Conservation, tourism and mega real estate deals: Playing green Monopoly in Patagonia

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By Patricio Segura
 
PART ONE: Can conservation be a means for controlling a region's land?
 
Read part 2 here: https://bit.ly/35HhflL
 
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.
 
 
Divergent visions exist in the Aysén region regarding the arrival of conservation in Chilean Patagonia. Describing what has become to known worldwide as “green grabbing,” Chilean researchers Enrique Aliste Almuna (geographer), Andrés Núñez González (historian) and Álvaro Bello Maldonado (anthropologist) describe it as the growing "property control and neo-colonization" of Patagonia, particularly of the Aysén region, going hand in hand with the ecological discourse of the day. They cite the concept and model "Aysén Reserve of Life," which many of us who inhabit these places promote, as nothing more than an excuse to appropriate the territory and its meaning, while expelling the traditional inhabitants (the Chileans, since the Aonikenk were exterminated more than a century ago) from the ownership of the land.
 
For these researchers, the control of the means of production, such as land, is fundamental: "Capitalism and 'green' discourse present a closer relationship than is visible from the surface. Deep down, 'green' has become a utopian discourse whose support is also a technology of power that has a radical impact on local spaces and where capital ends up concentrating the ownership of land, the means of production and the cultural horizon from which the area should be settled or understood."
 
The new environmental movement underway in Patagonia has also been labelled by some as "eco-extractivism."  In the article "Welcome to green capitalism" by journalist Marcela Ramos, Aliste states that the situation in Aysén in the face of the "conservationist" offensive has translated into massive private land acquisition that "shows us the infinite capacity of capitalism to reinvent itself; to overcome even the most adverse and transform it into an advantage. Until a while ago the idea was that environmental discourses were going to help us fight capitalism, but suddenly we realize that in reality capitalism is saved through environmental discourses."
 
For better or worse, the long-standing research of Aliste, Núñez and Bello on the transfer of land ownership in Aysén documents what has been happening in recent years in this territory. A summary of their perspective is contained in the book "Imaginarios geográficos, prácticas y discursos de frontera: Aisén-Patagonia desde el texto de la nación," published in 2017.
 
Defenders of the process underway for decades to install a more ecologically, economically, socially and culturally sustainable form of development in the region, based on conservation coupled with diverse and small-scale productive activities, argue that the academics' description is an over-generalization. When it comes to the leitmotif and/or consequences of one of the matrix concepts of the regional socio-environmental movement, Aysén as a reserve of life, from its origin does not seek nor has sought to commercialize nature or exclude groups.  It does seek to protect the land, coast and sea against the advance of a view that sees the biodiversity of Aysén only as a pantry, booty or platform.
 
Whichever side of the spectrum you are on, however, it is evident that there are many ways to appropriate Trapananda.  The facts are, appropriating the soil, landscapes, and meanings is the raison d'être of various new actors present in the Aysen region today.
 
A Reserve of Life for an elite?
For a long time, even before the State took over with its political and administrative divisions, Aysén has been eyed as a booty. There were the great estancias, from von Flack to so many others who arrived here attracted to the exceptional landscapes, natural wealth, and attractive remoteness of this region. They saw a great storehouse of cypress trees and pastures for cattle raising. Later came industry, who found an abundant sea for fishing, a pristine coastline for salmon farming, mighty rivers for generating power, and massive glaciers for exporting water.
 
But lately a new type of actor has descended upon the region. Almost three decades of socio-environmental action under the umbrella of Aysén Reserve of Life has transformed the region into a national and international icon.  Its ice fields, its millions of hectares of native forest, its plethora of rivers, mountains and open spaces have caught the world's attention. With dissimilar ends, making this focus become, clearly, a fatality. The fatality of the paradise that attracts. Because it attracts what sustains it, but also what can extinguish it.
 
Since the middle of the last decade, we knew that the triumph of Patagonia without Dams would not end all threats. That the problem was not the energy projects but the prevailing economic paradigm that sees nature only as a means of production or appropriation.
 
The citizen struggle against the Alumysa aluminum megaproject, which from its beginnings in early 2000 and, later even more so, against the construction of the HidroAysén and Energía Austral hydroelectric dams during the Patagonia without Dams campaign, gave a powerful signal to the uninitiated ordinary citizen: this remote place must be very special if so many individuals and organizations have sought to protect it.
 
