Part 2: Playing green Monopoly in Patagonia

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Photo: Raimundo EspanaPhoto: Raimundo Espana
 
 
By Patricio Segura
 
PART TWO: Capitalism in green-environmental mode
 
Read part 1 here: https://bit.ly/3hN1XOF
 
In the Aysen region of Chilean Patagonia, the author writes that efforts to protect and conserve land – which sometimes include the subdivision of properties into numerous lots for re-sale – are often done outside of the regional public planning process and with little participation from the people who actually live there. Previously, in other latitudes, it was determined that the Aysén region would be a great energy pantry, with transnational companies trying to impose a development model based on the construction of large dams. Today, conservation, which many of the region's residents mobilized for, also seems to respond to decisions made in another time and place.

 

Toward the end of 2020, in Caleta Tortel, a town at the mouth of the Baker River in the Aysen region, it was announced that Paola Luksic would be awarded more than 10,000 hectares of publicly owned land at Ventisquero Montt (located on the northern border of Bernardo O'Higgins National Park and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field) for 30 years, paying an annual concession rent of 13,500,000 pesos (about $US 16,650). The controversial move was rejected by the Aysén Regional Council and the application was stopped in its tracks.

At the time, the then mayor of Tortel, Bernardo López, commented to the press that "they are making use of their constitutional right – I think they should live in the communities where the plebiscite was won (sarcastically referring to the 1988 referendum on ending the Pinochet dictatorship and the wealthier districts of Santiago)." López added: "The abuse of the Chilean State can be clearly seen here, because this same government, a few months after taking office with its national property ministry, notified the inhabitants of Tortel, who with much sacrifice built their homes, to vacate the lands, which are public lands, and there is a lot of that land available to be occupied because we need places for people to live.”
 
López points out that many original pioneers to the Tortel area, among them his own grandparents, died waiting for a solution regarding their land titles. "Then my parents continued in the same condition, and myself, I am also waiting, and so are the future generations who will continue to wait if we continue on the same path that the State is taking today."
 
One of the problems, in addition to the lack of participation of local residents in this decision on the fate of important public lands in the community where they live, is that to date Paola Luksic, through her Fundación La Tapera and other investment vehicles, already owns some 12,000 hectares in the sector. With the concession, she would control thousands of more hectares in a strategic area to set up a private park for conservation and tourism.
 
Today, Fundación La Tapera, which manages the private park of the same name, remains in the Tortel area. In August 2021, the social enterprise organization Balloon Latam announced the signing of an agreement with the municipalities of Tortel and O'Higgins, with contributions from the company Karün, "with the purpose of strengthening the development of rural communities through programs and projects of entrepreneurship and innovation, territorial articulation and strengthening of social capital." The project primarily focuses on how the local community can best get involved with the private park.
 
Connecting the dots
The connection between so-called B companies financially backed by companies responsible for destroying the natural environment in Chile, then putting a green sheen on the damage these companies have wrought here, is worth noting.
 
The name Karün comes from the Mapudungun word for "being nature."  Its line of business is the production and commercialization of glasses with recycled fishing nets from Cochamó (although also from the Mediterranean, they acknowledge), working with artisanal fishermen. It was founded by Thomas Kimber, nephew of Charles Kimber, corporate manager for People and Sustainability of Arauco, the largest forestry company in Chile.
 
For its launch in Europe in 2021, Karün had the support of Wild Sur, an investment firm owned by the same married couple, Paola Luksic and Oscar Lería, that has generated opposition from the community in Tortel. The couple, which derives most of its capital from the Luksic fortune that accumulated in large part from its stake in Chile’s mining sector, has been criticized strongly by citizen and environmental groups in recent years for its plans to construct a mega real estate project with 14,000 homes on coastline between Horcon and Maitencillo in Chile’s Valparaiso region.
 
 
Photo: Salvemos QuirillucaPhoto: Salvemos Quirilluca
 
 
The site for their mega real estate deal has been designated as a conservation priority for its importance as nesting site for marine birds. As well, the citizen group Salvemos Quirilluca says the project would add immense pollution to the zone and impact the already scarce water resources for current residents there. “The Maratué project aims to destroy Quirilluca, a protected area in the regional biodiversity conservation strategy. Fourteen thousand homes in summer resort buildings and swimming pools in an area where half of the current inhabitants still have no drinking water,” wrote the group in a statement.
 
The support of Fundación La Tapera has not been the only reason for Balloon Latam to be active in Aysén. Sebastián Salinas, founder of Balloon Latam, was also a member of the expanded board of directors of the Friends of the Parks organization, which was set up by Tompkins Conservation to support the efforts of the new Patagonian Parks Network but closed in July 2021. Today, the company moreover facilitates the process of creating the so-called "portal communities," a plan proposed by the U.S. foundation Pew Charitable Trusts to get communities situated near the network of parks to get involved in their long-term conservation. 
 
