Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Fog of War

Laguna de Mucubají, Merida, Venezuela (December 18, 2010)

I recently posted on Google+ the link to an article by The Guardian's journalist Rory Carroll about the situation in Venezuela. The piece, in my opinion, is a fair account of what is happening in the country. I received a couple of comments from +Bill Stender on Google+ with links to articles on venezuelanalysis.com and counterpunch.org that offer a rebuttal to what is stated in The Guardian. I would like to thank him for the links. I think they contribute to the discussion. I however also think that talking about Venezuela from a purely geopolitic perspective can easily lead to missing important aspects of what is happening, which I believe is what the Guardian journalist is pointing out.

I have been following the situation for many years. My wife is Venezuelan, and her family has been squarely divided between "chavistas" and "opposition", as just about every family in Venezuela. Over the years I have been able to verify first hand how the social policies of the "bolivarian revolution" have significantly improved the standard of life of the majority of the Venezuelan population. This is the same people that the previous neoliberal governments had criminally neglected. Programs like barrio adentro and misión Robinson had a huge effect on health and the literacy in Venezuela. The program of microcredits directed to women, lauded by the UN, has lifted many families out of poverty. These programs are essential, and paying for them with oil money is the right thing to do.

I also agree that the opposition in Venezuela has his part of the blame, and not a small one, in how the country got to be what now is. Two coups in 2002 (inspired by CIA and Opus Dei, yes), refusal to participate to the democratic process in the following years and most importantly the lack of acknowledgement for the needs and aspirations of the majority of Venezuelans are not the hallmark of democracy. Calling for the outright dismissal of Venezuela's president Maduro is plain stupid, not democratic, and again ignores the existence of vast support he still enjoys by at least half of Venezuelans.

Both Venezuela Analysis and Couterpunch are however wrong in describing the current situation purely in terms of a US-led conspiracy. They see the accomplishments of the Venezuelan government through glasses that are way too rose-colored. The Venezuelan government has serious faults of its own for the situation to degenerate to this point.

Let's start with the economic situation. The currency control policies that the government has implemented are pure folly. One thing is to be against neoliberal market economy, and another is refusing to believe that a market exist. It is like negating the existence of the force of gravity: laudable intention, but sooner or later one hits the ground. By centralizing the exchange rate with an artificial rate (with the difference between the market and official values of the bolivar guaranteed by the government), it has created a terrain so ripe for corruption and abuse that the situation was bound to spiral out of control, with or without the need of an external conspiracy. People with the right connections to the agency paying for the dollars got very rich, at the expenses of the government and everybody else. Import of essential goods became impossible for the systemic delays in obtaining hard currency. This is the root cause of scarcity: the government did it to itself out of incompetency and endemic corruption. Corruption in Venezuela is clearly not a chavista invention, it has always been there; Chavez fault had been not being able (or not doing the effort) to root it out. The vision of Venezuelan economy  in Venezuela Analysis is overly optimistic (to be generous). While Venezuela doesn't have a significant national debt with respect to other governments, it has been insolvent with the private sector that has been importing goods in the country: the creditors may not have the recourse to appeal to the IMF, but they can stop importing goods in Venezuela. Hence the scarcity in the near future will became worse, not better, without any need of "acaparramientos" by dishonest merchants. And no, president Maduro didn't solve the issue of high inflation by lowering the price by decree: that was just demagogy and only helped emptying the stores faster.

Then there is the issue of the insecurity. Venezuela has always been a dangerous country, but I can tell from direct experience that the situation has gotten steadily worse year after year, even in areas that have been traditionally safer (e.g. the Andes). I could write many stories I have direct experience with, through my wife's family and friends, but this would take too much space in this post. I still don't understand why Chavez, with all his charisma, never tried to address the security issue. This violence is something affecting all Venezuelan. But while the higher classes can defend themselves with security guards and "alcabalas" at the entrance of their gated communities, this is not an option for the people living in the barrios. The collectivos may present themselves as the defenders of the socialist order in the popular areas, but in fact they act as criminal gangs imposing a mafia order upon their territory. The fatality rate in Venezuela has became similar to the one of a war zone, or of a failed state like Somalia after the collapse of Siad Barre. Why the government never acknowledged this as a major issue defies me: I recall a Venezuelan interior minister declaring that the violence is affecting only the gang members because they are just shooting each other. A similar attitude is criminal because it trivializes a serious issue that affects mostly the government's own supporters: stability and security are necessary to break the chain of poverty, and are sorely missing in Venezuela.