But there have also been several other past decisions that have shaped the region.  Today, more than half of the land in Aysen is part of Chile’s National System of Protected Areas, inside multiple and extensive national parks and reserves. The first, Laguna San Rafael, was declared a reserve at the end of the government of Jorge Alessandri Rodríguez, but in 1967 Eduardo Frei Montalva recategorized it as a national park.  That year the Guamblin Island National Park was also created and then in 1969 came Bernardo O'Higgins.  Magdalena Island and Queulat followed (1983). So, the concern for protecting Aysén's biodiversity did not first come from the market, it came from the government. 
 
In recent years there has been a considerable increase in conservation initiatives, both on private and public lands.
 
Regarding the former, the most emblematic case is that of Patagonia National Park (PNP).  Although strictly speaking it has a hybrid history, as Corcovado (2005), Yendegaia (2014), Melimoyu (2018), Pumalín Douglas Tompkins (2018) and Kawésqar (2019) are the result of donations made to the State by the conservation foundation Tompkins Conservation, created by American philanthropists Doug and Kris Tompkins.
 
 
Photo: Patricio Segura.Photo: Patricio Segura.
 
 
Patagonia National Park, with 304,000 hectares, was established on October 25, 2018, and is administered by Chile’s national park and forest service (CONAF).  This park recategorizes two national reserves Jeinimeni (161,100 thousand hectares) and Cochrane (6,925 hectares) and merges them with the donation of the Estancia Valle Chacabuco (70,000 hectares) which was owned by Tompkins Conservation.
 
In recent weeks, this publicly protected area drew considerable attention in Chile after architect Francisco Morandé criticized the modifications that the renowned hotelier Explora, owned by Pedro Ibáñez Santa María, has made to the lodge and restaurant that Morandé had designed with Doug Tompkins. "They removed all the furniture, with its handmade carvings, moldings, photos selected for each wall, paintings, lamps, hundreds of details thought and designed exclusively for each place and replaced it with common furniture one finds in the reception area of any capital building," said Morandé in a letter published by Santiago daily El Mercurio and reprinted by other media.
 
This public criticism over a government concession doled out in Patagonia National Park that will last until 2046, adds to the complaints of many visitors who have pointed out that the lodge and restaurant, which previously was open to the general public, are now restricted to only Explora clients.
 
In the Aysén region, this is seen as the de facto privatization (and therefore elitization) of an area that, although it is a private donation to the Chilean treasury, was at the center of the regional and national struggle that was Patagonia sin Represas (HidroAysén intended to build the wall of the Baker 1 dam right in front of the access to the Valle Chacabuco sector of the park). The bidding process sought to inject financial resources into the State's management of the protected area, but this process might distort the public nature of a national park.
 
The PNP is part of the Patagonia Parks Network: 17 protected areas covering 11.8 million hectares along 2,800 km from Puerto Montt (Los Lagos Region) to Cape Horn (Magallanes Region). 
 
In the Los Lagos Region: Pumalín Douglas Tompkins, Alerce Andino, Hornopirén, Corcovado (shared with Aysén). In Aysén: Queulat, Melimoyu, Magdalena Island, Cerro Castillo, Patagonia, Laguna San Rafael. In Magallanes: Bernardo O'Higgins (shared with Aysén), Pali Aike, Kawésqar, Alberto de Agostini, Torres del Paine, Yendegaia, Cape Horn.
 
According to the late Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, one of the pioneers of the global biodiversity protection movement, to halt the mass extinction of species and ensure the survival of humanity itself, what’s needed is massive action commensurate with the enormity of the problem. Wilson postulates that we must fully conserve nature on half of the Earth's surface. In this regard, Chilean Patagonia is an enormous global success story. That has already been achieved in Aysén. And that's something that can't be said about almost any other region on the planet.
 
Brian Reid, deputy scientific director of the Coyhaique-based Center for Patagonian Ecosystem Research (Ciep), told Patagon Journal in a recent interview that, while such conservation advances are a tremendous achievement of which Chile should be proud, at the local level it remains a big challenge to get everyone on board. Reaction to the new parks has been mixed: while some in the surrounding communities are interested and supportive, there has been a negative reaction by many.
 
