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Chilean Patagonia Imperiled

Ruth Cohen Photography

Photo: Ruth Cohen Photography

To the gauchos, farmers, and other residents of Chilean Patagonia, the region's wild rivers are an integral part of the landscape, descending steeply from the Andes past hardwood forests and glacial lakes to the crystal-clear fjords of the Pacific coast. To those who flock here to kayak, raft, or go fly-fishing, the rivers are heaven on earth.

But to a number of multinational companies, Patagonia's rivers mean two things: money and power. Several corporations have quietly expressed interest in building dams to tap the incredible hydroelectric potential of these waterways. In response, an alliance of gauchos, farmers, tour operators, and environmentalists has vowed to defend Chilean Patagonia against the forces of industrialization—and to use tourism as its primary weapon.

Three years ago, when I first visited Chilean Patagonia—which makes up the lower third of Chile, from Puerto Montt to Tierra del Fuego—the locals were still talking about the damming of the B’o-B’o River, in the country's midsection. In 1991, Endesa, the former state electric utility, which had recently been privatized, broke ground for the Pangue Dam, the first of several proposed hydroelectric projects on the B’o-B’o. Pangue, begun without public disclosure, paved the way for Endesa to build a second, much larger dam on the river, known as Ralco. Though not yet completed, Ralco has already destroyed the B’o-B’o's reputation as a white-water paradise and displaced hundreds of residents, many of them Pehuenche Indians.

Adventure travelers who now consider the Bío-Bío a lost cause are heading to Patagonia, particularly the Futaleufú River, which drops precipitously out of the Andes and produces what has been called the best white water on earth. The river's impressive volume and current, however, also make it an obvious target for a dam. The Chilean water bureau recently revealed that Endesa has acquired the rights to build two dams on the Fu, as it's known. Although Endesa—majority-owned by a Spanish consortium—denies that it has designs on the Fu, locals believe otherwise.

"TOURISM IS THE ONLY WAY FOR CHILEAN PATAGONIA TO SURVIVE IN the long run," a gaucho named Toribio Baeza told me last spring as he groomed a horse on his ranch above the frontier town of Futaleufú. I'd returned to the region to see how the residents were fostering the development of tourism. Baeza switched from ranching to promoting riding tours eight years ago, when competition from Argentine livestock heated up and he noticed more and more tourists entering the valley. Now he is introducing foreigners to the gaucho life—something he never thought would interest a gringo. "First I tried to take them somewhere far away, so I could earn more money," he said with a laugh. "But most people are interested in life on the campo."

We were at a viewpoint overlooking the primordial beauty of the Futaleufú Valley—giant trees and ferns jutting off moss-covered rock walls, a meandering emerald-green river, clouds gift-wrapping the whole scene. Baeza told a story about the time he led an American college student here. "She looked around and started yelling, waving her arms, flipping out about how gorgeous it was," he said. "I thought she'd gone crazy on me, but that was just her way of expressing herself. These people come here to connect with something I'm already used to."

Tourism to Chilean Patagonia has been growing at a 10 percent clip over the past decade, according to codeff, Chile's largest environmental organization, and is fast becoming a viable alternative to logging, mining, hydroelectricity, and other extractive industries. Revenue from tourism is also more likely to stay in the region than money from other sources. "A dam would bring more money to the area while it's being built, but when it's done, the place will die," Baeza said. "Tourism, on the other hand, will always be here. The river isn't going to dry up. If the dam is built, that will change."

On my way back to Futaleufú, I visited Luis Toro Mundaca, a Chilean who four years ago converted his riverside property into an upscale campground with fresh food, hot showers, and a large hot tub. In rafting season, he rarely has a vacancy. Now he's building luxury cabins, banking on the notion that "baby boomers are getting older and they want creature comforts."

Landowners such as Mundaca plan to make it very expensive for Endesa, or any other industrial concern, to appropriate the land they will require for industrial endeavors. Chilean property laws entitle landowners to fair market value for any real estate they're forced to give up—the more developed the land, the more it will cost to buy it for a dam reservoir. "I will not sell," Mundaca said passionately as we looked down at the rapids named after his family. "Even if they offer me a mountain of gold."

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