Patagonia’s Last Pioneer

The two pigs were aptly named “Douglas” and “Obama”. One was white and the other was black. Before I arrived to Lago Condor, located in Chile’s Aysén Region and the heart of the Patagonia, my friend Javier had already told me about these wild animals that had been living off the fat of a virgin wilderness for the last several months. They were plump for the picking, and their sacrifice would be an honorable way to end a four day hiatus in the middle of Patagonia’s coastal wetlands.

Though the animals were branded with these names due to the shades of their hides, it was pretty clear which pudgy piglet everybody was gunning for: Douglas. In fact, as the hunt prolonged into the early evening, the pig names went from “Douglas & Obama” to the much simpler “Douglas & Douglas”. They had apparently become Siamese twins joined by a collective disgust.

Puerco Temptations.

As I got to know better my Patagonian friends over the previous weeks, I realized that in the Chilean Patagonia there was one US American more hated than the villainous George W. Bush. That person was Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face clothing company and hard-line conservationist. The fact that Tompkins, a foreigner (and a gringo to boot), owns large swathes of land in the Patagonia that stretch from Chile’s Pacific coast to the Argentine border, essentially chopping the country in two, has greatly contributed to the demonizing of an idol to environmentalists all around the world. At first it didn’t make sense to me either; Tompkins bought land and created a “private” national park, heroically protecting sought-after natural resources from the “evil” mining and logging firms. Any grateful eco-warrior should get on his knees every day and pray for more environmentally-ethical millionaires like Tompkins.

In addition, my friends were vociferously dead-set against the current dam projects in the Patagonia, and they considered their Andean kingdom the ultimate apotheosis of life on earth. While chasing Douglas through the damp brush of a wide pasture, Javier told me why.

“Don’t misunderstand. I’m thankful that he is conserving the Patagonia. He’s fighting the battle. But it’s how he acquired the land that doesn’t sit well with other Patagones. Through trickery and plain ignorance on the part of the Chilean government, he obtained thousands of hectares of pristine wilderness for pennies,” Javier explained. Tompkins, in fact, owns over 600,000 hectares in Chile and another 300,000 hectares in Argentina.

Thus, for Javier and crew, the wild pig hunt had become a matter of taking justice in their own hands. In a sick, subconscious way, they were making poor Douglas pay for his transgressions against the Patagonian people.

These Patagones are stuck in a paradox of natural beauty. Being one of Chile’s poorest regions, most people living there can’t afford to actually own a part of the beauty. Hence, as foreigners, the government, and a handful of multinational firms appropriate the wilderness inch by inch, some of the local people tend to take it personally.

The last pioneer.

Bloodthirsty, I wondered how I became part of this hunt. I wasn’t so much concerned with “killing Douglas” as I was with running through ancient forests of Patagonian beech and coihue tracking feral animals, or animales ariscos, as they were called in Spanish. I was more enchanted with the crafting of savage weaponry that would bring the feast to the table. Suddenly I found myself living out a primitive hunter-gatherer fantasy in which my survival depended on the human instinctual ability to hunt and sniff out my prey. I picked up a stone, tied it to the end of a rope: the weapon that hopefully would bring Douglas down. The rain clouds grumbled and a downpour of biblical proportions was literally on the horizon. But the temperatures didn’t waiver, pegging a cool 60 degrees. Suddenly, I was Ahab, and Douglas was my great whale.

A new class of hunters.

WILD AYSÉN

Lago Condor is not easy to get to. From Coyhaique, the main city in Chile’s Aysén Region, you have to take at least two buses some three hours northwest to Puerto Chacabuco. This small port town is tucked into one of Southern Chile’s many fjords. Then comes a 1.5 hour cruise, first through the fjord and then up an estuary in a small skiff. After, we had to don tall rubber boots and trek 3-4 hours up a steep river bed and along several miles of muddy cattle paths until reaching the lake’s shore. To get to Javier’s fathers’ land, you must then cross Lago Condor, spending another 1.5 hours on a leaky boat with an outboard motor, bailing water the whole time. Let’s just say it’s off the beaten path, far flung from the tourist-friendly Lonely Planet world.