This bring us to the issue of the violence related to the current protests in Venezuela. As I mentioned in a previous post, student demonstrations have always been far from pacific sit-ins in the spirit of Gandhi's tradition. The confrontations with the security forces have however never before escalated to the level of repression demonstrated during this last week. It is not true that the government has demonstrated restrain: this morning the chavista governor of Táchira (the state where the student protests started) went on radio [audio in spanish] asking forgiveness for the violence perpetuated by the national guard, and made a point in asking the Caracas government to recognize that the scarcity in his state is a real problem, and that there are systemic issues in the exchange policy promoted by the government (which he described in economic terms similar to what I wrote above). The national guard is directly responsible for the death of demonstrators: the last victim was Geraldine Moreno, a 23 years old student that died after she was shot at close range in the face with rubber bullets by the guard in Valencia. There are plenty of videos showing the guard gratuitously destroying cars in middle class neighbors and shooting tear gas inside their apartments. There are documented abuses against the students arrested by the guard, including torture and rape. Despite those abuses, it is however not the national guard that is of major concern in Venezuela. The main problem are the paramilitary forces (motorizados, colectivos, tupamaros) that have free hands in terrorizing middle class neighborhoods at night. There is no evidence that these forces (as claimed in the venezuelanalysis article) are provocateurs sent by the opposition: on the contrary is not a mystery for anybody in Venezuela that these same gangs have direct ties with certain elements very close to the government. Chavez himself explicitly acknowledged in several occasions that these groups have been armed by the government as a safeguard of the bolivarian revolution. A government that condones violence against part of its population puts itself outside the principles of democracy, and is a shame for the ideals of socialism.

In summary, dismissing what is happening today in Venezuela as yet another imperialist conspiracy and stating that the violence is entirely promoted by an undemocratic opposition is very irresponsible. It would ignore the struggle of the Venezuelan people of all ideological colors, caused by systemic faults in a government that tolerates an unsustainable level of corruption, suicidal economic policies and a culture of violence that was never addressed and is now getting out of hand. The opposition has its faults too, but until both sides recognize the existence of each other as the legitimate representatives of a significant part of the Venezuelan population, there will be no progress, and the country will keep steadily marching toward the cliff.

Fog over the Andes, Venezuela (December 30, 2007)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela is Burning

Mucuchies, Mérida, Venezuela (March 18, 2006)

Venezuela has some of the best beaches in the whole Caribbean sea, as well as outer-worldly island-mountains surrounded by the greenest rainforest. It is in the Andes in the west of the country, however, where I feel more at ease. Maybe because I came from a mountain region myself, and there is an affinity of character that comes with geography. Gente di montagna, as we say in Italy.

Mayli's family also comes from the mountains. Her grandfather was born in Santa Lucia de Mucuchies, the "Place of the Moon" in the ancient language of the indigenous people living in the area. Mucuchies is a small town at 3,000 meters elevation along the carrettera del Páramo, the road that from Mérida de los Andes leads to the vast plains in the east after crossing high mountain passes. From Mérida is Mayli's grandmother, of the family that 150 years ago gave the city its most famous historian, chronicler of the disappearing ways of the Andes and collector of indigenous tales and legends. The same scholar that refused to serve in the government of the caudillo of his times, because he didn't want to have anything to do with tyranny. The Andean region is centered on the states of Mérida, Táchira and Trujillo, and provides the western border of the country with Colombia. It is also the center of the current revolt against the government in Caracas.

