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A man, a plan, a dam


The proposed dam site on the Baker river

The Río Baker in Chilean Patagonia is remarkable in every sense. Shifting almost 900 cubic metres of water every second, it is Chile’s most voluminous river. It is also one of its cleanest and most beautiful, providing a precious watering ground for the rare huemul deer as well as the Chilean puma.

At its source, at the southern end of Lago Bertrand, you see just a few eerie eddies and the merest hint of foam. Close your eyes, though, and you can hear the slightly ominous hum of water picking up speed as gravity and a bottleneck combine to send the Baker off on its 170km journey to the Pacific, winding through the largely unpopulated valleys of central Patagonia, past the great Northern Patagonian Ice Field and along the edge of the least populated wilderness in Chile.

There are no direct roads linking this area to the rest of the country and only a few unpaved passes connect it to the steppes of Argentinian Patagonia; most people arrive by ferry (20 hours from Puerto Montt in the Chilean lake district) or catch a jet down from Santiago to the one, windswept airport at Balmaceda.

It’s in this area – around the immense Lago General Carrera (the second biggest lake in South America) – I first noticed the graffiti, the posters, the hoardings, all screaming the same message: “Patagonia sin represas” (“Patagonia without dams”).  Then a second army of hoardings, sponsored by HidroAysén, a multinational corporation that plans to build two dams on the Baker river and a further three on the Pascua river (also in Aisén). The graffiti and anti-dam posters warned of flooded river valleys, the loss of 6,000 hectares of forest ecosystems, including virgin temperate rainforests, and the dangers of running a 3,000-kilometre linear grid – the longest single pylon chain in the world – from Aisén to Santiago. The corporate hoardings promised jobs, schools, better roads and hospitals, as well as limited environmental impact.

In the valley of the Río Baker everyone was talking about the dam. “I’m against it,” said a car hire employee, the first person I’d met on my trip. “But I’ve got friends down in Cochrane who hope to get work out of it, so I understand the other side.”

“Work has begun,” said Diego, a hitchhiker – and local hotel owner – that I picked up. “It’s going ahead even as we’re protesting.”

“We’re against it,” said Matías, the owner of a fly-fishing lodge I stayed at. “Anyone who works in tourism has to be against it.”

Amid the anti-dam voices is one particularly unusual one – billionaire US philanthropist Doug Tompkins, who is currently co-creating a new national park in Aisén. He’s been involved in similar projects for more than a decade now, but the new park just happens to be right beside the river, a few miles upstream from where one of the dams will be built.

Tompkins, a longtime resident of Chile, is a self-styled “deep ecologist”, his basic belief being that humans are just one species among many, with no special rights over the planet. Formerly the owner of the The North Face and Espirit clothing empires, he sold both (The North Face in 1969, Espirit in the late ’90s) and has spent more than two decades, and the majority of the profits, in and on the Chilean and Argentinian wildernesses, upgrading them to national parks, and gifting them back to their respective governments on strict conservation terms.

“Around the Lago General Carrera, I first noticed the graffiti, the hoardings, all screaming the same message: ‘Patagonia sin represas’”

There have been dissenters along the way – Latin Americans are always suspicious of rich foreigners, and land ownership is a particularly sensitive subject in states built around landed oligarchies – but this particular yanqui expat has kept his word by handing the land over and has won trust, at least among green-thinking, left-leaning Chileans.

But Tompkins is a much more interesting figure than just some guilt-ridden billionaire stereotype trying to buy back his soul. In 1968, he drove down to Patagonia from California with a couple of friends in an old VW Kombi – then as now the archetypal hippiemobile. One of the friends was Yvon Chouinard, a keen mountaineer and blacksmith, who made his own climbing tools at a workshop in Ventura.

The 5,000-mile drive took six months. In Peru the young action heroes went surfing. Then they set out on the long haul across the Andes and through Argentina, stopping frequently to mend punctures and to get the engine fixed or replaced. Finally, in southern Patagonia, in the shadow of the Andes, they parked, hired a train of mules and set off to climb Mount Fitzroy, a 3,400-metre-high needle famous for its high winds and technically challenging summit.

