After our 7-day trek of the “O” in Torres del Paine, we took a brief recovery in Puerto Natales. We needed a few days to recover as we had organised to return to the National Park for another two weeks. The reason for heading back was to volunteer with Agrupacion Medio Ambiental, better known as AMA Torres del Paine.
What is AMA Torres del Paine?
AMA was set up to support conservation, scientific investigation and environmental education within the Torres del Paine National Park and its surrounding areas. It’s aim is to help minimise negative impacts and also to maintain the natural resources and cultures of the area.
About Torres del Paine
The national park is divided into two sections. One half is owned by the Chilean organisation “CONAF”, while the other half is a privately owned Estancia. CONAF, funded by the Chilean government, control only their side. They do everything from protecting trees, maintaining trails and running the campsites, among other duties.
On the private estancia it is a little more complicated. They run a hotel, an eco lodge, horse stables, campsite’s and refugio’s. The areas of the park which contain the hotel, eco lodge and horse stables are maintained by the staff. As a result of the divide the role of CONAF is completed by AMA and is funded by the private owners of the land. AMA has a core team who monitor the park, create plans for reforestation, park maintenance, run education programs and they also accept volunteers to help.
Conservation Volunteering in Torres del Paine
We arrived back in Torres del Paine and found we would be volunteering with another 5 people: 2 French, 1 Swiss, 1 German and 1 Canadian. The accommodation would be a shared dome consisting of bunk beds and wood stove.
The group of volunteers would be split into two groups to divide the work that needed to be completed. That meant that the 2 French, Jenny and I would be on Team Reforestation. Our goal was to help replant native trees and work in the nursery. In addition we would be required to offer suggestions for improvements where possible. The others would be volunteer Guardaparque (Park Rangers). Their duties would involve everything from conducting a wildlife survey focusing on Pumas, interacting with campers and monitoring the trails and campsites.
We were happy to be on the reforestation team since we wanted to get our hands dirty. It meant our primary role was to work with Juan Pablo, the park botanist. He educated us on why they pick young plants and replant them in an area affected by forest fires.
The Native Trees
The trees that we worked with are called “Lengas” and are native to the region. This tree can become a beast but it has a number of problems. The Lenga can only grow from a seed which falls from a tree or if it is planted. This became a problem in the park. A few years ago a forest fire wiped out a huge portion of the parks Lenga’s. Because of the way the trees grow, they cannot regrow naturally after being wiped out. Another problem is that Lenga’s grow on average only 1cm per year, meaning that replanting is a long-term project.
Our days were divided by visiting a natural Lenga forest outside of the park. There we would select and pick “Baby Lengas” which we would transport back to the park and individually plant in the nursery. The aim would be that they could be nurtured for 3 years before replanting in the park. Picking and planting took a considerable amount of time and we visited the forest twice and replanted 3 times.
The picking was done in a Lenga forrest and young plants were only taken in the areas where many trees had already grown. On our other days we worked on creating signs to place around the park. Here we had freedom. The organisers only asked for one sign to be made. It was to showcase the programs supporters and funding partners. We were then asked to create signage for areas of the park we felt needed some.
Thoughts on AMA and the private park
Unfortunately our time with AMA came to a premature end but the 9 days we spent with them where very interesting.
During our time we were lucky to learn about how the park was run and we also saw the corporate side of the park. We felt that AMA was really only created by the owners as a CSR project, something they could show to guests and the international community. From what we saw and heard resources were limited as priority was always given to park guests who directly conflicted with the maintenance efforts of AMA.
We also felt the organisation was lacking. Many times we were left not knowing what we needed to do and the volunteer organisers often didn’t know either and always had to check with those above them. It seemed that all the decisions where made from the top and those below didn’t have much room to organise things themselves.
After we left, we heard that a number of the full time staff also left due to concerns about the organisation.
It is a shame. The role that AMA fills is needed, especially as the number of visitors to the park increase every year. Unsure of how it would work, we felt that CONAF who run all of the national parks in Chile would be better served working the private side also.
Other things we learnt while volunteering
- While volunteering we ate at the staff canteen. They served four meals per day, one of which was new to us. “Onze” is a typical Chilean teatime meal and while in the park it was like a second breakfast, at 5pm!
- We discovered “Merken”, a Chilean smoked pepper which is added to most meals. Amazing.
- In many parts of Chile, corn is a staple. They have their own variety called “Choclo”, commonly using it to create the dish “Pastel de Choclo” or choclo pie, similar to a shepherds pie.
How to volunteer with AMA
To learn more about AMA visit their website http://www.amatorresdelpaine.org/
At the time of volunteering;
- Programs usually run for either 2 weeks or 4 weeks.
Note, this seems to have been changed on their website to 30 days or 60 days.
- The cost of volunteering is 200,000CLP / $300 (USD). This covers accommodation and food and helps run the program.
Note, as of writing it seems the cheapest program is now $900 (USD).
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