IN MAY OF 2011, I heard about the Chilean government’s approval of HidroAysén, and reported on 11 disgusting facts about it here at Matador.
The proposed project consists of 5 different dams which would flood an area the size of Manhattan (part of which includes a national park), and calls for one of the longest clear-cuts in history, some 1,400 miles (roughly equivalent to the entire West Coast of the United States) for transmission lines to run through what’s now mostly pristine Patagonian wilderness.
At the time my family and I were also living in Patagonia (on the Argentinean side) about a day and half drive across the border from the first proposed dam site. As a resident of Patagonia (and someone just beginning to see how fucked up politics were in the region), and also having grown up around rivers and whitewater – having seen not just the cultural but economic benefits of free-flowing rivers as “centerpieces” of small towns from Southern Appalachia to Colorado – I was (and continue to be) deeply troubled by the prospect of HidroAysén.
At the same time I was wary of “speaking for” anyone else’s place or culture. I needed to see firsthand what was going on, and needed to talk to those potentially affected by the proposal, to hear from the people themselves what they thought about the dams, what their connection was to the place.
Ground level mission
In the months that followed, we began putting together a team for an original investigative mission. I contacted longtime friend Adam French, a writer and political ecologist, who’s been working on environmental and social justice issues — principally water in Latin America — for the last decade. Like me, Adam was a resident of South America, basing out of Huaraz while researching conflicts between farmers and transnational hydro-power and mining firms in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca.
While both Adam and I had our own story ideas and questions, we felt it was important that our team also include someone local. Through a mutual friend, Matador Ambassador Ben Ditto, we were able to hook up with Chilean photographer Claudio Vicuña. Claudio had been exploring the region for years as a mountain guide and photographer for outdoor gear companies such as North Face.
Finally, we reached out to Conservacion Patagonica, an org founded by former longtime Patagonia CEO Kris Tompkins. Conservacion Patagonica’s latest project — the Future Patagonia National Park — would restore a 173,000-acre section of overgrazed sheep ranch back to its original productive ecosystem of Patagonian steppe. The site, in Patagonia’s Chacabuco valley (defined by the confluence of the Chacabuco and Baker rivers, one of the proposed dam sites) is contiguous with Jeinimeni and Tamango National Reserves, and the plan is to unite all three areas into a single national park on scale comparable with Yosemite NP in the US. The Future Patagonia NP would be donated to the state by 2017, and yet the site was literally at the epicenter of the region threatened by the dams.
Conservacion Patagonica supported our investigation, and we arranged an itinerary to travel down to Chacabuco Valley, where we’d stay at the Future Patagonia National Park, and interview Kris and Doug Tompkins.
What followed then was an all-time rapid mission down to Patagonia. Adam and I converged in Santiago, then road-tripped with Claudio to Pucón, then Puerto Montt, then an overnight ferry to Puerto Chacabuco where we continued another day on the Carretera Austral.
As all three of us share a love for skiing / snowboarding, surfing, kayaking, and climbing, we found ourselves constantly shaking our heads as we’d go blasting past one after another epic-looking expanse of terrain. As we needed to travel as quickly as possible, we’d left all the gear except photo / film equipment behind.
The speed in which we covered these distances, and literally the distances themselves, emerged as an important theme. Part of the “problem” of Patagonia is that it’s so massive, its distances so great, that it seems “out of sight, out of mind” for most of the world. Access is difficult on both the Argentinean and Chilean sides, which, on one hand, has helped preserve the area’s rivers and wilderness, but in the case of HidroAysén, this very isolation seemed to increase the area’s vulnerability.
Local people and Trawen
And yet, this abstracted notion of “isolation” is meaningless once you’re actually in the place at ground level. Everywhere we went — from tiny towns such as Villa Cerro Castillo to the future park site itself — we found (and interviewed) locals, travelers, volunteers. Some of them were only passing through. Others had been born and raised there and never left.
In the weeks and months ahead we’ll be bringing webisodes of Trawen: Travels to the Future Patagonia National Park, where we’ll take you along our journey, including interviews with Doug and Kris Tompkins, energy policy expert Amory B. Lovins, local park rangers, trail-builders, business owners, and travelers.
In the meantime, the Rios Baker and Pascua continue to flow free. HidroAysén seems temporarily stalled out, having “indefinitely withdrawn” their plans for producing an environmental assessment. You never know what’s downstream though; now is the time to visit the region, and see firsthand what’s at stake.