Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Travel & the Environment: an Interview with Hernán Torres

I first met Hernán Torres Santibáñez in 1979, when I was researching my M.A. thesis on llama and alpaca herding in Lauca Nacional Park and he was in charge of the regional office of the Corporación Nacional Forestal, in the northern Chilean city of Arica. Given our interests in conservation and travel, we have stayed in touch ever since and, when I was in Santiago recently, I asked him to answer some questions about his career trajectory and current activities. I’ve also seen his daughters Marcela (left) and Paula – also his business partners – grow up to achieve a level of English fluency so impressive that it’s hard to tell that they’re not native speakers.
WB: Did you grow up in Santiago, or elsewhere in Chile? What aroused your interest in the outdoors and the natural environment?

HTS: I was born and raised in Santiago, but throughout my life I have travelled all over the country. I've always been interested in the outdoors, and enjoy my regular visits to the National Museum of Natural History (pictured below). I am always searching for ways to be in touch with nature and learn more about the environment.
WB: How did you get started in conservation, in the professional sense? What was your academic background in Chile? What were you doing before I met you in Arica, before you were head of Conaf in the First Region?

HTS: I began my professional career as Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Natural History in the mammalogy laboratory. It was a very interesting job, and I learned a lot from it. I studied Museum Science while working as an Assistant Curator and then won a scholarship to complete my Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources at the University of Michigan. This was my first visit with the family to the U.S. and it was an amazing experience. We met wonderful people and my daughters learned English at an early age, which has helped them in their professional careers.

WB: When and why did you leave government service?

HTS: I was offered a great opportunity to work as a Protected Areas Specialist at the Tropical Agronomical Center for Research and Education (CATIE) in Costa Rica. The family decided it would be very interesting for us to live there and learn about a culture that is different from Chile. We moved to San José in 1985, and spent two wonderful years travelling the countryside and visiting national parks, which are breath-taking.

WBB: What brought you to the United States? How long were you here, and what was your experience?

HTS: I´ve travelled to the U.S. many times for different reasons: first, to learn the language, and then, to visit national parks and participate in workshops and seminars. I've lived there three times, the first being in 1983. The family came with me to Ann Arbor, Michigan while I studied for my Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources. We returned in 1989 while I pursued my Master of Environmental Studies at Yale University, School of Forestry and Environment.  And finally, I spent 1995 to 1998 in Arlington, Virginia, working for The Nature Conservancy, as a Protected Areas Specialist for the Caribbean Region Department. My experience in the U.S. was great; I watched as my daughters grew in a culturally diverse environment learning to socialize with different people from around the world and learning the language, which has proven to be the key to their current success in life.

WBB: After finishing your degree at Yale, how did you go into private environmental consulting? What sort of projects did you undertake, and where?

HTS: After finishing my graduate studies at Yale, I had the opportunity to work for different organizations as an Environmental Specialist. I have undertaken jobs in over 35 countries, some of them very close to home such as Bolivia, and other very exotic and amazing ones like Indonesia. Most of the consultancies have involved preparing, evaluating or monitoring projects related to the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funds, which are implemented through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) or the World Bank. I have learned many things throughout my travels and I've seen the splendors of nature in a variety of places: coastal areas in the Caribbean, deserts and mountains in Chile, and rain forests in Central America. I've seen many different species, which in turn inspired my passion for nature photography.

WBB: Tell me about your new company, Southern Cone Journeys (no relation to Southern Cone Travel), which is a family enterprise run with your daughters. What sorts of offerings do you have, and where? Do you do day trips in and around Santiago, or also organize longer excursions throughout the country (and beyond Chile’s borders)?

HTS: Southern Cone Journeys is a family dream come true. My daughters have been working in tourism for over 15 years and we finally decided that it was time to start our own business while avoiding all of the mistakes we have seen in the industry. We started out small a little over a year ago with day trips through Santiago and the surrounding areas, then won a governmental grant and everything took off from there. We are proud members of several associations such as Responsible Travel and Sustainable Travel International. We participated in the 2011 campaign to promote the Responsible Tourism Day worldwide, an undertaking sponsored by the World Travel Market, as one of the 300 companies in the world and one of only two in Chile that were approved to use their logo and carry out initiatives to spread the news about this important date.

Currently, we are offering 10 excursions that you can take during the day within Santiago and its surrounding areas. We have 12 sample itineraries that can take you from the Northern deserts to the Southern glaciers of Patagonia. But most importantly, we are a sustainable Tour Operator that's here to customize and personalize your experience in Chile by preparing a tailor-made trip to satisfy your needs. So if you're looking for a day of fun, or something longer like getting away for a month and seeing everything Chile has to offer off the beaten path, we're just what you need. We'll start promoting new trips to Argentina, Perú and Uruguay.

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