“Well what happens when you get to the edge of the cliff. Do you take one step forward or do 180° turn and take one step forward? Which way are you going? Which is progress? The solution to many of the world’s problems maybe to turn around and to take a forward step. You can’t just keep trying to make a flawed system work.”
I’ve been taking a bit of a break in February from rephotography to explore the current state of conservation in Patagonia. Right now is a fascinating time to be here as this region faces many options for future development.
The big question here and in many other places in the world is: How can a country that is faced with national and international development pressures develop in a way that respects the local environment and people while still contributing to the national economy and allowing the improvements in quality of life that the people want?
At the beginning of February I walked the Aysen Glacier Trail (AGT) with Jonathan Leidich, founder and guide of Patagonia Adventure Expeditions. He came to Chile about 20 years ago looking for a blank spot on the map and found that in Puerto Bertrand. Over the last two decades of living there he has developed a deep connection to the town and with gauchos living in remote valleys, a life virtually unchanged in the last century. Through working with these rural estancias he has built a trail that follows the watershed loop from the Northern Patagonia Ice Field to the Baker River. In walking up windswept valleys, crossing a major glacier, passing active glacier research sites, and ending at Sol de Mayo, his working ranch 35km from the nearest road, guests get a deep experience of “real” Patagonia.
It is immediately clear that Jonathan is not interested in standard tourism development. His trips are limited to six guests at a time and the infrastructure is minimal to give guests a real experience interacting with the beauty and the challenges of Patagonia. He works with scientists to support cutting edge research in geology and ecology, and works with education groups to bring students into the mountains to learn about glaciers and the beginnings of watersheds.
Just across the Rio Baker valley from the Aysen Glacier Trail is the Future Patagonia National Park. This former estancia, Valle Chacabuco, was purchased by Kris Tompkins and the organization Conservacion Patagonica. They have been removing the fences and ranch infrastructure to restore native habitat and building up infrastructure to turn it over to the Chilean government as a national park. A huge undertaking, and one that is faced with many difficulties, from public acceptance to having no precedent for restoring Patagonian grasslans. They are working on developing a volunteer program to get visitors, mostly Chileans, involved in the restoration of the park with the hope that in the future these people will be advocates for it’s preservation. Their goal is to get this park to be as large of a draw as Torres del Paine, creating jobs in the local economy in a way that does not depend on resource extraction.
This all is set in a background of the recent protests in the Aysen Region of Chile where people are protesting about a wide range of things from the development of international fishing and the proposed construction of five major dams to high gas prices. Things are changing in Aysen and clearly the residents do not like how they are changing.
How does this all fit together? In a region with significant natural resources, it either faces continued development of hydroelectric dams, mines, tree plantations, and salmon farming or it needs to figure out a more sustainable way to contribute to the economy of Chile. An alternative vision to an economy based on resource extraction would be an economy based on resource enjoyment. By developing infrastructure to allow large scale tourism, the Aysen region has the potential to become one of the most popular areas in Chile and Argentina.While that would require sacrificing the quiet nature of the region, people will have to decide.
*Note about photographs – You may notice JB watermarks appearing on photographs throughout this site. I’m not trying to prevent people from enjoying my work, I’ve just had some issues with photo rights. Please contact me at jonathan.at.alpineamericas.com if you are interested in purchasing prints of any of these photos.