Promoting tradition and fostering ecotourism

On an island in Chile, Sandra Antipani celebrates the importance of nature to First Nations

Sandra Antipani leads a walk through the woods near her ecotourism cabins

When Sandra Antipani grew up on Chiloé, a peanut-shaped island in southern Chile, public schools forbade the teaching of her native tongue, Willichedungun, a severely endangered language closely related to the more widely spoken Mapudungun. Four decades later, however, the celebrated teacher and Indigenous rights activist not only educates pupils in Willichedungun; she’s penned (alongside her brother Hugo) the first-ever dictionary of the language, which was released in 2022.

The siblings spent two years traveling around Chiloé and its satellite islands, speaking with elders to gather as many words as possible. They also visited cemeteries to make an anthroponomical record of Indigenous Huilliche family names, and uncovered the pre-Columbian names of its hills, coves and communities.

“We hope to right an historic wrong,” Antipani says from her office in the José Santos Lincomán School in the small town of Compu. “Slowly, we’re recuperating the words, the songs, the joy, and the importance of nature to the First Nations.”

Compu’s old elementary school burned down 10 years ago. This colorful new one reopened in 2023 thanks in part to the work of Antipani, its director. She says its name is symbolic, honoring a local lonko (chief) famed for his poetry. Lonko José Santos Lincomán also played a key role in fighting for Indigenous land and language rites here, even teaching kids in their native tongue when he knew it meant being detained during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Sanda Antipani (far right) and Yasmin Uribe Rivera lead a group of tourists on kayaks

Antapani (second from left) and her family gather in their living room to play traditional music

Teacher, author, firefighter, singer, leader

Like the late lonko, Antipani wears many hats in her community. Not only is she a teacher and author; she’s also a local firefighter, a shellfish collector and a singer in a Willichedungun-language band she formed with her brother and two children, who play local instruments including the kultrun drum, pifilca flute and trutruca trumpet (many of the songs are set to Lonko Lincomán’s poetry). Antipani also works to share her culture – and its respect for nature – through an ethno-tourism project near her home, where she offers three cabins overlooking Chiloe’s inland sea.

“When I started with the idea of tourism, it was as a way to teach the community – or to set an example – that we need to stop with the extraction of wood from the forest,” she says. “For now, Mother Earth still gives us what we need, including our medicine, which you can find all around you. But if we don’t protect it, it will stop giving.”

WWF was there to support Antipani after one of the most traumatic moments of her life. In 2013, Antipani noticed that workers at the salmon farm in the bay in front of her home were shooting at birds and sea lions. When she went to document this with her phone, they shot at her, too. WWF helped her sound the alarm about this illegal activity as we worked with her to develop her tourism project. Today, that tourism project includes kayaking trips right up to those very salmon farms to view the sea lions she helped protect.

Antipani teaches the Willichedungun language to visitors

A published copy of the Willichedungun dictionary

A path forward through ecotourism

A pandemonium of slender-billed parakeets squawks through the morning sky as Antipani sets off the next day down a 3-mile-long trail into the temperate Valdivian rainforest on her property. She built this path herself and dotted it with signs denoting native trees like coihue, a local beech, and tepú, a myrtle.

Antipani continues through the loamy forest, past rows of bell-shaped copihue flowers, to a hilltop clearing. Here, she points out the pomponales wetlands, where the sponge-like sphagnum moss, a vital source of water retention, has come under threat from the potted plant industry, which uses it to moisten soil. Then, she pushes onward toward a hilltop lagoon, imploring fellow hikers to touch the plants, know their textures and feel the living energy of the forest. “You have to respect it and protect it to gift it to the new generations,” she explains.

Antipani sees this kind of tourism as key to ensuring the long-term conservation of the island. It’s also a tangible way for her to share her community’s wisdom – and words – with outsiders who may be wholly unfamiliar. “What we’re doing might be translated these days to sustainability,” she explains. “But for us, it’s nothing new; it’s always been part of our cosmovision.”

A view from the visitor cabins on the island