How Young Chileans Are Saving the Hudsonian Godwit

As fishing, logging, and wind farms take over the island of Chiloé, the shorebird is on the brink of losing its wintering grounds. Now locals are coming to the rescue.

The tide in the Gulf of Ancud is running out on a November morning, exposing broad and glossy plains of mud on Isla Grande de Chiloé. All along the shore, bands of leggy, gray-brown shorebirds called Hudsonian Godwits pace the retreating surf line, single file. Every few steps a bird stabs its three-and-a-half-inch bill straight down into the mire, probing for marine worms and other invertebrates.

The godwits have flown halfway around the world for this mud. Six months ago and some 10,000 miles away in Alaska, they were nesting among dwarf Sitka spruces on the muskeg and racing to fledge their young while the weather held. They left their breeding grounds in late July or early August in small groups that eventually added up to some 21,000 birds—a third of the world’s Hudsonian Godwits and nearly all of the U.S. population.

Zigzagging southeast, they reached Saskatchewan, where they laid over for four or five weeks. Then they shoved off for the Eastern Seaboard. Cutting sharply south, they flew steadily for five nights and days, crossing the eastern Atlantic into South America to disperse along the upper reaches of the Amazon in Colombia and Brazil. There they lingered for a month before heading for wetlands in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. Finally, after another respite, and some two months after leaving Alaska, they made one last, nightlong push, over the Andes Mountains to arrive at their wintering grounds on Chiloé, where icy, plankton-rich currents flow through the Gulf of Ancud. Such a superabundant food source is a magnet for godwits, as well as for Chilean Flamingoes, Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins, Royal Albatrosses, blue whales, piebald dolphins, and marine otters.

Jorge Valenzuela starts keeping an eye out for the godwits in the beginning of September, which is early spring in South America’s Southern Cone. They show up in a trickle of 20 or 30 birds, sometimes 100 or 150, Valenzuela said, and keep arriving throughout the spring. “We don’t see them in full strength until the end of December. That’s a consistent pattern we’ve documented over the last four years of monitoring.”

What’s become worryingly inconsistent, as far as Valenzuela is concerned, is where the birds go when they get to Chiloé. In recent years the godwits have been harder to find on the island’s larger, historically more productive mudflats, and he suspects drastic changes to the habitat may be the cause.

Part ornithologist, part activist, Valenzuela is one of the founders of a small, homegrown nonprofit called the Center for the Study and Conservation of Natural Heritage, or CECPAN. Valenzuela, who has a long face, dark chestnut hair, and a russet beard, grew up on Chiloé watching the rhythmic arrival and departure of the godwits. But now salmon farms girdle the gulf’s picturesque shores, poisoning the waters with nutrients and antibiotics. Mining companies strip peat from the lowland bogs that pock the island’s midlands, altering the salinity of the mudflats and irrevocably degrading the base of the island’s water cycle. Here, in one of the rainier places on Earth, five communities had to buy their drinking water in 2013.

Meanwhile, on the mudflats, soaring demand for agar, which is used in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, has exponentially intensified the once benign practice of collecting seaweed at low tide. Increased foot and wheel traffic is damaging the delicate siphons and antennae of mud-dwelling invertebrates and flushing feeding shorebirds, sometimes dozens of times a day on a single beach. Now the wind industry has set its sights on Chiloé.

“We Chilotes are famously passive,” said Andrea Saldivia González, whose family farm would lie in the shadow of a proposed wind farm. “For hundreds of years we’ve milled around like sheep while outsiders fleece us of our resources, leaving us with nothing.”

Considering how concentrated the godwits are seven months out of the year, what happens on and to these mudflats may well dictate the fate of the species and its fragile ecosystem. “My nightmare,” said Valenzuela, “is that one morning we wake up and the birds are gone and we can’t even say why.”

Making yourself heard by a national politician when you live on Chiloé is about as likely as an American getting an invite to the White House. So Valenzuela and his colleague Gabriel Huenún saw a rare opportunity when they found out that the national minister of agriculture would be flying in from Santiago. He would be presiding over the United Nations’ designation of the Rilán peninsula as a world heritage site for traditional agriculture. Taking a break from counting godwits, they hopped into their white pick-up and drove 20 miles down the island’s hummocky midlands to the bucolic peninsula, outside of the gulf coast town of Castro, where preparations were underway for the ceremony.

They wanted the minister to grant a special no-hunting designation for the tidal flats at Rilán. Not that anyone actually hunts there. Instead people collect seaweed, plant seaweed, dry seaweed, wander with dogs, drive tractors and oxcarts, build shanties, and dump garbage. Nevertheless, when the nonprofit’s sociologist, Tomás Jorquera, asked his focus groups which official designation would incline people to tread lightly, they picked no-hunting signs. These, in Chile, fall under the purview of agriculture. The activists were convinced the signs could make a difference for the godwits. So here they were.