The revolt was sparked in San Cristobal, the capital of Táchira, when a young woman was raped in the campus of the local university. The students protested, as that was just the latest episode of a growing insecurity that is affecting everybody in the country. Students protests have always been common in Venezuela: the students take the streets, burn tires and block the traffic, throw rocks and incendiary bottles at the police, which responds with fire hydrants and tear gas. After a few hours both sides are satisfied to have made their point, and go home for dinner. I have seen that happening many times since I first visited the country: this is the Venezuelan equivalent of a peaceful protest. What was different this time was the reaction of the security forces: the students were rounded up, some arrested, abused and transported to a prison in a different state. This was unprecedented and generated more protests. It was the spark that ignited the rage in the general population of the andean region.

The Andes give way to the Llanos
The population of the Venezuelan Andes has a reputation for being quiet. Mérida is seen as an intellectual center, a city of culture and studies, and revolts in Venezuela do not usually start in the Andes. The situation this time was however ripe to explode. Years of economic anarchy in the country, triggered by ill advised government policies and widespread corruption, have driven to the ground internal production and raised insurmountable obstacles to the import of foreign goods.  This has led to the scarcity of essential products, including basic food and everyday items. This scarcity has been felt mostly in the andean region, the border with Colombia, where the government has further restricted shipments of goods in the fear that they would be smuggled to the other side of the border. Furthermore, the government knows well that scarcity in Caracas would mean a much bigger problem that in the smaller towns in the countryside: the province has been suffering to keep the capital well fed. You can still find, for example, toilet paper in Caracas; an item that in the Andes has disappeared since months. Mayli's father, that lives in the capital, tried to ship a few rolls outside the city: the shipment was refused by all postal couriers, under government decree. The student protests, first in San Cristobal, in Mérida next, found fertile ground in the exasperation of a general population that felt forgotten by a central government seen as distant, incompetent and corrupt. This brought the people to the street, joining the student protests, and inviting an even stronger reaction by the security forces (with national guard units, and their tanks, sent to San Cristobal to quell the revolt).

Is this a repeat of the 2002 coup attempts, during which a coalition of the financial elites, the Church and foreign agencies (the CIA) tried (and almost succeeded) to topple the Chavez government and install a neoliberal dictatorship? It is not. For once, today's protests have penetrated the Venezuelan society deeper into lower income strata. The insecurity, criminality and shortages that the government in Caracas is unable to address are affecting everybody, especially the population of the slums, which cannot pay security guards to keep away the bands of thugs that are terrorizing the population, unchecked. This has dramatically cut the chavista support even in its traditional, hard-core constituents: the government is well aware of this issue, and this could explain the unusually strong response to the protests, aimed to nip them in the bud. At the time of the 2002 pre-coup opposition marches, the division between opposition and government supporters was much more clear, along the line of income and ethnic background (even in a country that prides itself as the idealized melting pot, economic class is still strongly correlated with the amount of skin pigmentation). This line is blurred in today's protests, as the unrest is propagating to poor neighborhoods in Caracas that are suffering levels of chronic street violence much worse than the andean cities.

The second difference with the events in 2002 is that the current protests started spontaneously, and were joined only later by some opposition leaders. The arrest of Leopoldo Lopez that gave himself up to the police, surrounded by the sea of his supporters in Caracas' central square, has been widely shown by the international media. Lopez however joined the protests only after the streets of San Cristobal were on fire, and his very public arrest was an ill-advised move by a government that gains nothing by creating martyrs in the opposition side. The 2002 marches were called by a much stronger and organized opposition that could count on powerful privately-owned media and entrenched allies in the security forces and the army. Nothing of this is still true today: the opposition parties have lost all political power and are divided; the armed forces have been purged; the private media have been closed down or otherwise neutralized.