Despite some major setbacks – including a spell of truly evil weather that meant the climbers had to live in an ice-cave half way up the mountain for 30 days – Tompkins, Chouinard, a fellow climber and a cameraman made it to the top (the film of their VW odyssey and the assault on Fitzroy was released as ‘Mountain of Storms’.)  When they got home, Tompkins sold The North Face and started the firm that would become Esprit, while Chouinard went on to found Patagonia Inc.

“Amid  the anti-dam voices is one particularly unusual one – billionaire US philanthropist Doug Tompkins”

The mix is intriguing: two physically and mentally tough men, billionaires in the making, free-thinking travellers – with a strange tie to Patagonia, then an off-radar, Ruritanian sort of nowhere land for Americans and Europeans.

I visited Tompkins, now aged 68 but very lean and wiry, in a newly-built house overlooking the entrance of the administration block of his new park-in-progress. The day before he’d been on a 25-km walk around the local mountains. He said he was “a bit tired”. We made small talk but soon came round to the question of the dam. They’ve already started work on it, I said. Isn’t it a fait accompli?

“Not at all,” said Tompkins. “Just yesterday there were allegations in [Chile’s] Supreme Court over the unbelievably corrupt environmental impact study that the dam company presented. It was full of irregularities. There have been at least 30 lawsuits so far going back and forth, and we’re only talking about prospecting. They haven’t even started the legal process for building the pylons.”

Tompkins is an ally of the Patagonia Defense Council, an anti-dam lobby made up of a coalition of dozens of NGOs, the majority of them Chilean. When talk of the dam project began in 2005, Tomkins claims only about five per cent of Chileans  were opposed to it, but now the figure is around 80 per cent. The campaign is working, he said, because the simple facts are being disseminated.

“The dam project is principally to feed the mines in the north, but they should be producing the electricity up there,” argues Tompkins. “They have so much sun they can easily produce hydrogen, piping it down into Santiago by a simple gas duct. You’ve got a free, unlimited source of generating power – and in the production, generation and burning of hydrogen you have zero greenhouse gases.”

He believes that the era of dam-building is over, that the technology is unnecessary and obsolete, and that it would only offer short-term benefits and limited employment opportunities to local people. His preference is for Aisén to remain a wilderness, albeit a visitor-friendly one. “You can kiss off forestry because the trees here grow too slowly, you can kiss off pastoral agriculture, there are no soils. And the Infectious Salmon Anaemia epidemic wiped the salmon fisheries out here in the last few years.”

This, he says, is where the park comes in, as a sustainable project that brings in tourist dollars but preserves the landscape – in fact, it improves on things, as overgrazing in the first half of the twentieth century damaged a lot of the land in the area. He stresses that Parque Patagonia will be the world’s first major national park powered entirely by small-scale sources of renewable energy.  Tompkins also uses funds from the trusts he supports to print publications that campaign against the dams and promote the region as a leisure destination. “You really have to see the outer reaches of the park – the high mountains, some great roads to drive, wetlands and scrub, and lakes full of flamingos.  If you really look around, your best economic card by far is tourism.”

Protests at the site of the Patagonia dam project

He has a point. The Baker valley is verdant, unpopulated, peaceful – just the sort of place the urban middle classes of the West yearn for – and the landscape of the projected new park is simply sublime: golden grasses, huge plains and big skies, with herds of guanaco roaming across unfenced bowl-shaped valleys and no human settlements at all.

This swathe of mountains and steppe was purchased by Doug’s wife and collaborator, Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia Inc. Her organisation, the Patagonia Land Trust, aims to combine it with two existing national parks and create the 250,000-hectare Parque Nacional Patagonia. “There’s no better trademark than Patagonia,” says Tompkins. “And we own the name now. This national park could be as important as Torres del Paine. I expect as many as 150,000 visitors within the first year when we open in 2013.”

