewilding project should be designed and implemented. We expect arrieros to hold a lot of local ecological knowledge about mountain ecology, which has been very little studied in Chile. This is a first step towards making contact with them and developing a deeper collaboration with their expertise.

We will thus interview arrieros about their cattle management practices and local ecological knowledge in order to understand if they already have interactions with guanacos high in the Andes, and whether they perceive a risk of competition between guanacos and cattle and how that could be alleviated. We will also hold workshops with locals to address two things: (1) their (positive) vision for their livelihoods and local environment and how rewilding might support this vision, and (2) the problem of feral and unaccompanied dog control, which is a major threat to guanacos but also a problem for livestock, and how they would suggest resolving it (we also have several ideas to propose to them). Through this combination of established quantitative survey instruments and qualitative participatory workshops, we hope to gain insight into what kinds of ongoing social engagements need to be developed if we are going to expand the project at that site and to other sites.

The Engaging with local communities to envision rewilding project is being carried out by GEN member Meredith Root-Bernstein and is supported through GEN Project Packages.