Through the fjord.

Patagonia’s central zone, Aysén, is very diverse geographically speaking. Coyhaique, in fact, lies on the eastern flank of the Andean spine, and as you drive east the mountains give way to craggy hills, which then slowly deflate over the horizon and eventually dissolve into the horizontal Argentine Pampa on the other side of the border.

The sharp contrast between the two sides of the cordillera is greatest in rainfall. Whereas the western slopes of the Patagonian Andes can easily receive over 3,000mm (110 in.) annual rainfall, the city of Coyhaique receives some 1,000mm annually, while further west over the Pampa, droughts are common, and ranchers are lucky to see 200mm annually. Climatologists refer to this effect as “rain shadowing” and is one of nature’s personality traits that has made the Patagonia so diverse in flora and fauna.

If the Patagonia were an independent Republic it would be one of the youngest in the Americas. The city of Coyhaique wasn’t founded until 1929, and Aysén, referred to as Chile’s 11th region was the last region of twelve to be incorporated into the Chilean patria. By most economic and political measures, the 12th Region of Magallanes in the Tierra de Fuego is much more integrated than Aysén.

According to my friend Javier, the 100,000 plus people living in the least populated region are first and foremost Patagones, and then Chileans. The people in Aysén, he tells me, have much more in common with those on the other side of the invisible border slicing the Chilean and Argentine Patagonia than with nortinos, or Chileans living in Puerto Montt and northwards. Aysén is something like the Chilean Alaska, I conclude, not that the frigid waters and snow capped mountains didn’t help me come to that conclusion.

Aysén itself was not even connected to the Chilean “mainland” until the 1980’s when a certain dictator made the 1000km Carretera Austral a matter of national pride. If Pinochet did anything, he geographically united Chile, reclaiming what Chilean patriots had done more than a century earlier. The General found it totally unacceptable that Chilean Patagonians had to scuttle over the border, in and out of Argentina, in order to get to the other Chile, the one where Santiago is located.

In addition, by bulldozing caminos to the people of Aysén, he created a bastion of support and planted the seeds of one of the region’s largest employer: the State. This little wonder in transportation, however, came at a cost. Due to extreme conditions, rock slides, rogue waves and unreliable techniques, many Chileans lost their lives building the unpaved road that now connects Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins, the last stop on the historic carretera.

Due to years of isolation, Patagones in Aysén have adopted a self-reliant, do-it-yourself attitude. My friends in Aysén have little faith in the central government and continuously complain that Aysén is nothing more than an afterthought in the minds of policy makers. Central Patagonia gained notoriety only around the year 2000 when a multinational electric company announced plans to place hydroelectric dams throughout the region. Finally, the Aysén had caught the government’s attention.

The first settlers in the Aysén specialized in ranching and had to clear virgin Patagonian wilderness, an unruly world with few open spaces not absorbed by flourishing tangled bamboo plants, known as quila. Or, as my friend Javier told me when we were mud trekking up to Lago Condor: “The Patagonia is like a cold-ass jungle”.

The rough Patagon life.

From days of observation, I realized with whom I was dealing. Javier was the last of a special breed of Patagón. He was as much a cowboy as a tour guide, he was as much a tropero, (local parlance for rancher) as he was a marketing director. And finally he was a pioneer, not in the “covered wagon” sense, but in the “break ground, sink-your-roots homesteader” sense.

His father first arrived on the shores of Lago Condor in the early 80s, when communities like Coyhaique depended on troperos like Rubén Aguilar Cadaga. The Patagonian diet was then and continues to be very basic: meat. When Javier’s mother invited me for lunch, I erroneously thought it a special occasion that each person in the family was eating two steaks instead of one. Because of high quantities of red meat, Patagones have a higher than normal incidence of heart disease, and the human life ends an averaged year earlier than it does in Santiago, according to Chile’s national institute of statistics (INE).

