THE WORLD'S PUREST WATERS
To the nervous flier, there seems to be nothing wrong with Tompkins's piloting skills as he threads the Cessna between scree slopes and vertical waterfalls and fragments of glacier and the abbreviated snow cone of the 8,000-foot Michinmahuida volcano -- his own personal volcano, according to the property lines -- and then comes in low over one of the model farms.
"Coming here 16 years ago I was no farmer," he says, suddenly in a more reflective mood. "We came here and bought up all these broken-down farms. The previous owners had trashed them worse than you can imagine. No management whatsoever. The most crass and unsophisticated agricultural practices you've ever seen. Probably this was what Ohio looked like in the 1840s. No chain saws; they just burned it."
A few miles to the north, he banks the plane steeply so I can get a good look at the tethered cages of the salmon farms that line the Fjordo Comau. "One thing craps out, they try another," he growls. "Damned salmon farms are the latest." A few minutes later we fly over the model farm at Pillán. Down by the quayside, there are piles of wreckage from the shoreline portion of an abandoned salmon farm, twisted girders and cracked concrete floors, the gutted carcass of a tractor. "Look at that mess. The roof blew off," Tompkins says. "They crapped up the bottom of the fjord." Like most salmon farms, he might have added. The seafloor beneath salmon cages quickly becomes a dead zone, carpeted in a deep slime of feces and unconsumed protein from feed pellets, resulting in toxic algae blooms and red tides. The profligate use of antibiotics to ward off disease in the overcrowded pens has led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And the whole enterprise is fed by the depletion of humbler parts of the marine food chain. A recent World Bank study found that it takes three to five pounds of fish meal to produce one pound of salmon.
Yet salmon farming is one of the crown jewels of Chile's economic boom, and its competitive advantage on the world market is based largely on the claim that the fish are raised in "the world's purest cold waters." In 1987, the World Bank says, Chile accounted for just 1.5 percent of the global market in farmed salmon. Since then, with its lax environmental laws and cheap labor, Chile has been the beneficiary of tighter regulations in Norway and British Columbia and the complete ban on the industry in Alaska as a result of protests from commercial fishermen who saw a threat to their livelihood. Today, Chile has a 35 percent share of the world market, placing it in a virtual tie with Norway, the industry pioneer. Half the salmon consumed in the United States began life in a cage in a Chilean fjord.
Until recently, most of the salmon farms have been located in Chile's Xth Region, just north of here. But those waters have pretty much exhausted their carrying capacity, and the salmoneros are now on the march in the XIth Region, which occupies the northern half of Chilean Patagonia. Chile's salmon farmers and corporations from Japan, Spain, and Norway plan to invest another $800 million here in the next six to eight years, much of it in waters that are part of national parks and reserves. "Salmon farms are taking over every inch of Chile's coast," says Ari Hershowitz, director of the Latin American programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "All you need to do is ask for a license and throw down a cage to save your spot."
About a year ago, Doug Tompkins got a surprise invitation to address a convention of salmoneros in Puerto Montt. "Listen, I told them, this whole process is insane. You purse-seine the seafloor, then you grind it into fish meal, you ship it from the north of Chile to the south, then you feed it to the salmon, then you truck the salmon back onshore, then you pack them up and ship them to Japan. Insane!"
"How did people respond?" I ask. He thinks about it, then brightens, in another of his mercurial mood shifts. "Well, there are guys sitting there in the front row nodding away and saying, God, yeah, the system doesn't make sense in the long run. They're like any other group; there are reasonable people."
THE HORSE ON THE ROOF
With his large ideals, uncompromising rhetoric, and overscale personality, Doug Tompkins has remodeled Chile's environmental debate with the crude force of a hand grenade. The country's newspapers love this, and whenever a fight is brewing in Patagonia, the headlines write themselves: Tompkins denounces... Tompkins accuses... Tompkins declares war on Endesa...
That's how the fight to save the Baker and the Pascua has been depicted, but the reality is a little more complicated. Local environmentalists wince a bit at Tompkins's willingness to dance the media minuet, but he sees it as giving them protective cover. "I make some offhand remark," he says, "get the microphone, make a headline. And that allows the NGOs to come in." Because McDivitt's newly acquired property, the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, is directly threatened by the Río Baker dams, the couple can hardly be accused (as they often have been in the past) of poking their nose into an issue that is none of their concern. They're private landowners. The Baker runs along the edge of their property. They have a direct stake in the outcome. And that has aligned them with some improbable allies, including the salmon industry's leading political backer and Chile's wealthiest and most important salmon farmer, who also owns a vast tract of land on the Baker.
Tompkins and McDivitt may grab the headlines, but they are in no sense the leaders of the campaign against Endesa. Many people will tell you that the brains behind it belong to a Chilean architect of German ancestry named Peter Hartmann, who runs the regional office of an environmental group called the Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna, or CODEFF, in the pretty town of Coyhaique.
Coyhaique, population 42,000, is the urban hub of the central Patagonian region known as Aysén. The Chilean formula of democracy plus growth is thrust in your face from the moment you touch down at the nearby Balmaceda airport and are greeted by a welcoming banner with larger-than-life photos of grinning men in hard hats toiling away on half-completed roads, airports, bridges, and dams.
Peter Hartmann's house lies at the end of a switchback dirt road in the hills above the town, at the foot of a towering basalt rock called the Cerro MacKay, named for one of the pioneering British settlers who came to Patagonia early in the last century. We bounce and jolt our way up to the house in Hartmann's egregiously battered pickup truck, springs and stuffing escaping in all directions from the passenger seat. At one intersection he stops and peers out through the mud-splashed windshield, like a dog sniffing the air. "Now, which way do we go?" This strikes me as an odd question, since he presumably takes this road every day.
Hartmann's whimsical manner, together with his twinkling green eyes and thick mane of white hair and beard, give him a kind of Gandalf the Grey quality. His house, which he built himself, is made of local stone, sustainably harvested native timber, and coligüe, a Chilean member of the bamboo family. Behind the house, organic gardens and overgrown plots of medicinal herbs stretch away toward the Cerro MacKay. The house even has a grass roof. Hartmann used to keep a horse that liked to graze up there until it disappeared one day; he thinks some neighbors stole it.
But all this back-to-the-land simplicity is a bit misleading. Hartmann turns out to be a shrewd political strategist with an encyclopedic command of factual detail. He came here from Santiago in the early 1980s, a champion mountaineer who was part of the first Chilean expedition to climb the forbidding east face of the Aconcagua glacier. He fell in love with the mountains and forests and rivers of Patagonia, and stayed. In 1984 he coined the phrase Aysén: Reserva de Vida -- Life Reserve -- and the name has stuck, adopted officially by the Coyhaique city government and ubiquitous on road signs, public buildings, and the bumper stickers plastered on the windows of Hartmann's pickup.
The Life Reserve concept, he says, is "a vehicle to stimulate citizen engagement," and it's been at the core of all the battles he's waged over the past 20 years, many of them against potent adversaries. He insists that local communities are the essence of the emerging coalition against Endesa's dams, but their residents are by no means born activists, environmentalists, or defenders of wilderness. Drive around Aysén for a couple of days, he advises, and I'll see what he means.