Thomas Kimber was also one of the initiators of Reforestemos Patagonia, an organization linked to the now defunct real estate group Patagonia Sur created by American investor Warren Adams, which has stood out as one of the Aysén property brokers with a self-appointed conservationist spirit, and in which Charles Kimber has been one of its original investors.  To date, Reforestemos Patagonia (now called “Reforestemos”) has had the support of CMPC/Mininco and Arauco, responsible for the millions of acres of non-native, pine and eucalyptus tree plantations in southern Chile and their many negative environmental and social impacts. The ex-Patagonia Sur has already sold off almost all of its properties in the far south at Valle California, the Palena River, Lake Espolón, Tortel, Jeinimeni, Leones River and Melimoyu.  Its motto was: "profitable conservation.” Also participating in the real estate venture was Arístides Benavente, a conservative businessman from Santiago who has been active in Aysén for several years and was a member of the advisory council of Friends of the Parks.
 
Friends of the Parks, in its original conformation, lacked representation of the inhabitants of the territories where the parks are actually located on its board of directors and advisory council. This practice is repeated often in multiple initiatives that seek to develop actions in Patagonia, many of which could be considered positive, but which present problems of legitimacy in their governance, a fundamental element when talking about sustainability. 
 
Before his exit from the region, Adams had originally aimed to attract capital from pension funds and investment firms for a more ambitious plan that would stay out of activism and instead focus on building a “sustainable, environmentally friendly economy.” But critics from the start saw the “members-only” project as shutting out locals from some of the region’s most spectacular natural areas while uninterested in the environmental conflicts happening all around them.
 
Green real estate?
Following the lead of the ex-Patagonia Sur, a new generation of green property entreprenuers have entered the game. And they are utilizing a new legal instrument known here as "derecho real de conservacion" (DRC), instituted in 2016 via Law 20.930.  The DRC are essentially conservation easements on private land that allow for establishing safeguard for a piece of land against interventions that jeopardize the environmental or cultural attributes of a property, regardless of their size.
 
Fundacion Tierra Austral, which was started by many of the principals involved with Patagonia Sur, is focused on implementing the DRC in Chile. During the passage of the bill in Chile’s Congress to establish the DRC, Victoria Alonso, who at that time was the private lands coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, was a key expert lobbying for the project.  She is now the executive director of Tierra Austral.  Rafael Asenjo, a lawyer and former minister of the Environmental Court of Santiago, also spoke on behalf of the bill as national coordinator of Chile’s National System of Protected Areas. Asenjo is now a member of the board of directors of Tierra Austral
 
 
Images showing large extensions for sale, subject to conservation easements. Screenshots. Images showing large extensions for sale, subject to conservation easements. Screenshots.
 
 
 
 
Fundacion Tierra Austral and Patagonia Sur, together with many other organizations, pushed for modifications to the Donations Law, a bill recently approved by Chile’s Congress. The new law gives tax incentives for philanthropic actions to include environmental and conservation causes. Now, companies and individuals (among them the main fortunes of the country) will have more incentive to donate financial resources to foundations and NGOs. 
 
This is very good news. 
 
The Donations Law will now direct greater private monies from Chileans toward environmental protection, but there is a risk of co-optation of the objectives of the environmental organizations. What will happen if an environmental NGO questions Chile’s development model or the commercial activities of the companies or individuals that donate to them?  A necessary question.
 
The Donations Bill was approved by the Congress on January 28, but as it contains articles of constitutional organic law, it must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court. It’s worth noting that one key clause in the new law specifies that donors may not have a direct kinship relationship through their boards of directors with the recipients of funds in the case of legal entities.
 
Conservation does not always dialogue fluently with those who have lived before in the places that, from a distance, someone considers should be protected. Because democracy and ecosystemic harmony do not always go hand in hand.
 
An example of the conflict between traditional uses and environmental protection is a letter that lawyer Elena Sobakina sent to the Chelenko Corporation in 2019. An organization that brings together local sustainable tourism groups in the Lake General Carrera basin, the Chelenko Corporation integrates dozens of local families working to link environmental protection with local economic development within the framework of the Chelenko Tourist Interest Zone. 
 