Rubén Aguilar’s business plan was simple: head into the wilderness, round up a handful of feral animals, pry them from the habitat and send them overwater and overland to the butcher. At least it sounds simple, but I’m not talking about docile heifers we used to target for midnight cow-tipping back in the day. Not even close. These animals were vicious dinosaurs compared to the terrified, compliant cows raised on American farms. In fact, the word cow is insufficient in connotation; animales ariscos have absolutely no inkling of domestication or respect for your average farmer. Go back ten thousand years, when man had just crossed the ice-bridge from Asia to the Americas. These are the kind of animals I’m trying to convey.

At a young age, Javier was tossed into the family business. As a fifteen year old, he witnessed his father and a brawny tropero take down a pissed-off beast with rope and brute force. Get a rope around the front legs, another around the back legs, and pull in opposite directions. Eventually the animal will fall, but not until you cut its throat will it stop howling, according to Javier.

Suddenly, in my mind, Douglas had gone from a fun-loving version of Porky Pig, to a hundred pound hog with a chip on its shoulder.

In 1991, his father actually purchased the land where these animals lived. The local newspaper Diario Aysén advertised the auction, and Javier’s fate seemed to be decided. He would become a tropero like his father. On one side of the lake where the trail ends, they built a rancho, or a small shelter, and a dock. On the other side of the lake, his father built a dock, a farmhouse, and began to sacar tropas, or wrestle and capture the beasts in his wild herd.

A few years later, when his father was spending weeks at a time on Lago Condor, a bitter bull finally exacted his revenge. While trapping the beast, the bull gored his father’s face and neck, a near-hit on the tropero’s jugular. With only his wife, a woman unaccustomed to the Patagonian backwoods, his life slowly spilled into the earth, one drop at a time. Inexplicably, she applied the only thing she had: chile powder, or merkén as it is known in Chile. Miraculously, he lived to see another animal arisco, but left future wrangling to his son Javier and to his socio and amigo, Don Honorato.

After telling me this story, Javier tells me “You see why I don’t want anything to do with cows, I don’t want to work with livestock or ever look at a cow again. I want to work with humans,” which is why Javier has been carefully planning the next step for Lago Condor over the past ten years.

LAGO CONDOR’S ALL INCLUSIVE RESORT
In 1999, the Chilean government announced changes to an old homesteading law called the Ley del Sur (Law of South). For the past fifty years, the Ley del Sur had provided the legal framework of ownership of land in the Chilean Patagonia. In order to qualify as a homesteader, Javier had to prove ownership through some type of infrastructure on the plot of land in question. In this case, he claimed the area of Lago Condor where the muddy trail ends, directly opposite of his father’s ranch and lands. Here he and his father had built a rancho and a dock that was used to bring the animals from one side of the lake to the other. Javier claimed 35.2 hectares along the coast of Lago Condor, including the headwaters of the river that drains Lago Condor into the fjords of the Pacific Ocean.

This is the life.

In 2000, Javier showed up to government offices in Coyhaique to claim his territory. With nothing more than a description and estimation, he sketched the borders of Lago Condor  in the middle of Patagonia’s daunting beauty. This land is so far flung, somewhere between nameless mountains and rainy fjords, who would possibly want it, he thought to himself.

Because of the area’s pristine conditions, untouched forests, and serene beauty, Javier decided he would build an environmentally friendly lodge on the shores of Lago Condor. The vision of a series of low-impact geodesic domes serving as hotel rooms, an improved rancho as the kitchen and a multitude of services including fly fishing, bird watching and rock climbing began to take shape. “Condor Lake Expedition” would take Javier down the pathway from feral bovine to friendly humans. But first he would need the title to the property, and second, he would have to face an entire corporation to make his dream come true.

Seven years later Javier was living and working on Volcano Osorno, Chile’s most emblematic volcano. There, he worked as a ski and snowboard technician as well as a mountain guide leading climbers to the summit of Osorno. One day he received a phone call that the Chilean government had accepted his claim to the land around Lago Condor. Together with a woman from the government staff, Javier took the odyssey to Lago Condor to show her what he and his father had built on the 35-plus hectares.