The ceremony was held in a thatched-roof event center on a breezy ridgetop. The minister of agriculture, a patrician-looking fellow in rumpled corduroys and a black North Face jacket, towered above his rural Chilote compatriots. When the speeches concluded, people spilled out onto the lawn, and as the minister did a little glad-handing, Valenzuela saw his chance. He told the minister about the global significance of Chiloé’s wetlands for migratory and local shorebirds, especially Hudsonian Godwits but also Chilean Flamingoes and, lately, Black-necked Swans. Then he outlined the neighbors’ support for the hunting ban, emphasizing that his group works closely with local officials. The minister promised to consider a written proposal. His handlers swept him away.

“You see how we have to do it?” Valenzuela said. “This is ant work: crumb by crumb.”

On the drive back to the office, the two colleagues stopped at a scenic overlook. Below, during very high spring tides, as many as 8,000 godwits crowd onto a little patch of sheltered ground at a wetland called Pullao, a rare spot where they can rest with dry feet and little risk from dogs or oxcarts. Such undisturbed ground above the ultra-high-tide line, adjacent to the mudflats, is critical habitat for the birds. Thus, with backing from the National Audubon Society and funding from the Packard Foundation, Valenzuela negotiated to buy the two-and-a-half-acre plot. Now his group collaborates with landowners to preserve it. There’s been an added boost to the local economy in the form of two new ecolodges. “Sometimes we wonder whether we’re working in conservation or marketing,” Valenzuela said wryly.

Unfortunately, the view from the overlook is not completely unmarred. In the waters beyond the low-tide line, a visitor sees row after serried row of big white plastic floats, linked to a vast network of underwater cages. Each cage holds 10,000 salmon smolts. “We have this precedent of the salmonera industry, which in two decades has destroyed the character of Chiloé, put a stranglehold on the entire coast, sucked the labor from the farms, crippled the local fishing industry,” said Valenzuela, noting that there was one actual benefit. “The salmoneras at least provide jobs for Chilotes.”

Now the government wants to build more wind farms and make Chiloé the battery that fuels the country. Great gusts roar off the Pacific here, slamming into the island’s mountainous west coast. The electricity that the turbines would generate would be destined for Santiago, Chile’s capital, and for privately owned copper mines in the north. (Once built, the turbines won’t provide jobs for Chilotes—locals won’t even get a break on their utility bills.) “Yes, the country needs energy. But no one’s looking at what the cost to Chiloé will be,” Valenzuela said. “You can’t rely on the government to do the right thing. We have environmental laws, but they don’t protect the environment.”

Case in point, he said: A pulp mill in Valdivia, on the mainland, was permitted to pump effluent into the biggest, most important bird sanctuary in Chile. Thousands of Black-necked Swans died. The flock was reduced from 6,000 to 300 birds. Still, the company was exonerated. “In Chile things are stacked in favor of industry,
always,” Valenzuela said. “Well, we won’t stand by like our parents did when the salmoneras came in and took over the waters. We’ll take to the streets if we have to.”

Valenzuela grew up in the north Chiloé town of Ancud. His father was a banker, but mad for nature. The family camped for a month every summer on a wild and beautiful northwest beach called Ahui, then accessible only by boat. “I’d leap straight from my sleeping bag to the tide pools,” Valenzuela recalled, “sometimes not bothering to come back to eat all day. Crustaceans, insects, ants, birds—the animals most people cared least about were the ones that enchanted me.” One day the boy heard a distinctive double call and spotted a thrush-sized bird he’d never seen in all his hours in the woods. It struck him, suddenly, that this bird must be rare and probably even disappearing, as the copses on Ahui were felled for firewood. Later he learned that the bird—a Black-throated Huet-huet—is common in dark forest understories on Chiloé. Nevertheless he looked around and realized what was at stake if industry went unchecked. A conservationist was born.

Still, after high school, Valenzuela had no idea what to do with himself. At that time there was no university on Chiloé. One day a friend told him something astonishing: “You know, Jorge, there’s a course at the university in Valparaiso called biology, where you get to study animals and become a scientist.” He went to school, but partway through his Ph.D. in ornithology he began to chafe under the constraints of academia. So he came home to Chiloé and got a job doing environmental assessments for a eucalyptus forestry company. Quickly appalled by what was happening to Chiloé’s native forests, he quit. He cultivated nursery plants, worked as a bird guide, and ran birding workshops for a while, then spent two summers banding godwits for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. He also met other young Chilotes who, like him, burned to change business as usual on the island. They would talk late into the night in the living room of Valenzuela’s tiny cabin.

