Conservation Issues in Patagonia


You can't travel far on the Camino Austral without seeing chipped windscreens, mangy barking dogs and the car sticker saying "Patagonia sin represas". Meaning Patagonia without Dams, the campaign is aimed against a multi-billion dollar project to build dams on several of the rivers in Chilean Patagonia. The company which wants to build the dams, Hidroaysen, hopes to provide hydroelectric power to cope with Chile's increasing energy demands, not least because of mining in the north. The environmental problems stem from the building of the dams, the building of the power lines. There are also many controversial political and social issues asociated with the dams such as people who were offered insentives to live down here in the 60s and 70s (for political reasons) now being offered insentives by Hidroaysen to ship out again.

Another issue is the improvement and extension of the Carretera Austral itself. Especially a proposed 100 million dollar extention through Park Pumalin (and Park Pumalin). The park is owned by a North American entrepeneur, Doug Tompkins (of The North Face fame) who has got himself deeply embroiled in conservation work down here. See here here here. He and his wife have bought up 900,000 hectares of Patagonia. The origional plan was to run the road straight through the park. Tompkins is arguing for a more sympathetic coastal route.

It is worth noting that before the building of the road very few people lived here at all. In fact, several of the towns I have stayed in are younger than me!! The Carretera Austral was the brainchild of General Pinochet with the aim of strengthening Chilean sovereignty in the region. Especially with the development of border disputes with Argentina in Laguna del Desierto much as the Beagle conflict. In 1976 more than 10,000 soldiers worked in one of the most expensive engineering projects undertaken in Chile and also one of the most difficult, due to glaciers and fjords. Many soldiers died of explosions during ground-breaking. Much of the road is still unpaved but, even whilst I ride it, the asphalt creeps out further from Coyhaique. Also there are plans to extend the road to Region XII (Magallanes). This seems to me frankly a bit ludicrous as the plan involves 935km of new road, with 9 ferry crossings, when a perfectly good road already exists (albeit running through Argentina).

I have a suspicion that if I come back in 20 years, this road will all be asphalt, there will be few if any gauchos and there will probably be Macdonald´s Restaurants in every town. There are not many wilderness areas left in the world and you wonder how long Patagonia has left.

Another North American environmentalist with links to Patagonia is the owner of the Patagonia clothing company, and Doug's friend, Yvon Chouinard. A film about a climbing and surfing trip the American pair made in the sixties is released this year. It is called 180 degrees South. Here is the trailer.

180° SOUTH from Mark Kalch on Vimeo.

I suppose the caveats are that these men are now extremely wealthy, they are not Chileans and they can have a very heavy handed approach. They are charactarised as being "Eco-barrens" and in turn Hidroaysen are nicknamed "those dam monsters".

Here are some websites to look at if you are interested.

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