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Feature Story

Patagonia Under Siege

by George Black

Chile's booming, energy-hungry economy threatens one of the wildest, most beautiful places on earth.
A global parable

I'm drenched beyond imagining. Sloshing and squelching along the trail, through a steady drip of rain, it's hard for me to fathom how any place on the planet could be this wet. The coastal rainforest of Chilean Patagonia, cut through by sheer-sided fjords and furious rivers and rimmed with snowcapped volcanoes, glaciers, and vast freshwater ice fields, gets 240 inches -- 20 feet! -- of rain a year. It's easy to understand why the Chilean poet Mario Miranda Soussi celebrated the region as La Patagonia de la Tierra y el Agua infinita, despedazada en un torrente de amor, navegando un solo río henchido de milagro: Patagonia of infinite land and water, torn apart by a torrent of love, navigating a single river swollen by miracles.

The Pumalín nature sanctuary, 700,000 acres of dense, primordial green, belongs to a wealthy American named Douglas Tompkins. The biodiversity of the place is staggering. Half the plants here grow nowhere else on the planet. Soaring above the forest canopy are Pumalín's prized alerce trees, known as "the redwoods of the Andes." The Linnaean name for the alerce is Fitzroya cupressoides; Charles Darwin named the tree for Robert FitzRoy, captain of the HMS Beagle, when he visited Chile in the 1830s. The alerce can grow as high as 200 feet. Smitten by its light weight, straight grain, and resistance to rot, loggers loved it almost to death. The alerces in Pumalín are some of the last survivors, and the near destruction of the tree is a kind of Chilean morality tale, for this is a country whose economy is based, to an extreme degree, on the extraction of raw materials and the destruction of natural resources.

My guide is Gerardo, who is married to the director of Doug Tompkins's Pumalín Foundation in the town of Puerto Montt, an hour away by small plane, six hours by the ramshackle ferry that makes the journey each day, though only in the (relatively) dry summer months. Gerardo has been guiding here for 10 years, and the highlight of our time together so far has been the sudden sighting of a reclusive pudú, a miniature deer that stands as high as a terrier, with the face of a bat. It's the first he's ever seen.

The deep silence of the forest is broken only by the sound of rain on leaves and the occasional cry of the purple and brown chucao, whose descending call is uncannily like the laughter of a loon -- only truncated after the first four notes. Gerardo stops abruptly and crushes a leathery, serrated leaf between finger and thumb -- tepa, he says, or Chilean laurel. The leaf gives off a concentrated fragrance that suggests oranges and cinnamon and cloves. It's not to be confused with the tepú growing next to it, whose intensely copper-red wood is so packed with energy, Gerardo tells me, that you can't use it in wood stoves; it will explode. Presumably someone made this discovery the hard way.

We're close to our destination now, the trail turning into a ship's ladder of tree roots, water streaming over our hands and feet, rain penetrating every crevice of our clothing, until at last we're standing on a rocky overlook, face-to-face with a thunderous double waterfall, giant tree ferns clinging to the rock face in a perpetual curtain of mist. And the truth is that there are plenty of people in Chile, powerful people, who would stand on this rock, contemplate the torrent, and think, God, what a waste of energy.


The country's largest energy utility, Endesa, recently announced plans to build four giant dams in Chilean Patagonia, a pair on each of the region's two biggest rivers, the Baker and the Pascua. A heterodox coalition of local residents, environmentalists, energy experts, business leaders, and wealthy landowners (including both Chileans and foreigners such as Doug Tompkins) has already taken shape to oppose the dams, and a great deal rides on the outcome. In a sense, you can think of this fight as a Latin American version of the conflict over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In both cases, two completely different things are at stake -- on one hand the survival of a unique wild ecosystem, on the other the underlying premises of national energy policy.

And the fight to save the rivers of Patagonia is not just a local matter, for what happens in Chile tends to have repercussions throughout the developing world. Chile's particular misfortune is to have served repeatedly as a laboratory for social experiments of one kind or another. From 1970 to 1973, under President Salvador Allende, it was a cold war battleground, a litmus test of Washington's tolerance of a democratically elected socialist government. For the next 17 years it endured the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet and his brutal military and secret police. While millions of Chileans experienced the Pinochet era as a nightmarish dystopia, others hailed it as a miracle, a showcase for free-market absolutism that economists around the world soon hurried to emulate. Since 1990, when Pinochet departed the scene, Chile has steadily clawed its way back to democracy, and once again it has played the role of global exemplar -- but this time for its peaceful transition from military to civilian rule. In many respects, Chile's most recent presidential election is the culmination of that process. The new president, who took office in March, is Michelle Bachelet -- socialist, feminist, single mother, former political prisoner, torture survivor, and self-proclaimed environmentalist.

Yet there is an enormous paradox at the heart of Chile's return to democracy, for no civilian government since Pinochet's demise (Bachelet's being the fourth) has dared to tinker much with the radical free-market ideology fostered by the military. The watchword of the Chilean "miracle" has been headlong growth, currently running at about 6 percent a year. Arriving in the capital, Santiago, for the first time in almost 20 years, it was impossible not to be struck by the dizzying array of prestige projects: a gleaming new airport, a sweeping autopista that whisks you past the slums to the city center, a spotless and efficient subway system.

These megaprojects are the high-profile symbols of Chile's success, their message being that unfettered economic growth and the return to democracy are joined at the hip. But there is a drastic, if as yet invisible, cost. Energy demand is growing even faster than the gross domestic product, and the government says that Chile will need to double its energy production every eight years if its miracle is to be sustained. According to Endesa -- once state-owned, then privatized in 1987 under Pinochet, and now part of a larger Spanish corporation -- the silver bullet is hydropower. But Endesa's opponents say the dams on the Baker and the Pascua are only the first step; if the logic of Chile's current growth model goes unchallenged, then the major rivers of Patagonia will fall like so many dominoes, destroying one of the last truly wild places on the planet. And that, says Doug Tompkins, never a man to mince words, is total insanity.

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George Black is OnEarth's articles editor and the author, most recently, of Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection (Random House).

Photos: Diane Cook and Len Jenshel
Map: Mike Reagan

This article was made possible by a generous grant from The Larsen Fund.

OnEarth. Fall 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council