by Diana Saverin
I met René Muñoz when he was two hours into his commute home after visiting his children in the nearest town. He arrived in a pickup truck with peeling red paint to a ranch where I was staying in Aysén, a region in Chilean Patagonia. He knocked on the door, kissed the cheeks of Lilli Schindele, her children, and me, and then drifted back out the door to wrangle in his horses from her pasture. I ran over to the barn a bit later in my blue Acteryx rain jacket and Nike sneakers, where he was saddling the horses. I asked if I could tag along. He scanned his dark eyes over me and my fancy outdoor gear, shrugged, and said the land wasn’t his; I could do whatever I wanted.
The trail started boggy, meandering through twisty branches and muddy ground, until it opened into a valley with low shrubs and long yellow grasses. I ran next to him as he rode in sheepskin chaps and a stiff winter coat, leading his packhorse from his saddle. We didn’t speak for fifteen minutes. Until I asked about the dams.
“See all these cows?” he said, sweeping his hand across the banks of the river of the Ñadis valley where cows wandered and grazed.
“Livestock is what we live off of. And that’s how all the ranchers live, with the seasons, taking care of the land, the cows, the sheep.”
The muddy land under the horses’ and my feet, though, may soon give way to water. HidroAysén, a coalition of energy companies, has proposed constructing five dams in Aysén. The dams would flood 14,000 acres, including the Ñadis valley, situating the long yellow grasses deep in the belly of an artificial lake. And it’s not just international energy companies that envision a new and different Aysén; wealthy American philanthropists are in the process of converting dozens of ranches from grazing territory for sheep and cows to wild landscapes with trails and roads for tourists. Aysén, which many call “the forgotten region of Chile,” is no longer being ignored.
Ranchers, like René, have been watching as these powerful foreigners play tug-of-war with the land of Aysén. Land values have doubled as foreigners fight with their checkbooks over the best use of ranchers’ backyards. As the tug of war pushes their small log cabins and open pastures deeper into the backs of valleys, most ranchers find themselves without much of a grip on the rope. Their participation is limited to lively commentary.
René laments the shift in the region away from the customs of the past century––wood carried by oxen, horses as the primary means of transportation, maté (a hot herbal drink sipped through metal straws) shared around woodstoves.
“It’s difficult,” René said, looking down at his fingers loosely holding the reins of the horse. “You get used to living in this sector. It’s hard to see industry and all that. It’s not the same as living out in fresh air.”
In February, images of Chile’s forgotten region cycled across television screens during the nightly news when a regional social movement demanded better services from the government. Montages cycled images of demonstrators with posters and flags marching in a pack, activists with clenched fists and loudspeakers in front of a crowd, police with armored uniforms and face shields dragging protesters in headlocks. Participating residents blocked the entrances into the region. They demanded recognition and change, their posters asking for better education, better health care, better support for farmers. In a letter to the government, the organizers of the movement called for a shift in regional development, saying that up until that point, development had “focused essentially on the benefit of interests that do not belong to those who live in Aysén.” Months later, paint still marked the backs of pickup trucks parked on the streets of Cochrane, Aysén: tu problema es mi problema, “Aysén: your problem is my problem.”
Residents are divided with visions for their land’s future—some want to hold onto the ranching culture, while others want progress and change. Lucretia Sanchez, an older woman with short hair and few teeth, lives and works in Cochrane. She owns, with her seven siblings, the ranch she grew up on, a ranch that would be flooded by the dam on the Baker. Huddled in the kitchen with her two grandchildren and one great-grandchild, she said that if the dam project did not go through, she would try to sell the ranch.
“I grew up in the countryside,” she said. “I’ve seen all the changes here. In the past we just wanted to get out of school to go to the countryside. Now, it’s different.”
Her grandson, a young man in his early teens wearing a crisp navy school uniform, looked up from his homework and chimed in.
“You guys just wanted to go to the countryside? Well we just want to go work in the city. It’s no different.”
“Maybe,” Lucretia said, watching the flames in the stove flicker behind the smoldered glass.
I asked the grandson what he wanted to do, and he said he wanted to study marketing.
“See!” Lucretia said, pointing at him, her eyebrows raised. “He’ll be working, doing marketing for these energy companies.”
HidroAysén and other energy companies have supported the regional transition from field to office, making Aysén’s problems their problems, as well. HidroAysén’s slogan, “Energy for Chile, Development for Aysén,” reverberated on the local radio in Cochrane at least every hour.
When I asked about the social projects of energy companies in towns, most people explained without words. In a cafe in Cochrane, a waiter pointed at the new refrigerator. On her ranch in Ñadis, Lilli pointed towards her neighbors’ properties where helicopters have dropped hay and grass during hard winters. Many in town are happy to receive the extra help, especially families on a tight budget whose children have received scholarships for school. Others resist on principle.
Maria Alicia Fernández Pizarro is a heavyset woman with a streaked black hair. She owns a camping business on the shores of the lake that feeds the Baker. I asked if HidroAysén ever offered her money, and she laughed, looking out the window and shaking her head. She said they offered her the amount of money it takes to run her business on several occasions.
“And I said no each time,” she said. She opposes the project, and rejected the company’s offer to fund her business. I asked how much they offered her, and she laughed again, shifting in her seat.
“A lot of money,” she said.
Though many explain the energy companies’ social projects as “buying consensus,” consensus from Aysén bears little weight: HidroAysén only needs the government to approve its environmental impact statement before breaking ground. Social movements have tried to get the government to include citizen consensus as a part of its decision-making process, but the government ignores that. Power remains firmly in the hands of those outside Aysén. The water was privatized in the 1980s, and today, the company that owns a majority of Aysén’s rivers is Italian.
The regional movement cites the vision of Aysén as a “Reserva de Vida,” a “reserve of life,” as an alternative to big scale development. A citizens’ coalition coined this slogan in the 1990s, when they outlined a regional development “by the people, and for the people.” The group wants the landscape to remain full of puma and Calafate (a yellow flower with berries said to charm any consumer into returning to Patagonia). They also want rivers to keep running freely through the land like veins.
Maria Alicia supports preserving the region by resisting the dams in small ways: posting articles on social networks, speaking with tourists in the summers; and placing a small sign, no a las represas, “no to dams” on her desk. She explained that she speaks mainly with foreigners, many of whom have taken considerable interest in the area.
“I am glad you are here,” she said, as I sat across from her in her living room. “That you’re interested. But frankly, I wish you were Chilean.”
Aysen’s famous waterways cut paths through the region, bending routes from glaciers to sea, with thin interlocking creeks winding out from the arm of the main current. From a foggy window on an early morning bus on my way north from Cochrane, I watched the network of streams trickle out from the river like gnarled roots winding deeper into the earth. Later that day, I walked to the water’s edge at the confluence of the Neff River with the Baker, where the water bubbled up froth beneath a misty rainbow. I kneeled at the bank of the river, the water seeping into the knee of my pants. I cupped the silty water in my hands, threw it on my face, and poured it into my mouth.
HidroAysén has taken a particular interest in these rivers for their unique qualities, as well. Both the Baker and the Pascua are formed from the vast ice fields of Patagonia. The rivers are growing with the glacial melt, instead of drying up like some other already dammed rivers in Chile, which no longer generate the energy they were projected to provide.
María Irene is the communications manager for HidroAysén, and I met her one night in the company’s office in Coyhaique. She walked me through the tables with models of the ranches the company would build for relocated families, and a mockup of a toy tree forest with a miniature transmission line.
For her, and other supporters of the dams, the fact that Chile’s economy is growing so rapidly means that the power supply has to grow with it. Today, Chile uses mostly coal and oil.
“Chile is vulnerable,” María Irene said. “In Chile, we’re dependent on gas and oil we don’t have. That’s why we need hydroelectric, because all that Chile has is water.”
She said over and over, shaking her head, that it was “very hard to understand” why there was so much opposition to the project, explaining that an American man organized and financed the resistance, instead of locals putting together a “spontaneous” grassroots rising.
“In Argentinean Patagonia, there was a dam with a flood nine times as large as this one would be, and there hasn’t been any type of opposition or anything against it,” she said. “Fundamentally, the group has communicated the idea that this project would mean the destruction of Patagonia.”
Kristine Tomkins, former CEO of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, created Conservación Patagonica. She and her husband, Doug, the founder of the company North Face, are working to restore Patagonia to a more pristine state, replacing ranches full of grazing cows, sheep, and horses with landscapes full of puma, huemel (an endangered species of deer), and guanaco (a species of wild llama with course red fur). They have acquired more than one million acres of land so far.
I walked through the ranch just north of Cochrane that the Tompkins bought several years ago, Valle Chacabuco. I followed a snow-coated trail in late fall, and encountered several groups of guanaco, and one individual kill surrounded by large cat prints punched into the blood-stained snow crust. It was the only place in the region where I saw signs of either guanaco or puma. “This is an economic alternative,” Dago Guzman, the manager of the park, said over coffee back in one of the log cabins. “The family on this ranch sold it to us because it wasn’t a good business. Whether ranching is a tradition or not, it was not a good business in this valley.”
For Dago and his team, conservation is the best way to use, or avoid overuse of, the resources of Aysén. Though the park would not be flooded, the entrance would be across the highway from one of the dams, creating what he considers symbolic friction. Despite their philanthropic efforts, many ranchers and residents of Aysén feel pushed aside by Conservación Patagonica. Rumors that Doug Tompkins is “raising puma” to kill neighboring sheep, or trying to create “a second promised land” for Jews, are common. Many ask, “What do we eat?” if parks replace all of the ranches, if livestock vanish from the valleys, and if meat disappears from local markets. Others ask why other places in the world can have industry and progress, but they can’t.
I talked with two residents, José Calvo and Hortencia Ramirez, over maté around Hortencia’s woodstove in Puerto Bertrand, a town of 37 on the banks of the Baker. A visiting sculptor named Simon, from Valparaiso, a city in central Chile, walked in as we spoke. Since we were on the topic of the dams, José asked the sculptor if he thought they should be built. Simon immediately threw up his hands and said that he wasn’t from the region––what position was he in to decide?
“I like that he doesn’t express his opinion,” Jose said, slapping him on the back. “He’s not from here. People from far away are the ones against this. They already have things figured out––food, kids in school. They can just look over our landscape and say ‘how beautiful’.”
The office of the Ministry of Agriculture in Coyhaique is on the side of a highway, across from a big box store and a gas station. I wandered through offices to Julio Cerda’s, an ecologist and veterinarian with white hair and bushy eyebrows. His bookshelf contained thick binders labeled “Environmental Impact Statements” from various energy companies. I asked him what he thought about the decline of ranching in the region in the face of change. Before addressing the regional juncture of today, he backed up a few thousand years.
Different indigenous tribes had sparsely populated the land for millennia before its colonial history began. As the 20th century began, the Chilean government wanted to establish a rigid border with Argentina, and began offering incentives to Chileans who went south to cultivate what was then a wild landscape.
“So the people who came burned the forest,” Julio said. “And naturally, the people who colonized came to feel like owners of the territory.”
Aysén is, yet again, at a turning point. It is a territory shifting between owners, moving from one chapter of its history to the next. This time, the rest of the world is paying attention. Prolific coverage of the controversy over HidroAysén’s dams, from the New York Times, to the Huffington Post, to Reuters, to the BBC, and more, echoes language of the “raw,” “wild,” “pristine,” “virgin,” “untouched,” and “unspoiled” land of Patagonia at stake, referred to as “one of the world’s last great wildernesses.”
Much of Aysén is still wild. Forty-nine percent of the land is currently conserved in reserves or parks, with most parks full of the islands sprinkled along the region’s coastline, coated with thick temperate rainforest. Fjords cut lines of sea through the dense forest of the mainland, below mountains with skinny waterfalls and patches of snow. At the bottom of valleys, rivers thread in and out of sand bars. Some of the largest ice fields in the world outside of Antarctica and Greenland cover the land. But Julio, among others, insists that this land is not untouched.
Though the use of the land up to this point has not been industrial in its nature, or on the scale proposed by energy companies, ranching has had considerable impact on the land. Julio sits on the government council that approves or rejects the environmental impact statements of hydroelectric projects in the region, and could not speak about the dams themselves. When I asked, though, he responded with two questions:
“You know how many acres the dams would flood, don’t you?”
“Fourteen thousand,” I said.
“And do you know how many acres of forest the ranchers burnt?”
I was silent.
“Checkmate,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Millions,” he said.
Lilli washed the dishes with cold water at her sink in the valley Ñadis. She talked about the lonesome spirit of Aysén like an endangered species she was trying to save––her voice becoming insistent, her eyes tilted, expressing urgency and fear.
“Patagonia is one of the last places on this Earth without so much impact from industry or big cities, where it’s just nature,” she said, looking out the window at her pasture, nestled beneath the Andes, where a few horses huddled around her daughter, who stood stroking their noses in an oversize parka.
Lilli’s eyes drifted over the landscape outside of her kitchen window, from the falling fence by the horses, through the tree speckled valley, up to the mountains and the mistfeathered horizon. Her usually gruff voice grew soft.
“If we don’t stop HidroAysén,” she said, pausing, “there will be nothing left of Aysén. There will be nothing left.”
Today, most windows in Aysén face a landscape like Lilli’s. Horses walk along the highway, and off the road, more sheep, cows, and horses graze the land than humans walk it. What comes next for Aysén––what the landscape outside of residents’ windows will look like, and who gets to choose––remains uncertain. Most in Aysén say they just want to pick. They want their residency to give them a stronger pull in the tug of war between saving the endangered huemel, allowing the hydroelectric projects, or preserving the pioneer ranching culture.
Few think it is possible to keep all of it. Most believe their own vision distinct and unrivaled, accusing all others of leading to the destruction of Patagonia. They grapple with the question: What is the best use of a beautiful and forgotten land? I found myself attempting to answer this question throughout my time in Patagonia. The day I went running next to René Muñoz, I left him on a trail cut out of the rock of a cliff rising up from the river. It was getting dark, and he told me to go back to Lilli’s ranch downstream from René’s, where I would spend the night. He said to follow the river home. He was about to cross it; after a two hour drive and a six-hour ride, he rowed himself and his two horses across intertwining braids of the Baker River in a small, wooden boat. He landed on a gravel bed on the far shore, where he reached his ranch and arrived home.
I squeezed between his horses and the rock, and ran through the yellowing grasses of the valley. I followed the water’s path, sometimes wandering down to the banks to let my fingers linger in the current. The grey light thinned and darkened. The sheep scurried up the hill, away from the river, as I opened and closed various wiry fences partitioning the valley, walking around the carcasses of felled trees and the water of scattered ponds. Darkness arrived before I could reach home. In the clear valley, residual light showed the faint trail, but below the twisty branches of the trees in the muddy forest, it melted away. I walked, bent over, with my hand on the ground, feeling for the different lengths of grass. I ran back and forth along the edge of the forest, looking for an opening in the wood, for the trail I had lost. I heard the river, and walked towards it. I followed its winding banks until I saw a square of golden light across a couple of fields. Don Sanchez, a man with wrinkly lips and no teeth who helps on Lilli’s ranch, waited for me with a lantern, amazed that I had encountered trouble finding my way back. We walked together towards the cabin. He lit two candlesticks and sat next to the woodstove, the shadows flying up his face and onto the wall behind him as he heated up water for maté.
I left the ranch the next day. I headed back to Cochrane, and then Coyhaique, and soon enough, my own towns and cities a hemisphere away, where there are streetlights and roads to guide me when I am lost. Like other visitors clad in Arcteryx shells and Patagonia fleeces, I had become attached to the uncertainty of Aysén—the quirky bus schedules, the dirt roads, the sparse Internet. I had begun to love the wildness of a land other than my own, one I would leave all too soon. When I left the region, floating over it at cruising altitude, I hoped it would stay put, uncertain and wild. But I do not get to choose. I do not get to pull any piece of rope in this tug of war over the future of this beautiful and forgotten land. My voice should be swallowed by the river’s swells; it is the hubbub of debate among those who live in Aysén and the rushing slosh and splash of their rivers that are still too quiet to hear.
DIANA SAVERIN ‘13 is an English major in Berkeley College. The majority of the interviews for this article were conducted in Spanish. Research for this article was made possible by the Shana Alexander Journalism Fellowship and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.