Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Power Play

Will Chile's looming energy crisis spell ruin for one of South America's last wild places? Colin Barraclough reports on the turf war at the end of the earth

No bright lights tarnish the night sky over Caleta Tortel, a tiny settlement in Chilean Patagonia; no noise disturbs the quiet save the crowing of cockerels and the dull thud of ax on wood. Perched on the steep forested slopes above the Baker River, Patagonia's most powerful, Caleta Tortel's houses are set on stilts and connected by catwalks that descend to a bay encircled by snowy peaks. The town's 510 residents have no telephone connection to the outside world; the single concession to modern life is the monthly arrival by air of a dentist, a doctor, and a mobile bank.

Caleta Tortel is typical of the isolated settlements that dot Chile's Aisén region, a dramatic stretch of Patagonian backcountry riven by raging rivers, glaciers, snowcapped volcanoes, and temperate rain forests. Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific, cut off by fjords in the north and by some of the largest caps of permanent ice outside Antarctica in the south, the area's many national parks and nature reserves make this one of the most compelling ecotourism destinations on earth. "Aisén is incredibly beautiful, easily on a par with the great natural places in the United States," says Kristine Tompkins, whose land trust, Conservación Patagonica, spent $10 million to buy a 170,000-acre estancia in Aisén in 2004. The trust plans to merge the land with neighboring wildlife reserves to create a national park as large and ecologically significant as Yosemite. Since 1990, Tompkins and her husband, Douglas, have amassed more than two million acres in Patagonia, shutting down farming, forestry, and mining operations and kick-starting their land's return to wilderness. (The couple earned a fortune in the clothing industry—Kristine as CEO of Patagonia, Inc., and Douglas as founder of Esprit.)

Yet villages such as Caleta Tortel and the pristine landscape that surrounds them are now under threat from a plan by the country's largest electricity producer, Endesa Chile, to build a series of dams on Aisén's Pascua and Baker rivers as part of a vast hydroelectric project. In the face of vocal opposition from environmentalists, landowners, and local salmon farmers whose business depends on Aisén's pure water, the Chilean government must make a critical decision: Should Aisén's unique landscape be protected—and promoted through sustainable tourism—or should the powerful natural forces that created it be harnessed for the country's economic benefit?

Long a playground for outdoor adventurers, Aisén's untamed wilderness is starting to attract mainstream travelers as well: Some 35,000 visitors arrive each year, most to hike the hanging glaciers of Queulat National Park or to bike amid the jumble of basalt spires in the Cerro Castillo National Reserve. The more adventurous kayak white-water rivers, climb 13,300-foot San Valentín, Patagonia's highest peak, or explore the seawater fjords that cut into Pumalín National Park, a 790,000-acre Andes-to-Pacific tract of old-growth forests, glaciers, and fjords just north of Aisén. Yet with Chile's demand for energy increasing by five percent annually, few would argue that developing the region as a tourist destination would bring as many economic benefits as creating electricity with the Baker and Pascua dams.

Here is the full article.