“It was chaotic times. There was a large earthquake in 2006 and a pretty big tsunami that wiped out a lot of homes around the fjord. As we made our way to Condor, this woman cried for five days straight,” he said.

Don Honorato doing research.

A few months later, Javier was back at the lake with topographers contracted out by the government. The men had to track through the dense forests with GPS equipment in order to measure off the property and create the title. Considering that even the feral beasts roaming the shores of the lake cannot just head off and march through these forests, the measurements were no easy task.

December 2008, Javier finally received the title to the land and he had done what the people of Patagonia used to do: homesteaded. Well sort of, Lago Condor had become his obsession, and a small Douglas Tompkins was born in Javier Aguilar. Forthwith, a voice in his head began to advocate for the preservation of Lago Condor, no matter what.

But before Javier could even say the words “geodesic dome” the future of Lago Condor had already taken a turn for the worse. Instead of an eco-friendly lodge, where rugged tourists come to toss their flies into the icy waters, Lago Condor found itself in the sights of a possible hydroelectric dam project.

LIKE WATER FOR COPPER

“This is the most strategic point on the lake. My old man has all the land on the other side of the lake, but I’m at the mouth,” Javier often tells me, unsure whether to see this as a blessing or as a disaster.

The name Condor made it into its first project portfolio back in the early-nineties when the Canadian mining firm Noranda planned a controversial aluminum smeltering plant (Alumysa project) near the lake. Shortly after, Noranda merged with compatriot Falconbridge and never made headway on the smeltering plant, leaving the plans on the backburner. In 2006 Australian-based mining conglomerate Xstrata Copper acquired both firms and by way of the acquisition, the water rights to the river draining Lago Condor as well as nearby rivers Cuervo and Blanco.

Xstrata quickly realized the hydroelectric potential, created its local affiliate Energia Austral and immediately launched its campaign to convince the government and local population of the need for the series of small hydroelectric plants. The idea behind the dams, however, is not to bring cost-cutting kilowatts to communities in Aysén, rather transfer the energy over electric towers running from the eleventh region to the country’s copper mines in the north. And that is the rub: Energy created in the Patagonia feeds the mining industry carried out in the north, more than 3,000 kilometers away.

Many eco-warriors are wont to highlight the distances between the north and south, citing centralism on part of the government, i.e. that Santiago and its power is manhandling the “poor” south. My friend Javier knows better. In fact, the state is Aysén’s largest employer, and employee benefits in the Aysén include the zona, terminology for the bonus for living in extreme conditions. Javier’s mother tells me that the zona can equal three times a normal salary in certain cases. Completing the circle, Javier reminds me that government coffers are funded, to a certain degree, by the state-run copper company Codelco.

The Energia Austral project involves building three hydroelectric dams on the Condor, Cuervo and Blanco rivers. Xstrata’s subsidiary is spending US$1 billion to create 1,014MW of energy each year.

To put this in context, it’s worth mentioning that some 65% of energy created in Chile goes to mining efforts, private and public mines. Chile thrives on an export-based economy, and copper sales alone represent more than 50% of the country’s exports. Providing more than a one-third of the world’s copper in 2007, it’s safe to say that copper is on every politician’s mind.

Nobody talks about Lago Condor. However, if you come to the Patagonia you won’t spend a day here before you hear about HydroAysén, a joint entity formed in 2006 by Spanish-Italian electricity giant Endesa and Chilean energy firm, Colbún. The project hopes to build five massive dams along Aysén’s Baker and Pascua Rivers. The investment is an estimated US$3.2 billion, the largest such project ever proposed in Chile. As a result, the “Patagonia without Dams” campaign has become ubiquitous in the area, plastering highways with billboards and newspapers with ads. Due to the scope of HydroAysen, most Patagonians concentrate fighting one battle while ignoring the other.

The dam campaign.