“We didn’t even really know what a nonprofit was when we started CECPAN,” Valenzuela said. “We weren’t looking for jobs or shiny shoes or nice clothes. We talked to our neighbors, their friends, fishermen, farmers. What were people’s concerns? How could their lives be better?” The group formed CECPAN and began introducing themselves to the community.

Around that time, Black-necked Swans—refugees from the mainland pulp mill disaster—had started showing up on Chiloé and trying to adapt to nesting in tidal marshes. Breeding and foraging sites were few, however, and the birds’ arrival and subsequent difficulties provided an eerie harbinger of what might befall the godwits if their food base in the mudflats were to collapse.

“The swans’ predicament shows how vulnerable birds are, and how difficult it is to find alternative foraging sites in Chile, where there are so few major wetlands,” explained Brad Andres, national coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Shorebird Conservation Plan. “There just aren’t that many big estuaries available elsewhere on the southern Pacific Coast, even up through Peru. The shorelines are too steep. If the food base here collapses, the godwits aren’t going to have much in the way of alternatives.”

The nonprofit launched in Valenzuela’s living room now occupies a handsome stucco house on a lively Ancud side street. Inside, lacquered wood paneling and parquet floors dignify an assortment of scavenged metal desks and chairs. Big GIS maps of Archipelago Chiloé hang on the walls alongside small framed pictures of shorebirds. In a back room, under a picture of a Snowy Plover—Chorlo nevado—sits the group’s treasure: a high-tech GIS plotter, a gift of the Packard Foundation. “We call it the Chorlo,” said Álvaro Montaña, the team’s geographer, who plots the reach of the proposed energy developments on the island, identifying how they might affect the environment. “You can’t imagine how it has transformed our work.”

The challenges facing Chiloé are daunting, he continued. Chile has next to no oil or gas fields, and the government has vowed to fast-track renewable energy projects. One of those projects is at Mar Brava, a 12-mile ocean beach at Chiloé’s scenic northwest corner that is the island’s biggest tourist draw as well as a crucial habitat for penguins, flamingoes, and shorebirds. If the project goes ahead as proposed, 400-foot-high turbines would straddle penguin breeding colonies, a lagoon crucial to flamingoes, and the godwits’ migration route to the north. CECPAN, after conducting its own environmental review, took the company to court. Based on the tiny, unknown nonprofit’s findings, the Chilean Supreme Court ruled in 2013 to delay the energy project pending a more thorough assessment.

There have been other tangible conservation wins, including the purchase of the roosting site at Pullao and the official granting of a marine reserve under indigenous community management at Caulín, an important wetland. There’s also a plan to manage the 2,000-acre forest that shelters the headwaters of the river providing the town of Castro’s drinking water. And late last year the president of the Chilean senate, Isabel Allende, asked CECPAN to participate in developing a new law on spatial planning for renewable energy facilities.

Perhaps most extraordinary, in August 2014, in Castro, 300 youths marched to protest a controversial proposed bridge to the mainland. They’re waking up to the idea that Chilotes should have a say in shaping their homeland’s future.

The question remains whether that awakening will come in time for the godwits. They’re resilient, long-lived birds, and can survive 25 to 30 years in the wild. But the population’s changing distribution is ominous. The best mudflats seem to have lost their luster. Godwits are having to settle for lesser mudflats they didn’t bother with in years past.

At Caulín beach, Valenzuela’s monthly census once routinely clocked thousands of godwits. He now sees, at most, 200. More alarming is the count at Putemún’s magnificent mudflat, at the base of Rilán, not far from Pullao. “At Putemún we could always rely on seeing 3,000 to 4,000 godwits on any given day, with peaks of 7,000, in years past,” Valenzuela said. In recent years the count has been as low as a measly 300. Flamingo numbers have dropped from 820 to 620.

The causes are still uncertain. The urbanization of Rilán means more people, dogs, disturbance. Perhaps it’s that. No one is monitoring the quality of the effluent from Castro’s water treatment plant. Perhaps it’s that. A recent report on the country’s aquaculture by a Chilean nonprofit, Fundación Pumalín, documents that salmon farms here use an astounding 120,000 times as much antibiotic per ton of salmon produced as Norwegian farms do. How could it not be that?

“We’re an organization in a territory under assault,” Valenzuela said. “Three lifetimes we could work at this, and we’d never run out of things to do. Everywhere we look, we’re inspired to get involved. We won’t make the mistake our parents made with the fish farm industry.

“We won’t wake up sorry.”