After our 7-day trek of the “O” in Torres del Paine, we took a brief recovery in Puerto Natales before heading back into the Torres del Paine National Park to volunteer with Agrupacion Medio Ambiental (AMA) Torres del Paine for two weeks.
What is AMA?
AMA was set up to support conservation, scientific investigation and environmental education within the Torres del Paine National Park and its´ surrounding areas to help minimise the negative impacts and 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” and 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, but for the rest of the park 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 accept volunteers to help.
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. We would be sharing a Dome as our living quarters and we would be split into two groups to divide the work that needed to be completed. The 2 French, Jenny and I would be on Team Reforestation, helping to replant native trees and 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, as we wanted to get our hands dirty. Our primary role was to work with Juan Pablo, the park Botanist, to pick young plants and replant them in an area affected by forest fires where they were not able to regrow.
The trees that we worked with are called “Lenga” 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 as a few years before a forest fire wiped out a huge portion of the parks Lenga’s. Because of the way the trees grow, they cannot regrow naturally. 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, selecting and picking “Baby Lengas” which we would transport back to the park and individually plant in the nursery so that they could be nurtured for 3 year before replanting in the park. Picking and planting took a considerable amount of time and we visited the forest twice and replanted 3 times.
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, showcasing the programs supporters and funding partners, and asked us to create signage for areas of the park we felt needed some.
Unfortunately our time with AMA came to a premature end but the 9 days we spent with them where very interesting.
Thoughts on AMA and the private park
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 on 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), and covers accommodation and food and helps run the program. Note, as of writing it seems the cheapest program is now $900 (USD).