The Torres del Paine Legacy Fund is a non-profit initiative dedicated to enhancing the long-term health of Torres del Paine National Park and its surrounding communities. Launched in 2014 in response to challenges posed by rapidly increasing visitation to this iconic yet fragile landscape, the Legacy Fund mobilizes and implements collective stewardship of one of the world’s most cherished and spectacular natural wonders. It partners with local and international businesses, municipalities, park authorities, and visitors to collaboratively raise funds, awareness, and execute local sustainability projects that:
- Restore and protect ecosystems
- Improve tourism infrastructure and mitigate visitor impacts
- Promote community development
- Diversify recreational & cultural opportunities for residents and visitors.
Declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve in 1978 and now considered by many as the 8th wonder of the world, over 285,000 people flocked to Torres del Paine National Park in 2018. This figure represents double digit annual and five-year growth rates and is not forecasted to abate. Such intensive use and overcrowding have placed significant strain on the region’s unique flora and fauna, aging infrastructure, insufficient resources, and local population. Since 1985, three man-made fires, all started by tourists, have ravaged almost 1/5 of the park’s area, including native lenga tree forests, home to the black woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus), Cachaña (Enicognathus ferrugineus) and the endangered huemuldeer (Hippocamelus bisculus), amongst other endemic and endangered species now facing drastically reduced and altered habitats.
Few national park systems in the world are sustained by public resources alone, let alone one as popular as Torres del Paine. However prior to the Legacy Fund, no formal mechanism existed to mobilize and coordinate the additional investments needed to more sustainably manage this flagship region’s mounting tourist arrivals and associated impacts. Now operating under a formal agreement of collaboration with CONAF (Chile’s national parks and forest service), which was recently expanded to include all protected areas of Magallanes, the Legacy Fund provides technical and financial assistance to respond to local sustainability priorities, both in the national park and beyond. Over the past four years, some of these initiatives and achievements have included:
- Establishing the region’s first recycling system in collaboration with the municipality of Puerto Natales in 2015. Recycling increased by 600% in 2016, diverting over 250,000 kg of waste from the city’s already overcrowded landfill.
- Supporting a new 192m2 greenhouse to cultivate lenga tree seedlings for restoration of fire-affected areas of the Park, and reforestation field trips for local high school students.
- Collecting and monitoring data on the health of over 45,000 reforested lenga seedlings in fire-affected areas of the park and enhancing CONAF’s ecosystem restoration program.
- Eradicating 2000m2 of invasive species from the park’s visitor center area.
- Designing and installing four interpretive sites to enhance visitor appreciation and understanding of the park’s biodiversity.
- Supporting members of the Kawesqar communities of Magallanes with training and seed capital to develop cultural tourism products.
- Constructing, restoring, and maintaining over 9,000 meters of trail, boardwalk, and bridges within the park to ensure visitor safety, minimize erosion and destructive side trails, and avoid disruptions to sensitive habitats, particularly in fragile wetland areas. These projects bring together park rangers, local and international volunteers to work side by side on stewardship initiatives, and receive training in sustainable trail fundamentals to strengthen local management.
- Mobilizing over 10,500 hours and 300 Chilean volunteers as trail and conservation stewards in support of the above initiatives, many of whom were able to experience their national treasure for the first time due to Legacy Fund’s support. Thereby, expanding the community of advocates for the protection of Patagonia’s public lands –some of the most wild and pristine left on earth—is a critical outcome of these initiatives.
Concurrent with project implementation, the Legacy Fund continues to grow the community of responsible businesses whose support is so critical to the above initiatives, and to enduring destination stewardship more broadly. 24 local and 27 international tourism businesses provide direct financial support to the Legacy Fund or its specific projects, and/or encourage clients to do so, in order to safeguard their core product over the long run. Because we seek to cultivate the broadest base of support possible, we engage a wide variety of tourism businesses – from local microenterprises to global multinationals, and everything in between. These entities have diverse needs, capabilities, styles, and interests, as do their clientele, and therefore we provide multiple modalities tailored to each individual business for supporting the community and environmental programs of the Legacy Fund. For example, many of our tour operator partners, such as Chile Nativo, Venture Patagonia, and South America Specialists, incorporate a per passenger donation to the Fund for every traveler they send to Patagonia, and inform their clients of that support. Others support specific Legacy Fund projects through their grants programs, as is the case with the Intrepid Foundation and the Kawésqar Community Tourism Initiative, or Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures and our reforestation monitoring work. Some of the tourism businesses that operate directly in the park, such as Vertice, Bigfoot Patagonia, and Hielos Patagonicos, also support specific projects, but through in-kind donations of food, camping, tools, and/or transportation for our staff and volunteers during fieldwork. Our gastronomy partners often include a donation on certain products sold – for example Baguales Brewery and Last Hope Distillery donate $1 for every pitcher or bottle sold respectively. Other businesses encourage their clients to donate by providing information and/or donation boxes or envelopes in their rooms/facilities, on their websites, in their booking forms, menus, or other client-facing material. Guides play a particularly important role in getting the word out considering the significant amount of time they spend with travelers, so Legacy Fund staff conducts annual briefings with business partner employees to orient them on why and how they can be ambassadors.