In her letter, Sobakina questioned the publication of a photo in a regional newspaper that showed an excursion by the Puerto Guadal Tourism Association (part of the Chelenko Corporation) to the Leones Glacier in Laguna San Rafael National Park on a traditional trail for residents that one must access via the 1,800-hectare property (Pichimahuida) that is owned by her husband, John Whitelaw; land the couple have set aside for strictly environmental conservation and restoration. The lawyer made clear in the letter that it was not permitted to disseminate any images of ther private property for tourism promotion or any other commercial purpose, pointing out that it would put at risk the DRC agreement that they have in alliance with CONAF (Chile’s parks and forest service).
 
Sobakina was one of the speakers at the California Council of Land Trusts “Chile California Conservation Conference” held in 2017 in Sonoma, California. One of the objectives of the meeting was to “gather ideas that may be useful in implementing Chile’s recently passed Derecho Real de Conservación legislation by looking at varieties of conservation easements and other land protection tools." At her presentation, according to the official conference report, Sobakina was not yet convinced that the tool was right for their project: "They bought the property in 2006 and have been systematically restoring the land through native tree reforestation. They are interested in developing a long-term management plan for the land, but are unconvinced that a DRC is a good match for their conservation interests (their deed categorizes the land as agricultural, but they wish to prohibit logging, agriculture, and tourism). The protection and restoration of nature is not necessarily the same as conservation. Sobakina raised a number of important questions regarding the applicability, effectiveness and reliability of the DRC instrument for their context.”
 
Two years later, this clash of interests and visions (conservation, traditional activities and economic use of a territory) remains. In the end, it is a conflict that stems from Article 19 number 24 of the Chilean Constitution, which gives strong property rights protections, without addressing its social or environmental functions, something that is currently under discussion in the current Constitutional Convention and will likely be one of the main issues of debate when the referendum on the proposal for a new Magna Carta emerges. 
 
 
Puerto Rio Tranquilo. Photo: Miranda SalzgeberPuerto Rio Tranquilo. Photo: Miranda Salzgeber
 
 
Conservation easements, or DRC, is a potentially powerful tool for conservation. Private parties can determine the zoning plans for a piece of land. For example, they can establish clauses in property deeds that prohibit subdivision of land if it is sold to someone, or how many houses can be built on a property now and in the future.
 
However, although conservation easements could be a positive tool for the long-term protection of nature in a community, they are sometimes used for non-transparent reasons.
 
The pandemic accelerated interest in buying land in Aysén. The ideal of living away from big cities, in open and natural spaces, together with the growth in teleworking, has drawn a plethora of companies interested in catering to this new market by subdividing land in southern Chile into mega-lots to cash in on the new trend. 
 
These “green” real estate developers are using the DRC to promote their properties as "ecological" projects, because they are subdivided into plots of more than half a hectare, in many cases "protecting" a part of the land through a conservation easement.  Examples of these "green" real estate developments are Río La Gloria, Parque La Condorera, Río Austral, Brisas de Lago Verde, and Puerto Bonito, among a long list of others.
 
Victoria Alonso of the Fundacion Tierra Austral told Patagon Journal that she agrees that some real estate companies are abusing the new law. "I think real estate development can be helpful or it can be of tremendous environmental impact, depending on how it's approached, how it's designed, how it's sold, how it's cared for."
 
"There are cases where it has been done well, but today you have many cases of real estate development, especially in the Aysén region, which are obviously being done badly. And what we consider badly done is that there is no basic study, for example, on the ecological situation of the place, and where the population density of the development is very high.  This means that they are going to build a lot of roads that are going to fragment the habitat; these are projects that have nothing to do with ecology and conservation. The only thing they are selling are houses that are in a forest and even that will probably not continue to exist with the quality they have today," adds Alonso.
 
The big problem is that under this umbrella there is everything, beyond their green marketing which is really more akin to "green washing.” In too many cases, the focus is not on conservation but on the aesthetics of living a solitary experience in nature.
 
The issue is of concern for neighbors and authorities.  Not just because of the so-called "eco-lots" but because of the real Olympic race that has become the subdivision of land in Aysén.  Something that has already happened in the rest of Chile, by the way.
 
For some time now, several meetings in Aysen have recently focused on the alarming advance of massive subdivisions, creating new urban nuclei, outside of planning.   
 
 
Photo: Fundacion Geute Conservacion SurPhoto: Fundacion Geute Conservacion Sur
 
 
From 2016 to date, 33 lots of more than 80 parcels have been authorized by the Agriculture and Livestock Service.  The most extreme examples are the 303 plots of Inmobiliaria e Inversiones Valle Las Lágrimas in the province of Aysén, the subdivision of 179 sites in Puerto Piedra linked to the late mayor of Aysén Oscar Catalán, the 270 plots in Río Cóndor (commune of Aysén) of the company Aguas de la Patagonia. Or the 223 of ConservaPatagonia in Coyhaique, which also subdivided 234 in Río Ibáñez. 
 
