Protecting biodiversity in Chile amidst a pandemic

María Cristina protects endangered prehistoric trees because keeping ecosystems healthy keeps us healthy

The queule, an evergreen, prehistoric tree native to Chile, is now critically endangered because of human activities such as indiscriminate logging and anthropogenic forest fires. ©FAO


It is a mighty species that can measure between 15 and 30 metres in height. It can live for centuries, and its origin dates back 100 million years. It has witnessed the coming and going of ice-ages, great geological changes, the extinction of the dinosaurs and more than one pandemic. 

But this evergreen tree native to Chile, the queule or Gomortega kuele as it is known scientifically, is now critically endangered because of human activities. Indiscriminate logging and numerous forest fires have decimated hundreds of century-old trees across several regions in southern Chile. At present, only an estimated total of 4 000 trees remain in the entire country.

However, humans can also bring this species back from the brink of extinction. 

María Cristina Ortega began her work protecting these trees as part of the Endangered Species Conservation Initiative, financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and implemented by FAO in partnership with Chile’s National Forest Corporation and Ministry of the Environment. 

She works at the tree nursery located in the city of Chillán at the Seed, Genetics and Entomology Center. Even during the global COVID-19 pandemic, María Cristina has continued to care for the queule seedlings. She is the mother of a child with a chronic disease, so she has had to be extra vigilant during this pandemic, but María Cristina knows how important her job is for the survival of this species: “I can't work from home. I have the necessary permits, and I take all the precautions to take care of myself and others,” she declares. “These are living treasures, so we cannot stop coming.”

“We have shifts. I come in three times a week to measure the air temperature, water the young trees and pay attention to weeds, possible pests, fungi. We cannot neglect them.”

Regardless of the current situation, this is a job she loves. “I am very grateful to be able to continue working despite the coronavirus. This is not just a source of income for me, it brings me great satisfaction…These trees are like children to me. I keep them from the heat and protect the youngest shoots from birds. I think of these trees as my babies.”

María Cristina has cared for the seedlings of the endangered queule even throughout this pandemic period to help repopulate this endangered tree. ©FAO

In the nursery where María Cristina works, there are currently 107 seedlings in two greenhouses.

Unfortunately, the queule does not propagate easily. In fact, it is the slowest of all the native species of Chile to germinate.

“It usually takes almost a year for the queule seeds to sprout,” states Maria Cristina. 

In the Chillán nursery, micropropagation tests are underway, as well as new techniques to determine the most efficient way to reproduce this tree species.

The project had additionally planned to sow new queule seeds in the Cordillera de Nahuelbuta, an important coastal mountain range where queules generally thrive. However, due to the arrival of COVID-19, it was not possible. 

Tradition meets sustainability 

In addition to the tree’s importance to local biodiversity, the queule has a place in the local food culture. The tree produces a small, sweet yellow fruit of high nutritional value and full of antioxidants. Local people traditionally used the fruit to make jams, liquors and preserves, and the indigenous Mapuche communities used the queule fruit and leaves for medicinal purposes. But today, these communities are discouraged from using the queule because of the tree’s risk of extinction. Authorities and NGOs are exploring the establishment of queule farms that would be used solely by local and indigenous communities, in order to maintain the tree’s medicinal and culinary uses in a more sustainable way.

This native tree is just one part of local biodiversity and a broader ecosystem that is at risk. For example, the queule is key to the survival of small animals that feed on its fruit. If unsustainable practices continue, there could be ripple effects on the plants, animals and even human food systems that are all part of this same environment.

The Endangered Species Conservation Initiative is also working with local communities who are counting the queules, an important part of monitoring their survival. ©FAO

Creating awareness and engaging communities

Most Chileans don’t recognize the importance of this unique species. María Cristina herself was not aware of this before she joined the GEF-funded project: “I did not know the queule before I joined; it is a truly marvelous tree.”

The Endangered Species Conservation Initiative seeks to build awareness and create commitments in local communities to conserve biodiversity as part of productive agricultural systems. To achieve this, FAO and the Ministry of the Environment are promoting good forestry practices, tourism and environmental education to create awareness of the importance of native species for the ecosystem. Government initiatives have also helped. In 1995, the tree was declared a National treasure, protecting it by law, and in 2005, Chile created the Queules National Reserve. 

A symbol of a healthy ecosystem

The queule’s status is critical. In the context of the pandemic, some elements of this project will have to wait, but María Cristina's “babies” cannot. They demand time, care and affection, something that she has managed to give them, despite the current restrictions: “It is a complicated period for everyone, but we have to be patient, like nature.”

The future we want and the future we need is rooted in conserving the earth’s biodiversity, starting with native species like the queule. Around one third of jobs in developing countries are directly dependent on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Addressing the loss of biodiversity is essential to eradicating poverty, creating sustainable jobs and fostering economic development.

Everyone depends on a healthy planet for food, medicine and physical and mental well-being. The degradation of ecosystems is a threat to all of us. The FAO-GEF partnership supports countries in ensuring that projects that promote agriculture and development also respect the environment. This is central to FAO and GEF’s work and absolutely vital to our future.

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