Thursday, June 3, 2010

Road Trip Update: Chile's Carretera Austral

As the southern hemisphere winter sets in, there are few tourists along the Carretera Austral - which I have described as Chile’s top road trip - but what’s happening now in northern Patagonia’s Aisén region will have repercussions for the upcoming season and the coming decades. As Patrick Symmes details in the current issue of Outside magazine, the controversy over five new hydroelectric dams in the thinly populated region - two on the Río Baker and three on the Río Pascua - concerns a potential environmental catastrophe.

In his article, Symmes details the controversy over two new dams on the Río Baker (pictured here) plus three on the Río Pascua, plus a 1,500-mile transmission line that would require a 500-mile clear-cut through its forests (the online version of the article will not be available until next month, but there is a gallery of accompanying photos). In a country that lacks conventional energy resources - Chile produces perhaps 10 percent of its own fossil-fuel consumption - half the electricity comes from hydropower, which many Chileans consider the default option.

In terms of flow, the Baker is Chile’s biggest river and there are ideal dam sites along the Carretera Austral just north of the town of Cochrane (population about 2,200). Nevertheless, there is determined local opposition, including holdout farmers unwilling to surrender their prime bottomland even for an enormous payout that would set them up for life (it’s only fair to add that some locals support the project enthusiastically). The nationwide campaign for Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia Without Dams) and others have done their utmost to publicize the threat to the Baker but, as Symmes says, they have relatively little clout among Chile’s power brokers.

Except perhaps one: despite belonging to a center-right coalition, recently elected President Sebastián Piñera is a philanthropic conservationist who has set aside a large densely wooded portion of southernmost Chiloé as Parque Tantauco, a private nature reserve open to the public. In doing so, he followed the example of US conservationist Doug Tompkins, who created Parque Pumalín on the mainland across the Golfo de Corcovado, and with whom Piñera has cordial relations (unlike Chile’s previous center-left governments, some of which distrusted Tompkins intensely).

I can’t begin to analyze all the intricacies of the Baker controversy here - either buy the magazine or wait until Symmes’s article comes online - but I did write about it in more detail in a post in late 2007. It’s worth adding that the project would also affect the pending Parque Nacional Patagonia, a project to which Tompkins and his wife Kris McDivitt are major contributors. It’s also worth adding that the hydroelectric project would not help Aisén residents directly - all the power generated would go to metropolitan Chile.

Meanwhile, there’s another environmental controversy in the border town of Futaleufú, the whitewater rafting capital that’s the gateway to its namesake Class V river (pictured here). In its waters, scientists have discovered the so-called “toilet paper algae,” an invasive diatom that attaches itself to rocks and other submerged surfaces. Native to cool temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, but now found in New Zealand and Chile, Didymosphenia geminata kills off insects that fish feed on and, thus, could damage the area’s fly-fishing industry.

As the algae has likely arrived on rafting, kayaking and fishing equipment, foreign and Chilean operators may have to prohibit the use of imported gear. In the long run, it’s also a danger to the pristine clarity of the “Fu” and other rivers in the region but, unfortunately, local authorities seem to take it less seriously than the recreational operators.

There is some positive news out of the region. Carolina Morgado, of Parque Pumalín, has written me that work on the highway south from Caleta Gonzalo - closed since the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén - is due to begin soon, and the park will reopen its Caleta Gonzalo facilities, including cabañas, a restaurant, and the visitor center, in the upcoming 2010-11 season. In the pending Parque Nacional Patagonia, meanwhile, “We have finished a lodge at Valle Chacabuco, and it’s a beauty.”

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