All of these, and many more, were authorized without any environmental evaluation, in circumstances where environmental impact norms establish that "housing complexes with a number equal to or greater than eighty (80) dwellings" must be submitted for environmental evaluation. It is clear that subdivisions are not constructions, however, it is not possible to ignore that these processes are intended for housing purposes, with the consequent environmental impacts that this involves. Individual construction, not as a whole, can ultimately be seen as a way of circumventing legislation.
 
Moreover, these are new communities that have all the problems that cities have, from water for consumption to waste and garbage collection, energy generation, road connection with streets, bridges, basic services in general. And the cost of such infrastructure is usually transferred to public institutions, making the lives of the original inhabitants more precarious.
This matter has generated concern particularly in the Lake General Carrera basin.
 
Last September, the Chelenko Corporation organized the webinar "Land subdivision in the Chelenko basin" with the participation of representatives of the Regional Government of Aysén, the Agricultural and Livestock Service and the Defend the City Foundation, which has led battles associated with the commercialization of land, with the consequent ecosystemic fragmentation, in the north of the country.
 
At that meeting, many argued that the current invasion of large subdivisions in different sectors of the region (large plots divided up into numerous other properties for re-sale to future home owners, which are not comparable to the small plots of land of residents for their families or for individual sales) are illegal. "These plots of land are urban projects, on rural land, that never received the respective authorizations for the change of land use," commented Josefina Ruiz, the lawyer for the Chelenko Corporation, adding that "there is a historical lack of enforcement on the part of Minvu (Chile's housing and urban affairs ministry), as well as the public works ministry, to make sure that these new urban centers are not created.
 
Subsequently, the Regional Association of Municipalities, led by right-wing Mayor Marcelo Santana Vargas, organized a meeting for the municipalities of Aysén, with the participation of other public officials. This activity was attended by representatives of real estate companies.
 
At the meeting, Juan Ignacio Correa Squella and Juan Francisco Sánchez, lawyers from the Correa Squella law firm, made it clear that subdivisions should not be authorized for purposes other than agriculture until a change in land use is made. He asserted that SAG (Chile's Agriculture and Livestock Service), by allowing this, is committing an illegal act. "Many times there are many indications that the SAG simply overlooks," said Sánchez.
 
Articles 55 and 56 of the General Law of Urbanism and Construction state that Minvu must "ensure that subdivisions and constructions on rural land, for purposes other than agriculture, do not give rise to new urban nuclei outside inter-communal urban planning," and must prepare the respective reports and issue prior authorizations. And the tourism law adds that "when the application of Article 55 of the General Law of Urbanism and Constructions is requested outside the urban limits of the communes with zones declared of tourist interest, a prior report from the National Tourism Service will be required."
 
At present, the SAG interprets both regulations as referring exclusively to cases in which a Favorable Construction Report is requested (previously, a change of land use) in circumstances in which the legislation even refers to the previous stages.
 
As such, the future of Aysén's land is at the mercy of the market, both for living here or to conserve vast territories.
 
 
 
 
Aysén reserve of life, a green screen?
Is capitalism really a mechanism to protect nature?  Because one thing are the aforementioned big businessmen and those who are building lots for the ABC1 segment that want to escape from the big cities, and another are the local "entrepreneurs" who see tourism as an opportunity.  People who do not come from outside, but are part of a generation moving toward economic activities that try to be compatible with nature protection. 
 
Enrique Aliste (Chilean geographer), Andres Núñez (Chilean geographer) and Gabriela Klier (Argentine biologist) point to this when they talk about the capitalist meaning of the concept of Aysén as a reserve of life in their article "Eco-extractivism and geopolitics of the peripheries: the business of difference in Chilean/Argentine Patagonia: "Thus, in 2008, some local organizations declared Aysén-Patagonia a Reserve of Life, which was quickly endorsed by the local government, which incorporated it as a slogan in its Regional Strategy in 2009. In that declaration it was stated that Aysén Reserva de Vida is presented as the best investment and business, oriented to the harmonious and responsible use of natural resources. This declaration sought to emphasize and give value to the condition of Aysén as the possessor of  unique nature; therefore, its exclusive position should become one of the central pillars of the public policy of Aysén-Patagonia. The Regional Strategy called the region's nature a 'competitive advantage', stating it must be safeguarded to sustain the production of goods and services, in particular, the special interest tourism industry (GORE, 2009)."
 
In this regard, it is necessary to make some clarifications.
 