Beside the administration block, I’d seen Tompkin’s single-prop plane parked at the end of a short grass airstrip. I knew from previous trips to Patagonia and to Tompkins’s Iberá wetlands park in Corrientes in north-eastern Argentina, that he flies around southern South America visiting his parks, meeting fellow eco-campaigners, checking out other potential wildernesses, and generally doing the St-Exupéry thing; the French aviator had gone south to launch Patagonia’s postal system in the late 1920s, and Doug shared his adoration of the “wind, sand and stars” and his derring-do.

Tompkins said his light aircraft “means I’ve seen every corner of Patagonia. Kris and I have driven every road too – we’ve crossed it many, many times. Landscapes that are in good shape and haven’t been trashed by human projects have their own beauty, an innate beauty – you just have to get used to them.”

Tompkins’s connection with Patagonia appears to be quasi-spiritual and I suspect its emptiness and remoteness informs his deeper opinions about the planet. I mentioned that during my research into the region’s history, I’d noted how many schemes intended to develop and populate it – from gold mines to railway lines to projected cities (Argentina even hatched a plan to move the capital from Buenos Aires to the Patagonian coast in the mid-1980s) – had come to nothing.

“A dam would be the equivalent of an industrial revolution for Aisén – out of context, out of kilter with the rest of the world and irreversible”

I spent the night in one of Tompkins’s visitors lodges and, the following day, turned round to head back into the Baker valley. To visit the Río Baker and the Tompkins’s park, I’d driven down a winding, dusty highway called the Carretera Austral or Southern Highway. The views were sublime, but the road was a scar on Aisén and there were many sections where the brute belligerence of dynamite had been employed to assist the civic engineering savvy.

In the context of Patagonia’s cultural and economic history, the road itself was the latest phase of a 300-year process of conquest. In the 1900s cattle ranchers had burned down thousands of hectares of virgin rainforest. By 1950 the region’s indigenous Halakwulup canoe Indians, who had once rescued the shipwrecked John Byron (the poet’s grandfather), had been wiped out.

A dam would be the equivalent of an industrial revolution for Aisén and its people – out of context, out of kilter with the rest of the world and irreversible. Sustainable tourism, Tompkins was arguing, could keep the region if not paradisiacal, then at least hopeful. I liked the neat symmetries: a desert-like national park created to protect a riverine cleft, a manufacturer of polyester and nylon spinning out his fortune to save the planet, a corporate jetsetter zipping round at low-level in his low-carb plane dreaming up habitats for threatened flora and fauna.

But perhaps Tompkins and his deep ecology friends would be more convincing if they followed their arguments to their real end. As I drove north away from Aisén’s wilderness to the grazing lands of the north, I reflected not on what Tompkins terms the “myth of progress” or the fables of tourism but on “Trapalanda” – the old name for Aisén, a sort of Patagonian ‘El Dorado’ that the conquistadores had searched for, in vain, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Trapalanda has come to mean utopia, or non-place, or invisible land. Aisén is the least developed region not only in Chile, but in the whole of southern South America. While Spanish colonists and, later, Chilean settlers successfully populated the lake district to the north and the ranching lands around Punta Arenas in the south, they ignored the jagged, fjord-strewn, rain-soaked central Patagonian region. Even now, only 24,000 people live in a territory comparable in size to the Netherlands.

As I drove over a high pass marking the forested region’s northern limit I had a thought. I didn’t want anyone to follow in my footsteps. I didn’t want anyone to come and hire a pick-up and drive down the road idealising their experience and nodding worthily at the “Patagonia sin represas” slogans. Instead, I wanted the temperate rainforest to grow back over the Southern Highway and for all the human visions – with their attendant technologies and inevitable busyness – to be kept out and Trapalanda to be left alone as a place of peace, slowness, emptiness and imagining.

Chris Moss is the author of ‘Patagonia: A Cultural History’.

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