Chile names high Andean sites


(10 December 1996)

The authorities in Chile have named six new sites for the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, all dated 2 December 1996, to join the Carlos Anwandter Sanctuary designated back in 1981. One of the six, El Yali, is a system of lagoons and marshes associated with the mouth of the Yali River in Región V. The other five are high altitude sites in the Puna (high Andean) region and include mainly "salares", a term for which there seems to be no good translation -- it is used exclusively of the salt water wetlands of the Puna and can describe not only salt lakes but also temporary marshes, shallow lakes and lagoons, or simply salt crust.

The wetlands in the Puna are the remnants of a Pleistocene sea which was pushed up and isolated in a closed catchment as the Andes developed and grew higher. Some are hypersaline, up to ten times saltier than the sea, but there is a wide range amongst them. Many are interconnected through subterranean wetlands but with little or only temporary connections on the surface.

They are especially fragile, and their ecological character can easily be modified by

  • sedimentation (there used once to be a sort of shrub forest there, but it was destroyed by Inca and subsequent agriculture, resulting in a high degree of desertification)
  • pollution (the abundant algae that live there are highly specialized, and in turn are at the base of most food chains)
  • climate change (most of the area has very little water inflow apart from snow melt, and evaporation is very high because of strong winds and temperature ranges of 40 degrees C within 24 hours.

Though once one of the most densely inhabited regions of South America, the area is now sparsely populated, chiefly by the descendants of Inca and Aymará forebears. The high altitude region, shared by Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru, is quite poor, and the population lives mainly by sheep raising, apart from some mining of salt and other minerals.

Chile’s new sites in the Puna range from 3500 meters’ altitude to over 4400m(*) and are important habitat for a number of species – Salar de Tara, for example, is a most important nesting site for James’ Flamingo. Thus far the Ramsar Convention’s high altitude sites in the region included only Laguna Colorada in Bolivia and Laguna de los Pozuelos in Argentina, in the latter of which a recently-approved Ramsar Small Grants Fund project will seek to delimit the Pozuelos area with a view to including still more Puna wetlands in the Ramsar List.

The region is by all accounts "magical" – the very word used by the Bureau’s Technical Officer for the Neotropics, Montserrat Carbonell, in reporting these new sites – and Chile’s newest designations for the List are extraordinarily welcome.

Here are the new sites' data:

Humedal el Yali

520 hectares

Región V

50m alt.

Humedal Salar de Surire

15,858 hectares

Región I

4200m alt.

Laguna del Negro Francisco y Laguna Santa Rosa

62,460 hectares

Región III


Salar de Tara

5,443 hectares

Región I

4400m alt.

Salar del Huasco

ca.6,000 ha.

Región I

3500m alt.

Sistema hidrológico de Soncor

5,016 hectares

Región II

2300m alt.

(* i.e., about at the summit of the Matterhorn!)

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