The last difference is that the government has been preparing for years to avoid a repeat of the 2002 coup. The government has been quietly arming bands of supporters organized in paramilitary units that enjoy almost sovereign power in areas of the Venezuelan cities where the police and national guard would never dare to set foot. Colectivos, motorizados, tupamaros, they have different names but one common characteristic: they control their urban territory with the brute force of gang violence.  Since the beginning of the anti-government demonstrations these hordes have been unleashed to quell the protests. They attack middle-class neighborhoods at night, enter their buildings setting apartments on fire and smashing the cars parked in their garages. They have established a reign of terror aimed to suppress the will of the protesters. This is happening while the national guard stands by, or helps by shooting tear gas canisters through the windows of private apartments. Despite all this, the protests continue. As a former chavista supporter, of working class extraction, declared to The Guardian in the article linked above, "I am scared, but I am also scared of violence on a daily basis" (he said referring to the multiple robberies he has suffered), and "I am sick of not imagining a better future".

As the public's attention is focused on another tragedy unfolding half a world apart in Ukraine, Venezuela is burning. I am not referring to the fires lit by the demonstrators, or the middle-class apartments set ablaze by the tupamaros. I am referring to the internal hate that is consuming the soul of a divided people. Venezuela today's demonstrators are fed up by the level of degradation in the society, the bread lines and the constant brownouts, and more importantly by an ever rising level of insecurity that makes you risk your life every time you dare to set foot in the street. Government supporters still believe in Chavez promises and are ready to defend at all costs the real gains in their standard of life that resulted from the "bolivarian revolution" social policies. Each side is blind to the reasons of their opponents, and doesn't acknowledge that the problems of a country so divided could only be solved through dialog. It is not going to end well.

Valencia, Venezuela (December 30, 2007)

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Storm Approaching in Venezuela

Laguna de Mucubají, Merida, Venezuela (December 18, 2010)

A storm is gathering at the feet of the Andes. It has been brewing for years. El Comandante kept the lid on the pressure cooker, enchanting el pueblo with his mesmerizing words, but the steam had been building up. Now that he is no more,  the valve is broken and the country is bound to deflagrate. 

I am talking of Venezuela, of course, and the storm that is brewing has nothing to do with the thunderclouds that brought us rain during my last visit at the Kettle Mucubají in 2010 (large photo above). I am referring to the government policies that have transformed Venezuela into a failed state, with a broken social texture and a tanked economy. Being an oil-rich country, Venezuela does not have any reason to be on the verge of financial collapse. Yet, traditional high level of corruption and misuse of government funds have prevented the country from creating the necessary infrastructure that would have lifted the lower classes from the bounds of poverty, and developed the local economy beyond the oil export. The great hope was the raise to power of Hugo Chavez, a left-leaning populist that introduced reforms and economic aids aimed to alleviate the isolation and disadvantage of the Venezuelan poor: free clinics, schools, house development projects, basic food at subsidized prize. These reforms did have a real effect in reducing poverty and illiteracy in the country, despite the opposition of the middle and higher classes, that felt excluded by the action of the government. This created a very polarized situation in Venezuela, pitting the poor majority against the minority middle class and the elites. In 2002 the situation exploded, with a CIA-backed failed coup against Chavez, followed by a strong reaction from the government that successfully managed to marginalize the opposition, politically and economically. As a result of this process Chavez assumed full control of the nationalized oil company, and its revenues. This was the beginning of the end of the democratic "bolivarian" revolution started by Chavez (so called after Venezuela's independence hero Simon Bolivar), and its transition towards a paranoid kleptocracy with unparalleled heights of corruptions.

The calm before the storm
The main engine of corruption, of course, is the state oil company. Traditionally managed as an independent company, after the 2002 events has been converted into the cash cow for Chavez's party, with all revenues siphoned into black-box companies with unpublished books. It has been estimated that with this mechanism Chavez managed to stash away over 100 billion dollars, which have then been used to buy votes through populist projects (e.g. free refrigerators for all eligible Venezuelan just before elections) and to fatten the pockets of government officials (the so-called "boliburguesia"). A second engine of corruption is the exchange control, also instituted after the 2002 coup to prevent the flight of capitals and protect the Venezuelan economy from real or perceived foreign (US) economic sabotage. By fixing the exchange rate of the bolivar with respect to the dollar, the Venezuelan government found itself in the quandary of having to subsidize each and every currency transaction, by paying the difference between the official rate and the actual market value of the currency. As inflation grew to the current 56% annual rate, this mechanism became unsustainable. Foreign companies doing business in Venezuela found themselves unable to get paid in real dollars, and stopped importing into the country. This is the root cause for the extreme shortages that have brought the situation in the country to the point of breakage.

