In Patagonia, Caught Between Visions of the Future

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times

COCHRANE, Chile — At the end of a 200-mile stretch of mostly unpaved highway, nearly impassable during the long winter months and only marginally better in summer, sits the quiet community of Cochrane.

For generations, this isolation nurtured a bucolic, if insular, existence where little changed. The grasslands around here were sliced up into cattle and sheep ranches. Folktales romanticized the gaucho lifestyle on the wide open Patagonian steppe, sharing maté around the campfire.

But for all its remoteness, this hamlet has found itself at the heart of a heated national debate over the future — and some would say, the soul — of Patagonia itself.

A short drive outside town, a $10 billion hydroelectric dam project, known as HidroAysén, is being planned, stirring a national outcry against what critics call the destruction of one of Chile’s most pristine ecosystems. Last year, thousands of protesters opposed to the dams took to the streets of the capital, Santiago, while hundreds more clashed with the police in a haze of tear gas and water cannons within view of the presidential palace.

But just within eyeshot of the proposed project is the entrance to an entirely different view of Patagonia’s destiny: the 660,000-acre Patagonia National Park, which seeks to preserve the region’s grandeur by drawing tens of thousands of visitors a year.

The two competing visions of Patagonia are set so close to each other that they seem to be squaring off in a blatant ideological battle, leaving local residents struggling to grasp where they fit in.

The inauguration of the first work-training center in this remote Patagonian hamlet was a case in point, a significant but awkward event. The building, a three-room log cabin-like structure, was created for the purpose of molding an agrarian population into a skilled labor force for dam construction.

As back-slapping company men congratulated city and school officials, the honored guests, a collection of former ranch hands and itinerant workers, among them Modesto Sepulveda, a 27-year-old converted gaucho, stood sheepishly in a corner, nibbling on bite-size empanadas and dishes of ceviche.

Mr. Sepulveda, a soft-spoken husband and father of two, was awarded a certificate acknowledging his successful completion of construction site basics. On this evening, however, he was more philosophical than festive.

“Development is coming, and we had all best adapt because sooner or later we aren’t going to have another option,” Mr. Sepulveda said plainly.

The energy project is a partnership between the Italian-Spanish company Endesa and the Chilean company Colbún, which plan to harness the power of the untamed Baker and Pascua Rivers through a series of five dams that would generate 2,750 megawatts, primarily for energy-starved cities farther north.

But while protesters denounce the threat to flora and fauna, María Ester Quijanes, a Cochrane City Council member, is more concerned that the project will create a privileged class of citizens than with the environmental consequences of damming Patagonia.

“Politically, I agree with the dams because I believe in energy independence,” Mrs. Quijanes said, “but I do worry they are going to create a social imbalance between those who can adjust to a different work culture and those who can’t.”

With a few notable exceptions, the controversy that seems to follow HidroAysén around the rest of the country is surprisingly absent from Cochrane. There is a simple explanation, according to Luigi Solís, 33, who was hired to build trails in Patagonia National Park: “They win you over with money.”

HidroAysén has invested substantially in Cochrane’s future, supporting infrastructure projects, training hundreds to work on the dams while promising to train hundreds more, and offering 150 technical university scholarships for high school students. The company also has a Cochrane office with an open-door policy where citizens can peruse a model of the hydroelectric dam project.

Conservación Patagónica, the foundation behind Patagonia National Park, has also channeled its energies toward infrastructure building, but it has largely overlooked public outreach. Its image among residents has suffered as a result. The community was incensed when the foundation bought and then shut down the biggest ranch in the region, contributing to what residents saw as the decimation of their traditional way of life. The purchase, made in 2004, was for a 173,000-acre tract, ideally positioned between two national reserves, allowing for a sweeping stretch of conservation land.

It has not helped relations that the foundation — and thus the former ranch — is under the control of an outsider, Kristine Tompkins, the former chief executive of the Patagonia clothing company. Fueling the fire, she is married to the environmentalist Douglas Tompkins, whose own efforts at conservation in Chile have stirred nationalist sentiments.

Exaggerated stories about the park run the gamut, from prejudice against locals who once managed the ranch — actually, the park has 50 employees, about the same number as during the ranching days — to criticisms that a gaucho-less countryside has allowed for a resurgence of the once maligned puma.

“Lately, we’ve been organizing visits to dispel the myths older residents have about us while enchanting younger residents,” Mr. Solís said.

The foundation has bought more land, restored ecosystems, recovered huemul deer and puma populations, and carved out a system of trails. It is also building park headquarters that will feature a museum, a restaurant and cabins made of stones from a small foundation-operated quarry, interior woodwork of recycled wood and roofs made from copper, Chile’s main export.

It is an ambitious project, fashioned in the mold of Yellowstone or Yosemite National Parks. When completed, Patagonia National Park will unite the 460,000 acres of the adjacent national reserves with the 200,000 it has acquired, forming a unique range of semi-arid Patagonia steppe and temperate beech forests.

“World-class parks attract people from all over the world,” Mr. Tompkins said. “I’ve seen it over and over again. It will be a tremendous opportunity to develop a new industry in this area, if they don’t build those dams.”

Mr. Tompkins believes that within a few years the park could be drawing upwards of 150,000 visitors per year, similar to Torres del Paine, Chile’s other famous Patagonia park. And those visitors will need hotels, equipment rental, tourism agencies and transportation.

“Sure, people talk about the expansion of tourism, but nobody truly understands what it means,” said Marcelina Catalán, 42, who runs Cafe Internet Mazal, the lone Internet cafe in Cochrane, with six computers and a patchy connection. “You have to prepare people if you are serious about developing a tourism industry.”

Those opposed to HidroAysén and Patagonia National Park say their presence has already introduced social ills and caused divisions among residents of this tight-knit community.

“Suddenly there is a nostalgia for the past,” said Rosa Gómez, 66, a retired teacher and local historian. “But people forget how tremendously isolated we were back then.”

When she was a teenager, electricity and drinking water were luxuries, and the only way in or out of town was on horseback. Even if turning back the clock were possible, she said, who would?

“If I had to weigh the trust and harmony that existed between neighbors back then with all that we have now,” Ms. Gomez said, pausing to consider the options, “the scale tips toward now.”