The Chilean farm Alihuen combines organic farming and tourist education to restore local flora and fauna on former grasslands.
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The first time we visited the Chilean island of Chiloé we had just completed a three-month sailing trip through the wilderness of Patagonia. It was autumn and more pleasant than in the deep south: sunnier, drier, and more hospitable. The rolling green hills actually reminded us of southern England. We understood why people once settled here to farm or fish.
Seven months later we are back on Chiloé. This time Joke and Meint join us. They won a prize from renewable energy company Vandebron to stay with us for a week. To show them all about our mission, they are getting acquainted with life on board Lucipara 2 and we are taking them to a sustainable solution on the island: Alihuen. It’s a farm that combines food production with nature restoration. From the moment we read about it, we wonder how they do it. Doesn’t nature always suffer on a farm? And how do they manage financially?
Agriculture and Tourism Dominate the Landscape
Now, in the southern summer, we notice that Chiloé is also a popular holiday destination. Ferries sail back and forth, we stumble over advertisements for penguin excursions, and signs for “cabañas” are all along the road. Everyone seems to let houses to tourists. As we make our way across the island, we notice that the accommodations are often surrounded by meadows with grazing cows from small-scale farms.
Sailing with our guests Joke and Meint
Chiloe reminds us of southern England
Driven by Love
We arrive at the Alihuen farm and check into the cabaña reciclada. The comfortable cottage is made of recycled materials, such as wood from a demolished building. Our host is the Belgian Jeroen Beuckels. He lives with his wife Grecia and their 6-year-old son Gabriel in the house they built just across the street. “We met over 15 years ago at the English lesson that Jeroen gave”, Grecia says with a smile. They fell in love and soon a shared dream developed: starting a family farm on the island where Grecia was born and raised. “We wanted to live off the land and at the same time take good care of nature”, Jeroen adds.
From Dream to Reality
Realizing that dream wasn’t easy, Jeroen explains. “In my younger years I did a lot of volunteer work at organic farms. That is where I learned how to do agriculture with respect for nature. I knew that one day, I wanted to have my own farm and apply those methods.”
“When this land came up for sale, we were both very enthusiastic. The property does not overlook the sea, so the price was reasonable. Moreover, the grassland, not far from a river, was perfect for bringing the forest back”. That purpose also explains the name: Alihuen means “big tree” in the language of the Mapuche, the indigenous people of southern Chile. “Our focus on trees meant that we needed to keep the cows out”, Jeroen continues. It meant fencing the entire property. “I still have nightmares about that colossal task”, Jeroen laughs.
Nature Restoration through Reforestation
Jeroen describes how the island must have been completely forested once. As more people settled, more and more trees were felled for building and heating, but especially to make way for grassland. Until recently, cows also roamed the seventy-hectare estate of what is now Alihuen for dairy and meat production.
Deforestation came at the expense of the original biodiversity. “I love the forest and the animals that live in it”, Jeroen continues. “Many of them need uninterrupted forest for protection, such as ground-dwelling birds. Expanding their habitat is my motive for reforestation”. In addition, trees are important for the groundwater level, because they absorb water and release it slowly. And of course, trees are indispensable in the worldwide fight against climate breakdown, as they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere.
Our cabin made from recycled materials
The Beuckels family
The family farmhouse is surrounded by vegetable gardens and forest
Over the past 15 years, Jeroen has planted more than 23,000 trees to turn grassland into forest. “In addition, I estimate that around 100,000 trees have reproduced themselves. I mainly give space to native species, such as the nothofagus and the slow-growing arrayan. They not only regulate water levels, but are also the habitat for many native insects, birds and a rare deer, the pudú”, Jeroen says.
On a tour of the property we notice how remarkably dense the forest is. Where grass once grew, we see moist, carbon-rich forest soil. When we pass a clearing, Joke suddenly comes to a halt. “Look left”, she gestures. At the edge of the forest we spot a stocky brown deer. “A pudú!”, we whisper with big smiles on our faces. Jeroen’s approach is clearly successful. Looking at the shy animal and listening to the cacophony of birds, we really experience the beauty of the local nature.
Tree seedling working to transform the grassland into forest
Where the forests grows, moist and carbon enriches the soil
Jeroen aims to plant even more trees
Alihuen’s forest from above
The indigenous deer Pudu thrives at Alihuen
We then turn to the agricultural aspect of the family farm. Next to Beuckels’ home are a small field, a vegetable garden, and a greenhouse. “Here we grow our own food, completely organic”, Jeroen explains. We come to understand what that means when we all help him with planting potatoes. We start by digging up the ground to make a furrow. Next, we put seed potatoes in the soil, which is dark and teeming with worms. Armed with spades we make our way to the neighbouring grove. The neighbour’s horse has left manure all over it, which we scoop up and dump in a wheelbarrow to scatter over the potatoes. Finally, we cover everything with fertile soil.
The plot of land used for agriculture is enough to feed the family. That’s possible because the Beuckels family does not consume much dairy and meat. “That saves a lot of space”, Jeroen explains. “This way, with a relatively small piece of land, we can largely provide our own food and put trees on the rest of the land.”
The main house is surrounded by fields to grow vegetables and fruits
Joke found horse manure
Joke and Meint helping with organic potato farming
Planting potatoes in fertile soil
Trees as a Business
Transforming grassland into forest may be good for nature, but it will not make you rich. That is why Jeroen has found smart ways to save and earn money. For example, he used recycled wood to construct many of the buildings on his property. He also builds with fast-growing eucalyptus wood, which he harvests from a field that he designated for that purpose. That wood also keeps the family warm in winter. Sometimes, they receive gifts from private individuals to plant trees. Via websites such as WWOOF and WorkAway, Jeroen also gets volunteers. They regularly stay at Alihuen to help with construction, organic farming, and communication about Alihuen.
Tourists Learn a Lesson
Communication is important for the family’s other source of income: accommodating tourists. Everyone who stays with them is immersed in sustainable tourism. The cabaña reciclada is a perfect introduction to sustainable construction and waste recycling. In addition, its location in the forest stimulates tourists to appreciate nature. To allow visitors to go deep into the forest, Jeroen has constructed a wooden, wheelchair-accessible trail. It enables visitors to learn something up close about the local flora and fauna and about the crucial role of the forest for the local ecosystem.
Finally, Grecia is not just a mother and farmer’s wife, but also an artist who keeps the island’s artisanal traditions alive. With a loom local sheep wool, she creates beautiful tapestries. The colours come from natural dyes, such as lichen and flowers. She also handcrafts cushions, birds, and mythological figures from the island. In her own studio we admire her creations and learn that she mainly sells to tourists.
Info sign on Alihuen’s educational forest trail
The educational forest trail is all-accessible
Guests are also being educated as waste recyclars
Grecia’s beautiful creations
Another Way of Doing It
With dedication and perseverance, the Beuckels family have set up a family farm and a tourist business where nature restoration takes centre stage. Consuming vegetables and fruit and only few amounts of dairy and meat has allowed them to create room for the forest, and therefore nature. This also benefits the tourists. Thanks to the cabaña reciclada and the forest trail, they learn something about nature in an informal, almost casual way, while contributing financially to its recovery. It’s a remarkable initiative, certainly in a world where a lot of forest has had to make way for meadows. Just like us, visitors will be inspired by this passionate family who shows that running a farm can go hand in hand with nature restoration and sustainable tourism.