You have to remember that the economy of Venezuela is totally dependent on oil export and import of everything else. The country is not even self-sufficient in terms of its food needs. Stopping food imports in Venezuela would mean famine: some analysis predict that Venezuela will soon default on its currency exchange scheme, after which it will be unable to keep importing basic food needs. These is the perfect storm that is approaching in Venezuela as I am publishing this post.

It has in fact already started to rain. On one side the middle class, exasperated by the soviet-kind lines that are now necessary to buy everything from corn meal to toilet paper, is filling the streets banging pots in protest against the government. On the other side the government and its assault troops, bands of bikers armed by Chavez party that are intimidating the protesters by shooting on the crowd (three deaths just yesterday, and we could hear the rioting in the street behind Mayli's mother house while we were Skyping with her the other day). The government has also emitted an arrest order against an opposition leader, Leopoldo Lopez, under the charges of murder and terrorism, and is blocking part of Twitter. It won't be long before the start of the storm.

Strada del Paramo, Merida, Venezuela (December 18, 2010)

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Of Grapes and Formidable Women

Valle del Elqui, Chile (January 13, 2006)

It is almost time to leave Chile, the longest and narrow country in the world. Barely a strip of land, with tall mountains rising straight from the Pacific ocean all the way to the sky. And long glacial valleys, green and fertile at the base, crowned by stark-naked mountains, like monuments of rainbow-painted rocks.

Side road in the Elqui Valley
The Elqui valley is not just for UFO, telescopes and mysterious magnetic energy. It is in fact one of the best vineyards in Chile, famous for pisco, a special kind of brandy made with the local grapes. Pisco was developed in this region of Chile and Peru by the first spanish colons in the XVI century, as a substitute for orujo, a pomace brandy that had to be imported from Spain. With the foundation of the port city of La Serena at the head of the Elqui valley, the local pisco became world famous. Pisco is now Chile's national drink. As you can see in the photo above, the secret for these grapes is the very fertile bottom of the valley, surrounded by semi-desertic mountains in a hot dry climate. Exactly what you need to grow rich grapes with a high sugar content, ideal to produce a high grade alcohol brandy like pisco. The whole valley is terraced for grape production, and the stark contrast between the green vines and the red and blue mountains is quite a spectacle. This is a drive worth taking.

And driving is exactly what I did in the last day of my 2006 trip to Chile. Despite its violent past during Pinochet's dictatorship, Chile is now a very safe country, at least outside large degraded urban areas (which are dangerous almost everywhere in the world). Differently than in a certain latin american country I am familiar with, it always felt safe driving alone even in remote areas (see small photo on the left). Mountain's people tend to be nice; they like to hear your stories and tell their tales.  I had fun taking hitchhiker on board during my drives, and listen to their stories. Like the one of the two local kids working in the city that were going back to their mountain's village to visit their grandmother. Or the two american girls returning to La Serena after spending some time in one of the new age communes in the valley. 

Old truck
Chile's progress since the return of the democracy has been quite remarkable. January 2006, the time of my last visit, was at the height of the presidential elections that were ultimately won by Michelle Bachelet. A physician, she is a separated mother of three that describes herself as agnostic. In a deeply catholic country that only allowed divorce in 2004 this makes her election even more remarkable. Bachelet didn't come to politics by chance. The daughter of a loyalist air-force general under the Allende government, she was imprisoned and tortured, together with her mother, in the infamous "Quatro Alamos" detention center by Pinochet secret police (her father was also arrested and died under torture). After years of exile in Australia and East Germany, she was allowed to return to Chile where she completed her medicine studies. For "political reasons" she was however not allowed to practice as a doctor, and she ended up working in a NGO helping the children of the desaparecidos. That ultimately lead to her work as an assistant to the deputy Minister of Health and then of the minister of Defense. In 2000, virtually unknown, she was named by President Lagos Minister of Heath, with the task to eliminate, within 100 days, the long waiting lists in the saturated chilean hospital. She succeeded to reduce them by "only" 90%, which caused her to offer her resignations (promptly rejected). Among her other acts as Health Minister she authorized the distribution of the morning-after pill to victim of sexual abuse, an extremely controversial decision in a country where abortion is still illegal under any circumstances (not even to save the heath of the mother). In 2002 she became the Defense Minister, one of the first women in the world to held that post. When Lagos retired she was asked to run for the presidency for the Socialist party, and won by 53.5% at the second turn. Her presidency was so popular that at the end of her mandate in 2010 she had 85% approval ratings. After working as head of the United Nation's Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, she has been elected president for a second term in June 2013, with 73% of the votes.