“The big show is HydroAysén,” Javier tells me. “Everybody is watching their environmental studies and the government’s reaction, while Energia Austral flies under the radar.”

This may be true. But if either the HydroAysén or the Energia Austral projects receive government approval, the 2,000 kilometers of electric towers must be built to carry the energy north. Energia Austral began breaking road towards Lago Condor in 2008, and will begin dam construction in 2011 and finish by 2015. By then, Javier’s eco-friendly getaway may be better used as worker’s living quarters.

In May 2007, Energia Austral inked a US$20 million contract with Chilean power-line firm Transelec to begin the feasibility study for the necessary towers to bring the energy to lower latitudes.

RUBBER STAMPS AND FREE MARKET POLICIES

Benjamin Witte, journalist and editor of The Patagonia Times, a web portal dedicated to environmental issues taking place in Chile’s Patagonia, sees the government using a “rubber stamp” when it comes to hydroelectric projects.

“With national attention focused specifically on Patagonia, energy companies have quietly been pushing through a long list of other hydroelectric projects throughout the rest of the country,” Witte says. Going over a long list of already approved projects stretching from the Patagonia all the way to Santiago’s own Cajón de Maipo, Witte says many of these projects get approval before the public even knows about them.

In fact, Chile’s environmental regulator CONAMA rejected only two of 32 hydroelectric projects presented between 1997 and 2007, representing just 1.35% of the total hydroelectric investment proposed during the period, according to Witte.

He expects that the Condor-Cuervo-Blanco hydroelectric dam project looks to benefit from a similar fate. With very little resistance and even less public knowledge Javier’s Lago Condor Expeditions’ chances look bleak.

Chilean rivers flow with beauty.

Critics of Chile’s Water Code label the problem as “institutional,” rooting back to the country’s young constitution enacted in 1980, when the country was being run by the free-market minded military general, Augusto Pinochet. Thanks to ultra-liberal economic advisors, Pinochet sold water rights to private companies in the late 80s. The government did not address Water Code again until 2005. Meant as a watchdog, CONAMA is oft criticized for its weak regulatory framework unable to handle complex water issues. This model has given the wealthy and powerful (usually large companies) an upper hand to manipulate the law.

According to Carl Bauer, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tuscon who has studied Chile’s water system for years, Chile’s so-called market approach dictates that water rights should be able to be traded and bought and sold like any other commodity.

“That’s easier to see in the context of single water using sectors, which usually means agriculture. Should farmers be able to trade their water rights and transfer their water rights among each other? Well sure, why not. Maybe not unregulated, but that’s not where the problem is,” he says. “The problem is when this same sort of market approach, the idea that property rights simply need to be made private and tradable and the government needs to back off and everything will work itself out, is applied to river basins or multiple water uses or environmental issues – what’s called integrated water management.”

The system has come under fire for inefficiency and groups are now calling for the re-nationalization of rivers and water basins. Bauer doesn’t believe re-nationalization is the answer either, since “private investment security is the only strength of the water law”, he says. “Whether you like that or not, that’s what makes capitalism work and private investment continue.”

ON DOMES & DAMS

Maybe in the back of his mind, Javier knows that Lago Condor will be dammed, thereby destroying the natural habitat he needs to create his weekend getaway. Nonetheless, his father’s former socio and friend Don Honorato is busy working on laying the foundation for the Domes at this very moment. Sipping mate during intervals of cutting dense foliage, Don Honorato and Javier share a common gene: perseverance. When a Patagón gets angry, I’ve been told, he gets things done. Grunts and moans are signs of progress in the Aysén, and I have a feeling that Energia Austral has produced anger.

The hunt for Douglas came to an end. As I anticipated he escaped, in fact, we never even had a clear shot to take him down. Maybe, the animal’s evolution in the Patagonia saved him from our human weapons and hunting skills, or we just lacked the right skills. In any case, I hope Douglas is ready to head for the hills when they dam Lago Condor. His former home will slide under water, as will Javier’s domes.

A broken tune.