Chile threatened by drought and desertification

Afforestation plan seeks to plant 17 million trees nationwide by 2018 to combat desert encroachment in the country.

The desert landscape in northern Chile is expanding southward, and if left unchecked, it threatens to reach the capital city of Santiago.

“[The desert] is moving at a speed of 0.4 kilometers per year, which is a little more than one meter a day. If it continues as this pace, the desert that we see in the north will reach Santiago by 2040,” Chilean President Sebastián Piñera said during an event held in June as part of the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

According to a report by the Chilean House of Representatives’ Standing Committee on Water Resources, Desertification and Drought, 47.3 million hectares – 62.3% of Chilean territory – is suffering from extreme or moderate desertification.

Natural factors and human activity are causing soil degradation, along with a partial or total loss of vegetation, leaving the land unproductive, according to the committee’s report.

About 1.5 million Chileans are impacted by desertification, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

“[Climate change has raised temperatures] in our territory, causing rain shortages and a prolonged period of drought that has lasted for more than five years and further exacerbated the problem,” said Pilar Cereceda, director of the Catholic University of Chile’s Atacama Desert Center. “[This is coupled with] inappropriate and persistent agricultural practices, fires and indiscriminate deforestation, which have depleted the fertility of the soils, causing them to erode.”

The problem is worse in northern Chile, between the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo, and some of the inland areas of the central region of Valparaíso.

Due to the extreme drought, the Ministry of Public Works’ General Directorate of Water declared the region a disaster area last May so it could control scarce water resources and mitigate the drought’s effects.

Meanwhile, of the 290 municipalities in Chile’s rural areas, 76 have experienced severe erosion due to drought, 108 have sustained moderate erosion and 87 have experienced light erosion, while just 19 municipalities have been free of damage, according to the Chile Desertification Map published by the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF).

One example is Combarbalá, an inland area of the Coquimbo region with 12,800 residents located 351 kilometers north of Santiago, where “desertification has taken hold of the land,” according to Patricio Niery, who is responsible for public safety and emergency response in the area.

The ranchers have no food for their animals and the farmers, given the lack of rain, are finding it increasingly difficult to irrigate their crops.

“Without these two main sources of income, the families – particularly young people and adults – are migrating to other cities in search of work,” Niery added.

Afforestation plan

Since 2010, the National Action Plan to Combat Desertification has been implemented by the Ministry of the Environment, CONAF and the Ministry of Agriculture.

“[We want] to begin to turn back the desert and recover fertile land that’s fit for human life,” Piñera said. “This is the major challenge for our generation.”

One of the most important initiatives is the Un Chileno, Un árbol (One Chilean, One Tree) afforestation plan, which seeks to plant 17 million native trees nationwide by 2018.

“Afforestation – the creation of forests – can, to a certain extent, stop this phenomenon,” CONAF Forestry Manager Aida Baldini said. “Terrestrial tree cover allows water to be retained to infiltrate the soil and therefore contain erosion.”

As of November 2013, a total of $400 million Chilean pesos (US$756,428) had been invested in the plan, with about 11 million trees planted across 2.9 million hectares.

Meanwhile, the plan has made it possible to rescue native vegetation in each area of the country, preventing damage caused by desertification.

Additionally, on 1,000 hectares of land it owns near Santiago, the National Copper Corporation of Chile (CODELCO) will erect a “green wall that will stop the desert,” according to Ricardo Palma, the general manager of CODELCO’s Andean Division.

With guidance from CONAF, the preparatory phase of the “green wall” has been completed, and workers are about to start planting carob trees, native trees and endangered trees.

“[This green wall of trees] will allow us to improve the atmospheric and air quality conditions in the city of Santiago,” Palma said.

By Carolina Contreras |