The electoral campaign was in full swing as I was driving through Vicuña, the main town in the Elqui valley. The streets were plastered with large posters of Bachelet next to the image of another woman, Gabriela Mistral. Vicuña's most illustrious daughter, Gabriela Mistral is one of the two chilean to win the Nobel prize for Literature, together with Pablo Neruda. Chile is a land of poets, and of formidable women.

Valle del Elqui, Chile (January 13, 2006)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

40 Billion Earths and the Elqui Valley UFO

Valle del Elqui, Chile (January 13, 2006)

It is estimated that there are 40 billion Earths in the Galaxy. That's the number of rocky planets that orbit a solar-type star at just about the right distance to allow a comfortable surface temperature for life. This number is not a guess, but a measurement. It is an estimate that comes from one of the most daring experiments that astronomers have done in the last decade: the Kepler Space telescope.

You have probably heard about it. It is a smallish spacecraft that was sent in orbit around the Sun (that is, in deep space, not low Earth orbit like that weakling of Hubble) staring at stars to catch them blink. Stars have many reasons to flicker, but the blinking Kepler was designed to search-for is related to the dance that planets make around their stars. Imagine this: a far away star is going about minding its own business with its cohort of little planets, like mother hen with its chicks. You know how chicks are, they never stay quiet, they go round and around their mom in incessant circles: so are these planets revolving around their parent star. Imagine now that this alien planetary system is so perfectly aligned, by pure chance, that at every orbits these planets transit in front of the star, as seen from afar. Each time this happens, the star will appear ever slightly to dim, because of the little planet blocking some of its light by standing in front of its disk. Like a mini-eclipse, except that we call it transit. Kepler was designed to continuously stare at 150,000 stars in our Galaxy, hoping to detect the tell-tale sign of these chance events, and use them to infer the presence and size of the planets that could be causing them. As improbable as this geometry is, Kepler found 246 of these luckily aligned planets, with other 3,538 probable extrasolar planets awaiting confirmation.

USS Enterprise!!!
You may wonder why all this effort, and what does it means. Well, the whole point of the exercise was to extrapolate the number of the discovered planets over the whole number of stars in the Galaxy,  to estimate the fraction of stars that host Earth-like planets orbiting in what we call the habitable zone. The Kepler Space Telescope told us that this fraction is about 22%: about one star in four has at least one planet like Earth. Multiply this fraction by  the total number of solar-type stars in our Galaxy, which is about 200 billion, and you get the 40 billion Earths through the whole Milky Way. It turns out that this fraction is one of the most important factors (fpne) in the famous Drake equation. Envisioned by the astronomer Frank Drake, the equation lists all the factors to be taken into account to estimate the number of technological civilizations with whom we could communicate. Many other factors are involved, some of them easy to measure (the star formation ratio in the Galaxy) and other very hard to guess (e.g. how long a civilization will last before disappearing, or becoming so advanced that would be completely out of reach with our technology). The Drake equation, in its apparent simplicity and hidden complexity, spawned the search for extraterrestrial civilization which is SETI. A Don Quixote-sque enterprise, for certain, but based on science and with a huge potential payoff. 