We also work with some of our partners to incorporate service into their standard itineraries, or share the work they’re supporting with their guests through project site visits or chats. These provide good opportunities for travelers to learn about the destination’s challenges and the Legacy Fund’s work to address them. However most of our volunteers are young Chileans recruited to participate in our volunteer stewardship program, which undertakes trail and conservation projects in the national park. This not only provides much needed manpower for time and labor-intensive projects such as trail construction or data collection, but also strengthens and expands the community of advocates for Patagonia’s public lands. Many Chileans cannot afford to visit their own national treasure given the destination’s remote location and high costs catering to an increasingly exclusive group of wealthy international tourists. Therefore the costs for Chileans to volunteer on our projects is highly subsidized; their meals, lodging, and transport while in the park are covered. While this could be considered voluntourism as many participants do travel from other parts of Chile to participate, it is not in the more commonly understood definition of that term in which revenue is generated from international tourists seeking to volunteer during their holidays. We are open to providing additional opportunities for the latter when those resources directly advance the organization’s core objectives.
Together, our business partners and their travelers, combined with fellow mission aligned conservation foundations, have raised over $450,000 in support of the Legacy Fund’s four main destination stewardship objectives. Some of this revenue is earmarked for specific projects or programs, either because the funds are in the form of a restricted grant or a partner has specified that they’d prefer funds are spent on only park projects, or only conservation programming, etc. We allocate unrestricted funds to those programs selected and prioritized for execution each year with our implementing partners. The latter is primarily comprised of CONAF, with whom we have a formal agreement of mutual collaboration, as well as other community stakeholders and organizations that approach us for technical or financial assistance with their sustainability project ideas. With CONAF we carry out an annual work planning process in which projects and investments are prioritized, while our assistance to other community initiatives is typically initiated through a solicitation for support, either utilizing the application form available on our website, or a request for counterpart funding. Given that partnership is core to our model and mission, whether with CONAF or other actors, the Legacy Fund is often stepping in with resources to complement or expedite local projects, leveraging resources for collective action to generate speedier or greater impact than any one actor could alone. This is a core criterion against which we evaluate potential projects for funding; the remainder can be found here. This grant application also has each project define its own success indicators to be subsequently tracked, while the Legacy Fund tracks certain cumulative outputs over time such as meters of trail constructed or restored, lenga monitored, volunteers and partners engaged and the hours and resources they contribute. Last but not least, of course the financial and human resources the Legacy Fund has available at the time is a major qualifying factor when selecting and prioritizing projects.
While this process of project development and selection is one of the primary ways we solicit and respond to community priorities, we also engage in ongoing dialogue with our partners and residents through both formal and informal means. In addition to our day to day work with CONAF, we participate in tourism planning processes and workshops, attend conferences and events, neighborhood, chamber of commerce, and industry association meetings, and have close working relationships with the municipality and the majority of local tourism businesses. Given that Puerto Natales is a small community, our longevity plus limited staff turnover have resulted in strong personal and professional relationships with many local stakeholders; a critical element of our success. Building the trust and buy-in key to any collaborative undertaking takes a concerted, long-term effort. We’ve been fortunate enough to have core annual operating support from the Fink Family Foundation, and consistent commitments from early business supporters such as Eclipse Travel, that have afforded us the time needed to build enduring relationships and a project track record that in turn attract others to the cause.
This is not to say there have not been challenges in developing or sustaining this program, chief amongst which have been the following:
- As with most communities, disparate interests and opinions, particularly between the public and private sectors, and larger and smaller businesses, have at times resulted in tensions or disagreements as to investment priorities, or who should bare the greater financial burden for them.
- While more mainstream now, the concepts of CSR and destination stewardship were still relatively nascent in Chile when the Legacy Fund began, and still lack a supportive regulatory environment. For example, donations to environmental causes are not tax-exempt in Chile. Furthermore, the idea of being a responsible, eco-friendly business was mostly restricted to greening internal operations rather than giving back to the broader community.
- The classic chicken and the egg conundrum of needing funds to undertake impactful projects, while at the same time potential donors seeking a demonstrated project track record as a basis for investment.
All three of these factors have at various points and to varying degrees constrained fundraising, and subsequently the extent and scale of success. Nevertheless, the aforementioned time and patience afforded to enduring and overcoming some of these hurdles, has been essential to their remaining navigable rather than debilitating challenges. For others considering developing a destination stewardship/impact tourism fund, I think this would be my top piece of advice: be prepared for the long-haul, and ensure your earliest funders and collaborators are as well.
The Torres del Paine Legacy Fund is a fiscally sponsored program of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST).