Monday, October 15, 2007

Patagonia Under Siege

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.

Here is the full article.