Revisiting Nahuelbuta (2 of 2)

This blog post was authored by James J. A. Blair.

In honor of this year’s United Nations (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, environmental anthropologist James J. A. Blair revisits ongoing efforts to restore native forests and protect river ecosystems in the Nahuelbuta Mountains, an integral part of the Indigenous Mapuche territory in what is now Chile. This is the second of two blog posts based on research from his recent return to the region.

Restoring and Foraging Native Forest as a Public Good

Bernardo Reyes (center) of Ética en los Bosques with Recolectoras de Pewen and Las Hormiguitas Recolectoras

James J. A. Blair

Indigenous knowledge and science, grounded in local observation and experience, not only offers tools to protect traditional territories from over-exploitation of resources. It may also be used to foster less destructive economic development models for marginalized communities. One shining example is the global proliferation of foraging societies that thrive in the ruins of industrial logging plantations. Despite the industry’s worldwide destruction of native and old-growth forests, many plants, berries, mushrooms, nuts, animals and other local species have known uses for subsistence, medicine and market-value. This has empowered Indigenous and local residents to protect remaining native habitat through participatory monitoring, and to craft a living based on their own familiarity with the landscape.

During my recent visit to the Nahuelbuta area in what is now south-central Chile, I had the opportunity to meet with leaders of local foraging societies. These women-led groups, comprising Indigenous people, landless peasants and precarious workers, are asserting their rights to protect native forest habitat as a public good, by gathering wild plants, fruits and animals that grow within the crevices of harvested timber plantations.

The Long Road to an “Ethical Relationship”

Foragers’ access to plantations in Nahuelbuta was granted as a result of eight years of advocacy by Ética en los Bosques, according to ecologist Bernardo Reyes, the group’s coordinator (disclaimer: Bernardo is also a consultant for NRDC). Through international forestry dialogue, Ética en los Bosques engaged with the International Labor Organization (ILO), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Agrupación de Ingenieros Forestales por el Bosque Nativo (AIFBN), as well as MASISA, Arauco and Compañía Manufacturera de Papeles y Cartones (CMPC). The last two are major logging companies that control around 80 percent of the timber and paper pulp sector in Chile, according to Bernardo. In 2017 and 2018, public local agreements established conservation commitments to protect foraging areas and allow these groups to gather and restore native habitat within the companies’ properties.

“We need to recover an ethical relationship with the forest that involves questioning the [industrial] forestry model and its lack of recognition and respect for the social function of property, including private property. Regardless of who owns private property, in this case land and forests, the social function should be maintained ... We believe that [native] forests should be part of a broader concept of a public good.”

—Bernardo Reyes, Ética en los Bosques

“Necesitamos recuperar una ética de relacionamiento con el bosque que implique cuestionar el modelo forestal y cuestionar la ausencia del reconocimiento y respeto a la función social de la propiedad, privada. Independientemente de quien sea el dueño de la propiedad privada, en este caso de la tierra y los bosques, se debería mantener la función social…Creemos que los bosques [nativos] deben ser parte de una concepción mayor de los bienes públicos.”

—Bernardo Reyes, Ética en los Bosques

Women Lead the Foraging in Nahuelbuta

Bernardo introduced me to members of two of the most active foraging societies in the Nahuelbuta area: Recolectoras de Pewen from the community of Lebu and Las Hormiguitas Recolectoras from Los Alamos. These foraging societies are led by women and their families who were displaced from their land during the military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s. The land was seized and converted into plantations that are now owned by the logging companies. Some of them took jobs as seasonal workers during harvests, which has offered meager wages. The foraging rights agreements have guaranteed continued access to what is left of the native forest, as well as complementary sources of subsistence, income and well-being.

In proud possession of the keys to an exclusive-access logging road, Clevia Flores, President of Recolectoras de Pewen, led us into one of the plantations where they forage. From the untrained eye, it looked virtually post-apocalyptic: charred wood, flattened earth and pine or eucalyptus as far as the eyes could see. But, as Potawatomi botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer has shown, the practice of gathering opens up new worlds of possibility, through the subtle teachings of plants and berries.

Here are photos of some of the goods that foragers have collected. The stalks of the first plant, Pangue or Nalca (Gunnera tinctoria), are used for food, and prepared fresh, in jam or juice. The red berries below, Ugni or Murta/Murtilla (Ugni molinae), are edible and used in beverages, jams and pastries. They signal to the Mapuche People that walüng (summer) is over and rimü (autumn) has begun.

Pangue or Nalca (Gunnera tinctoria)

Clevia Flores, President of Recolectoras de Pewen

Pangue or Nalca (Gunnera tinctoria)

Clevia Flores, President of Recolectoras de Pewen

Ugni or Murta/Murtilla (Ugni molinae)

Clevia Flores, President of Recolectoras de Pewen

Ugni or Murta/Murtilla (Ugni molinae)

Clevia Flores, President of Recolectoras de Pewen

The foraging societies of Nahuelbuta continue to struggle for compliance with the agreements. The companies have not always met their obligations to provide safe entry and access when private park rangers are uninformed. Fallen timber and exposure to toxic dust and chemicals have created obstacles to gathering and serious health risks, such as hantavirus. Nonetheless, the foragers are building new paths to restoration and well-being with more than 1,000 native species that survive the harvest.

The first blog of this two-part series is available here.

Note: information about the uses of the plants and berries above comes from the pamphlet “Elikurache Kimün, Mongen Kimün: Guía Introductoria,” published by Chile’s Ministry of Environment in March 2019.


James J. A. Blair is Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona). Dr. Blair is a former International Advocate for NRDC and continues to work with NRDC’s Latin America Team as a consultant, focusing on watershed management and renewable energy in Chile.

About the Authors

Amanda Maxwell

Director, Latin America Project

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.