"I wouldn't say it's undeserved," Reid says of that negativity. "Part of it is because they haven't worked with the communities in the right way, and that slows things down in terms of conservation goals." He adds that the only way for conservation to be sustainable in the long term is to do it hand in hand with local communities. "Conservation can be a good thing, but if they (local communities) are on the margins and not consulted, that works against conservation. You may not please everyone, but you have to make the effort."
 
In parallel to this new public conservation initiative, a new land rush has prompted several Chilean and foreign businessmen to buy up large tracts of land, in some cases as investments while others declare they intend to conserve their holdings as private parks or reserves.
 
One of them is Estancia Las Margaritas, owned by Chilean magnate Andrónico Luksic, who has bought 35,000 hectares in the extreme south of Aysén near the municipality of Villa O’Higgins. Luksic already has a strong influence on local public politics in the town.  The arrival of the billionaire to the area has earned him front page headlines in the national media, which highlights the "rural and sustainable life" of this controller of multiple mining and extractive companies throughout the country. The paradox is that Villa O'Higgins is also dominated by glaciers (it is located near the Southern Patagonian Ice Field), and Antofagasta Minerals, which Luksic owns, has destroyed rock glaciers in Chile’s north at the upper part of the Choapa River, in the Coquimbo region, through Minera Los Pelambres, according to multiple investigations.
 
 
Photo: Patricio SeguraPhoto: Patricio Segura
 
 
Also operating in Aysén are the lawyer Enrique Alcalde Undurraga, who owns land in Villa O'Higgins and Cochrane through Sociedad Agrícola Río Baker; the former owner of Aqua Chile and descendant of a family settled for several decades in the area, Víctor Hugo Puchi, has land in Cochrane and other sectors of the region; and the family of Nicolás Ibáñez Scott (former owner of D&S, which owns the Walmart stores in Chile called here “Lider”), with land on the shores of Lake Cochrane. All of this was reported in an article in Santiago newspaper La Tercera in 2020. 
 
The North American multimillionaire Kenneth Dart (creditor of the famous vulture funds that had Argentina in deep water some years ago) has also bought lands in Lake Azul and Lake Desierto; the Meri Foundation, of the Cortés Solari family, owns lands in Melimoyu for conservation purposes; Gonzalo Vial of Agrosuper has property at Isla Refugio, as a second residence and tourism center. The multimillionaire Addison Fischer has the Anihué reserve at the mouth of the Palena River, which is for biodiversity protection; Felipe Briones of Pesquera Yadrán has 2,000 hectares at Alto Nirehuao; the mining businessman Jonás Gómez has land at Melimoyu; and Eduardo Ergás bought the entire Traiguén Island, setting off conflicts with the Nahuelquín-Delgado Huilliche community, which has lived in the area for half a century.
 
And there is also the Hurtado Berger family, former controller of Embotelladora Andina, whose daughters bought 22,000 hectares in the Cuervo River basin and the Yulton and Meullín lakes, where Energía Austral originally intended to build the Cuervo, Blanco and Cóndor dams.  All this through the Kreen Foundation, which today is directed by the sisters Madeleine and Pamela Hurtado Berger, who have shielded their investment through multiple mining concessions, just like Luksic has done further south, in the name of their half relative Rodrigo Terré Fontbona.  According to a 2013 article in the Santiago newspaper La Segunda this is becoming a common practice: “Today, there are several individuals in the Aysén Region (foundations, hydroelectric, salmon and tourism operators, among others) who have 'run' to claim mining interests within their properties, in order to prevent the 'gold rush' that the area is experiencing from affecting their land and projects.”
 
These transfers of property have been carried out without any participation of nearby communities, with the market simply operating. But these changes in land regimes have strong environmental, productive, social, and cultural impacts on communities where most of these new owners do not live. They are unaccountable: their actions and decisions on these lands, in many cases, will never affect them personally.
 
Beyond the challenge of building a relationship between local communities and the new Route of Parks in Patagonia, there is the open question of whether Chile has the necessary regulatory and institutional frameworks to manage private conservation initiatives, which in some cases are just real estate development projects dressed up in deep green rhetoric.
 
In the next article: "B" companies and the Luksic fortune, conservation easements, and the rise of the "green" real estate business in Aysen.
 
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. 
 
 
 
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