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The principal environmental problems that confront Chile are deforestation and air, water, and land pollution. Santiago is one of Latin America's most polluted cities, and air pollution there has become an acute problem; children and the elderly and infirm are frequently advised to stay indoors for days on end due to dangerous levels of toxic pollutants that enshroud the capital. Rapid urban expansion, industrial emissions from the copper mining sector, and the increased volume of car traffic are cited as the main causes of Santiago's air pollution. Mining is responsible for releasing the chief air and water pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and arsenic. In 2000, the city faced an unprecedented pollution emergency when over 200,000 vehicles were prohibited from driving on the roads and offending industries were shut down. Fortunately, in the last few years, environmental issues have taken a more prominent role in domestic politics and, while the pace is slow, government initiatives have gone a long way to improving the situation.

The indiscriminate logging of Chile's temperate forests has resulted in the tragic disappearance of thousand-year-old forests. The most publicized case of illegal logging, which has been taken up by environmental agencies, including Greenpeace, is that of the rare alerce tree, which is found in the Andes and can live for up to 3,500 years. Similar to Californian redwood trees, its robustness and impermeability make it an extremely valuable commodity; a cubic meter can sell for as high as $5,300/£3,533 on the international black market. Under Pinochet, logging of the alerce reached its sickening nadir, and while new laws introduced in 1974 have protected the species under international law, logging still exists due to a loophole that allows for the extraction and commercialization of trees that were cut before the law was passed. Greenpeace has denounced CONAF, the Chilean National Parks and Wildlife Service, for its complicity in the illegal logging industry and has made persistent calls for the Chilean government to declare a national moratorium on alerce logging permits.

Many animals are in serious risk of extinction throughout the country, as well. As of 2001, of the 91 listed mammals in Chile, some 16 species were registered as endangered. Almost 5% of Chile's 298 breeding bird species are threatened with extinction, most notably the tundra peregrine falcon, the Chilean woodstar, and the ruddy-headed goose. Also threatened are four types of freshwater fish and over 250 plant species.

Chile hasn't made great strides in the sustainable accommodations arena. Patagonia, and to a lesser extent Easter Island, are the only areas with truly environmentally conscious hotels. Hotels in the Patagonia region are some of the most innovative on the continent when it comes to sustainability. The striking Remota Hotel in Puerto Natales has natural grasses planted on the roof, simplified heating from appropriate sun exposure, energy-efficient lighting, and low-consumption water systems. At press time, the explora Salto Chico Hotel, in nearby Torres del Paine, was midway through receiving prestigious LEED certification from the United States Green Building Council.

Nearby, Indigo Patagonia includes an advanced insulation system that requires no central heating for most of the spring and summer, and bright natural solar lighting that reduces the need for bulbs. Inside the hotel, there's extensive recycling. The new Patagonia Camp was built completely on stilts so as to have a minimal impact, and houses a gray-water treatment system and solar-powered lighting.

With their near-nothing eco-footprint, the colorful domes at Eco-Camp Patagonia, inside Torres del Paine National Park, have been awarded the rigorous Swiss-based ISO 14001 certification. It's the only property in Patagonia to garner this award for its eco-efforts, including using alternative energy, waste water processing, and compost toilets.

In 2009, the explora Posada de Mike Rapu in Easter Island became the first hotel in Latin America to attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and the 13th in the world to achieve this distinction. Construction followed LEED recommendations while protecting the delicate surroundings of the island.

As the popularity of Antarctic tourism has boomed over the past few years, so have concerns about the safety of both the local ecology and the tourists who are venturing to see the continent. A handful of incidents involving expedition ships sinking, running aground, or hitting rock or ice in Antarctic waters have set off alarm bells. Controversial calls in mid-2009 for stricter regulations, including drastic limits on visitor numbers and ship sizes, could have a serious impact on tourism. A proposal to ban ships carrying more than 500 passengers from any landing sites, and to limit the number going ashore at any time to 100, was recently approved by members of the Antarctic Treaty. Remember, though, that these regulations are voluntary under international law, since the Antarctic has no internationally-recognized governance body.

In recent years, dog-sledding, a popular activity in southern Chile, has become shrouded in controversy as global animal rights activists have launched a series of campaigns highlighting the brutal effects of pushing the dogs too hard under extreme conditions. For information on this and other animal-friendly issues in Chile, visit Tread Lightly (www.treadlightly.org).

It's Easy Being Green

Here are a few simple ways you can help conserve fuel and energy when you travel:

  • Each time you take a flight or drive a car, greenhouse gases release into the atmosphere. You can help neutralize this danger to the planet through "carbon offsetting" -- paying someone to invest your money in programs that reduce your greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount you've added. Before buying carbon offset credits, just make sure that you're using a reputable company, one with a proven program that invests in renewable energy. Reliable carbon offset companies include Carbonfund (www.carbonfund.org), TerraPass (www.terrapass.org), and Carbon Neutral (www.carbonneutral.org).
  • Whenever possible, choose nonstop flights; they generally require less fuel than indirect flights that stop and take off again. Try to fly during the day -- some scientists estimate that nighttime flights are twice as harmful to the environment. And pack light -- each 15 pounds of luggage on a 5,000-mile flight adds up to 50 pounds of carbon dioxide emitted.
  • Where you stay during your travels can have a major environmental impact. To determine the green credentials of a property, ask about trash disposal and recycling, water conservation, and energy use; also question if sustainable materials were used in the construction of the property. The website www.greenhotels.com recommends green-rated member hotels around the world that fulfill the company's stringent environmental requirements. Also consult www.environmentallyfriendlyhotels.com for more green accommodations ratings.
  • At hotels, request that your sheets and towels not be changed daily. (Many hotels already have programs like this in place.) Turn off the lights and air-conditioner (or heater) when you leave your room.
  • Use public transport where possible -- trains, buses, and even taxis are more energy-efficient forms of transport than driving. Even better is to walk or cycle; you'll produce zero emissions and stay fit and healthy on your travels.
  • If renting a car is necessary, ask the rental agent for a hybrid, or rent the most fuel-efficient car available. You'll use less gas and save money at the tank.
  • Eat at locally owned and operated restaurants that use produce grown in the area. This contributes to the local economy and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions by supporting restaurants where the food is not flown or trucked in across long distances.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.