As you probably know, so far we didn't find any evidence that these other civilizations are actually there. This is unfortunately a true statement, despite innumerable claims of alien abductions, UFOs and various conspiracy theories of government coverups and contacts of the third kind. Measuring the fraction of habitable planets, and finding it so high, gives however confidence, 40 billions times confidence, to be precise, that life could have evolved somewhere else in out Galaxy. The distances may be enormous and direct contact may be impossible but, as Arthur C. Clarke once famously said, the idea that we could be alone in the Universe is equally terrifying than the possibility to find somebody else!

Valle del Encanto, Chile (January 12, 2006)

PS: what has this all to do with Chile and mountains? Well one of the world-renown hotspots of UFO sightings is precisely in a valley near La Serena. The Elqui valley is famous for its mysterious positive energy, for being the center of Earth magnetism (uh?) and for the crash of an extraterrestrial spaceship on a nearby hill with inevitable government coverup (the Roswell of Chile). Even the prehistoric petroglyphs in the nearby Valle del Encanto show a clear depiction of several Enterprise-class spaceships from the Star Trek universe (see small photo above, what else could they be, right?). All this two steps away from the Cerro Tololo Inter-american Observatory (CTIO), hosting one of the largest telescopes in the world. Well, either we astronomers don't look to the sky as much as we pretend, or we must be part of the big conspiracy to hide the truth which is out there. Which I solemnly deny to be the case.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A Forest in the Desert

Norte Chico, Chile (January 12, 2006)

There is a rainforest in the desert. At the southernmost tip of the Atacama desert, the mountains and the ocean join in a daily ritual. The moist currents from the sea meet the cold air from the desert night: it is from their union that the camanchaca is born. The camanchaca is a rainless cloud, that sticks to the bottom of the valleys and moves inland like a dense bank of fog. It is a harbinger of life, as it brings moisture to one of the most arid deserts in the world.

Parque de Fray Jorge
A hundred kilometers south from La Serena, the camanchaca sustains the northernmost Valdivian temperate rain forest of Chile. Within the Parque Nacional Bosques de Fray Jorge, the forest is a remnant of the last glacial period, when densely wooded areas were common along the whole andean chain. With the retreat of the glaciers the trees have largely disappeared, replaced by the dry terrain of the Atacama desert. This north, only a few holdouts of the primeval forest are left, nourished by the clouds arising from the ocean. The forest at Fray Jorge is one of them (photo at the left, shot late in the day when the fog had already morphed into clouds, dissipating in the afternoon sun). To get to the park you drive south from La Serena along the Panamericana Highway, and then turn 90 degrees along a dirt road towards the coast (photo below). It is a surreal experience, driving towards a forest surrounded by a barren landscape of cacti framed by bare mountains of naked rocks. I though I was lost more than once: my trip was before universally available GPS, and my only guide was a  low resolution printout of an early version of google maps. I finally reached the gate of the park, where a custodian collected the small entrance fee, checked that I knew the closing hour of the gate and that I had a watch with me. I said: "no hay problema, tengo la hora acqui en mi celular", showing him my battered Treo (no iPhones and touch-screen smart phones at the time). He was quite impressed by my phone, opened wide his eyes and smiling said "pero eso no es un celular, es un avion!", before lifting the gate and letting me in.

Friendly goats
The park is quite large (100 square km), and only a small fraction is actually forested. The rest looks like the usual dry landscape of this part of Chile, more like the large photo on top. An accessible trail allows a short walk on the rim of the mountains facing the ocean. The trees are dense and beautiful, a stark contrast with the arid scrubland around. I spent some time on the lookout, and then walked back to the car, just in time before the entrance gate would be locked. On my way to the highway I lingered in the desert, paying visit to the imposing cacti flowering in yellow and red seasonal bloom. Near a creek I found company: a small friendly herd of goats. They were roaming around in the barren plains at the base of the coastal mountains, until they found a large saguaro-like cactus and sat there in its shade. They are shown on the left, minding their business while occasionally checking on the weird guy with the camera walking around, possibly worried that I was, yet again, lost.

I went back to the car and drove away, in the direction of the blue mountains rising over the horizon.

Norte Chico, Chile (January 12, 2006)