The Austral University Botanical Garden in Valdivia, or "The case of the missing tree":

This morning we anchored at the mouth of the Rio Valdivia and after breakfast, transferred to a most pleasant catamaran for an hour-and-a-half cruise upriver to the town of Valdivia. It was fantastic, great birds, great scenery! One of the striking features along the way was a forest on the tall slopes of the southern riverbank, thick, green, and obviously fecund. But what are those trees? Ah, mostly Australian eucalyptuses with some patches of Monterey pine.

These are tree farms with a harvest cycle of about twenty years, primarily producing wood chips for export. The native forest? Cut long ago. Here there was temperate rainforest, very similar in look and feel to what one sees in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and here too there was a giant, the alerce tree. At first glance this tree resembles, very much so, a redwood, the leaves, the twelve-foot wide trunk -- and it is also a member of the conifer families. The alerce only occurs in Chile and was named Fitzroya cupressoides by science to honor the Captain of the HMS Beagle.

Many of the beautiful shingles on the sides of the older houses from Valdivia to Puerto Montt were made from this wood, highly esteemed for its fine grain and resistance to rot. Not surprising, most of the remaining alerce are in remote places, but now the tree is protected, recognized as a natural treasure, although one should not expect to see a new alerce forest in the near future. A tree, three feet in diameter, certainly not very big for a mature alerce, is a thousand or so years old. And where will this new alerce forest be located? That is the question being decided in Chile today.

While most of the native forests are being protected, and about half of the pre-colonial forest acreage remains intact (predominantly in the undeveloped far south) the future of deforested areas is in a gray zone. Plantations of non-native trees are doing very well indeed; as of 1995, 10% of the value of all Chile's exports was timber products. That's more than all the other agricultural and fishing exports combined, and the industry is growing and needs more land. So, will new plantations be sown or will native forest with the majestic alerce be replanted? Probably both, but in what proportions?

From our stops ashore it seems obvious that the people of Chile love plants and nature in general. Yes, the pendulum is swinging towards conservation. I think this can be seen in today's picture, a magnificent garden proudly presented to us by our Chilean guides, where our Captain, Joergen Cardestig, is pointing at a rather impressive specimen of pampas grass and sharing his enthusiasm with fellow voyagers on the Caledonian Star.