The True Colors of Patagonia
What struck me first was the sheer scale of the landscape, the backdrop of snow-capped mountains and glaciers juxtaposed with green rolling hills, sheer rock faces, and the blues and greens of Patagonia’s largest and most powerful rivers. This feeling of awe stayed with me during my week spent traveling through Chilean Patagonia, driving for kilometers along El Lago General Carrera, the second largest lake in Latin America, catching sight of the many peaks of the Cerro Castillo and finally arriving alongside the Río Baker. I caught my first glimpse of the Baker River as we were driving through Puerto Bertrand just after sunset. Dusk threw an ethereal light over the water, which from high above looked tranquil and serene. Over the next few days I would come to experience the many different and equally deceptive moods of the Baker River.
The weekend that I was flying to Chile, a new film about the struggle to protect Patagonia, “Streams of Consequence” by filmmaker James Q Martin, premiered at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in California. Our Executive Director Jason Rainey was at the premiere and told me afterwards that during the Q&A someone asked whether Martin had doctored the film to make the colors of the rivers look like that vivid! I can understand this reaction when you first see photos from Patagonia. However, I can now attest to the fact that there was absolutely no doctoring involved – the bright turquoise, deep blues and vivid greens are just as they appear on film, if not even more vibrant.
My journey started in Coyhaique, the heart of Patagonia and the headquarters of one of our main partners in the region, Coalición Ciudadana Aisén Reserva de Vida. Setting off from Coyhaique, I headed south to Cochrane with Peter Hartmann, the director of Aisén Reserva de Vida and a long-time environmental activist. Peter has spent the majority of his life in the region and is an encyclopedia of knowledge about the geography, landscape, wildlife and communities of Aysén. He works closely with many of the community organizations (agrupaciones) that have formed in communities by the Baker and the Pascua rivers to challenge the plans to the destructive HidroAysén dams. The journey from Coyhaique to Cochrane is breathtaking – as you leave the city and paved roads behind, the landscape changes dramatically, leading you past two of Chile’s most famous southern landmarks: Cerro Castillo and Lago General Carrera.
We arrived in Cochrane for what turned out to be the social event of the summer – the inauguration of a new museum in El Manzano, near the confluence of the Baker and Neff rivers. This area is particularly emblematic in the region in terms of culture and tourism, and is threatened by the HidroAysén dams. Because of this, it has also been the spot for many International Day of Action for Rivers events. El Museo Rural Pioneros del Baker was built to honor the history and cultural heritage of Patagonia from the pioneers to the present day, and to reinforce the need to protect and preserve this region. The celebration lasted all day and was filled with speeches, live music, traditional dancing (I was forced to dust off memories of how to dance cumbia) and of course an asado – a typical Chilean barbeque. In one of the speeches the local priest Padre Porfirio Diaz spoke of the need to ensure that the Baker River continues to flow, free from dams. He declared emphatically, “HidroAysén is a bad project.”
One of the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to meet Lili Schindele, a landowner and rancher living along the Ñadis River. Her picturesque property stretches to the confluence of the Baker and the Ñadis and would be completely flooded by the HidroAysén dams. Originally from Germany, Lilli married a Patagón (a farmer from Patagonia) and has lived in the region ever since. She has been very involved in the campaign to stop HidroAysén, speaking out against the project to national and international media and as part of the community organization in Cochrane, Los Defensores del Espíritu de la Patagonia. Los Defensores have worked tirelessly to inform their community about the environmental, social and economic impacts of the HidroAysén project. Lilli has been a leading force in legal actions responding to HidroAysén’s lack of compliance with guidelines set out in the Environmental Impact Assessment, which was approved in May 2011. Along with other affected landowners they are currently filing appeals to contest HidroAysén’s commitments in relation to plans for resettlement of affected communities.
We spent the afternoon with Lili in her garden, trying to stay out of the sweltering heat, speaking about the campaign, her work and her family. Her two young children spent a lot of the time running around the garden after an assortment of animals: kittens, chickens, dogs, and sheep, and jumping in and out of the river. Walking down to the banks of the Ñadis River and along to the confluence of the Baker, it's chilling to think of this area being submerged under water.
Perhaps mezmerized by the river we ended up talking all afternoon and before we knew it the sun was setting and with no lights for miles around, the sky was lit up with stars. We spent the rest of the evening with Lilli and her family – helping to prepare dinner, with all of the ingredients grown and produced on their land – and then settling in for the night in their cabaña that overlooks the Neff River. It was incredible to experience, even as an observer, a glimpse of everyday life in the region, to see what is at stake not only in terms of the pristine and breath-taking landscape, but also for the lives and culture of people living there. The memory of Lilli's garden filled with fruit trees, chickens, kittens, and laughing children will stay with me for years to come.
For updates (in Spanish) on the campaign you can read the latest newsletter from the Patagonia Defense Council. In my next blog I will be writing more about news from Santiago on the national campaign and the elections taking place in Chile this year.