The concept of Aysén as a "reserve of life" did not emerge in 2008, but in 1990. More precisely, on October 12, 1990, when the mayor of Coyhaique, Héctor Zambrano, at the request of local organizations, signed a declaration commiting the city "to the establishment of a denuclearized comnunity, free of hazardous waste and a reserve of life."

 

Mayor of Coyhaique Héctor Zambrano and Undersecretary of the Interior Belisario Velasco, at the declaration of Coyhaique as "Denuclearized Commune, Free of Hazardous and Non-Nuclear Waste and Life Reserve".  October 12, 1990.  Photo: Peter HartmannMayor of Coyhaique Héctor Zambrano and Undersecretary of the Interior Belisario Velasco, at the declaration of Coyhaique as "Denuclearized Commune, Free of Hazardous and Non-Nuclear Waste and Life Reserve". October 12, 1990. Photo: Peter Hartmann
 
 
The Aysen Reserve of Life declaration was written in 2008, but the aforementioned academics in their essay only mention a fraction of it.
 
It begins by stating that the signatories are "those of us who believe that Aisén Reserva de Vida is the solid foundation of our model of sustainable local development and of our identity, where human beings in harmony with the environment and their community achieve conditions to develop fully in peace, based on the legacy of our ancestors and respecting the diversity of possibilities that future generations will find."
 
It also states that "Aisén Reserva de Vida is the result of a collective construction strengthened over many years of efforts, successes, failures and multiple consensuses, open to new contributions based on values by which human beings, without distinction, can access a territory where the quality of life of current and future generations is guaranteed."  It also establishes that this model "is the basis for the full development of the human being, promoting dignity, social equity, cultural identity and citizen participation in the construction of public policies that favor educational processes, strategies and plans to achieve sustainable development." It concludes by stating that it "promotes the integral relationship of people with nature by conserving, protecting and restoring biodiversity, the quality of soil, air, water and landscape, and recognizing our exceptional and fragile environmental qualities."
 
And the call is clear: "We need citizen, business and political behavior and decisions based on ethics, consistency, coherence, solidarity and universal cooperation, where contributions, actions and work, personal and collective, contribute to defend and value even more the current and unique natural heritage of this territory, for the benefit of its inhabitants as well as its visitors, and as an essential source for the sustainable development of all and forever."
 
To link these concepts with a process that seeks to commercialize nature is an unfair interpretation, to say the least.  Indeed, there are actors who see in Patagonia only a business opportunity, current and future, and who resort to a type of environmentalism suited to those purposes, where not only nature is a commodity, but also people.  And also those who, seemingly by remote control, try to impose through capital a future for the region that they deem is necessary.
 
Clearly, Patagonia, and Aysén in particular, continues to be the focus of interests of all kinds.  The step forward today must be how to ensure that decisions respond to a governance that integrates local communities, ensuring from the outset the binding participation of those who actually inhabit the territory. And the coastline and sea, too.
 
Because combining ecosystem responsibility with participation is no easy task, the subject of the third and final article in this series, which will examine whether the actions promoted by Pew and it’s Patagonia Mar Tierra program in Patagonia are able to truly mix conservation with democracy.
 
 
The author, Patricio Segura, is a Chilean journalist that lives near Puerto Guadal, in the Lake General Carrera watershed of the Aysen region. He is the current treasurer of Corporación Privada para el Desarrollo de Aysén and was part of the communications team of the Patagonia without Dams campaign. 
 
 
*Editor's Note (3/11/2022): This afternoon a portion of this article was modified for greater accuracy.  
Where it said "In her letter, Sobakina questioned the publication of a photo in a regional newspaper that showed an excursion by the Puerto Guadal Tourism Association (part of the Chelenko Corporation) to the Leones Glacier on a trail that passes through her 800-hectare property (Pichimahuida), which she has set aside for strictly conservation and restoration purposes. The lawyer made clear in the letter her refusal to allow any such activity to be carried out on her properties, which she stated could put at risk the DRC agreement that was signed with CONAF (Chile’s parks and forest service)." It now says: "In her letter, Sobakina questioned the publication of a photo in a regional newspaper that showed an excursion by the Puerto Guadal Tourism Association (part of the Chelenko Corporation) to the Leones Glacier in Laguna San Rafael National Park on a traditional trail for residents that one must access via the 1,800-hectare property (Pichimahuida) that is owned by her husband, John Whitelaw, land the couple have set aside for strictly environmental conservation and restoration. The lawyer made clear in the letter that it was not permitted to disseminate any images of their private property for tourism promotion or any other commercial purpose, pointing out that it would put at risk the DRC agreement that they have in alliance with CONAF (Chile’s parks and forest service)."