A Coffeeshop Meeting with Bernardo Reyes and Patrick Lynch

Scott Cushman

"It's like a race to see who can destroy the planet first!"

Bernardo Reyes holding a calendar he helped produce abour conservation in the Nahuelbuta mountains of Cental Chile.
Bernardo Reyes holding a calendar he helped produce about conservation in the Nahuelbuta mountains of Central Chile.
Photo courtesy of Scott Cushman

Bernardo Reyes was marveling at the focused myopia of the mining and energy companies on the other side of the battle he has long helped fight to protect Chile from environmental degradation, and he spoke with his typical charming blend of understanding and humor. We were sitting (ironically, I suppose) in a 3-level Starbucks in the upscale Santiago neighborhood of Providencia last Wednesday, and discussing the state of affairs in Chile with regards to the Patagonia Sin Represas (PSR) campaign. Also joining us were my girlfriend, Kay, and a young lawyer from Boston named Patrick Lynch who moved to Chile a few years ago to volunteer with an organization Bernardo leads, Etica en Los Bosques, and has since helped start the first "Riverkeeper" group in Patagonia on the Futaleufú River.

The particular transgression that prompted Bernardo's comment was the illegal attempt by a mining company in the Andes of northern Argentina to melt a glacier in order to better get at the minerals hiding below it, in violation of Argentina's recent "glacier law" designed to protect those important impediments to runaway climate change. Indeed, the ability of some people to steal lifejackets on a sinking ship and sell them for pennies on the dollar on Ebay, so to speak, is no less than shocking.

Bernardo and I had been chatting for about a half hour about his work and my plans in Chile when Patrick arrived. He had just returned to Santiago that morning via the 27-hour bus ride from the Rio Futaleufú ("the Futa") in northern Patagonia, where he had met with many local people, and he was very excited to talk with Bernardo about a scandal he had caught wind of there.

Apparently, a group of high-powered lawyers in Santiago is working with some behind-the-scenes investors to attempt a land grab from rural campesinos in the Rio Futa valley. Under a homesteading law in Chile designed to encourage settlers to work the land in remote areas and thus help secure the country's claim to "underpopulated" areas such as Patagonia (most of which is barely contiguous with rest of Chile, and reachable by road only via Argentina), if someone lives on previously unoccupied land for five years and does a little paperwork, they can legally take title to the land. Using legal technicalities, and possibly outright forgery and even arson, however, the Santiago lawyers are trying to claim that some of the campesinos' titles to their land are not legally valid, and are, lo and behold, superseded by other claims, specifically those of their investors (though probably not under their own names).

When Patrick plotted the disputed lands on a map of the valley, they lined up remarkably well with the route of the power lines that will be needed if the proposed dams on the Futaleufú are ever built. It seems the investors are hedging their bets that the dams will indeed go up and the right-of-way through the stolen lands will suddenly be worth a great deal. The tactics of the lawyers that Patrick has begun to uncover appear to be straight John Grisham meets Wild West. Potentially the most scandalous piece of the puzzle he is trying to fit together is the burning down of a notary building four years ago. The notary, on the rainy island of Chiloé, is the nearest one to the Futa and so potentially housed some of the signatures the lawyers are contending were never properly recorded by the campesinos. Apparently, it is also quite likely, though, that some of the campesinos never actually did do the proper paperwork, because it was prohibitively difficult. The Chiloé notary, for example, is a costly and time-consuming journey from Futa, involving a multi-hour ferry ride. But, of course, any such failure on the campesino's part would hardly justify the fabrication of false claims to supersede their title to the land they have struggled to make a living on for years.

Bernardo and Patrick discussed the various media outlets that they might be able to convince to run the story once they uncover the details, a key move since Patrick is certain that "the only thing these lawyers care about is their reputations!" Apparently hard-hitting investigative journalism is rather lacking in the mainstream Chileno newspapers, but there are a few progressive magazines in the country that might be interested.

The Futaleufú Riverkeeper organization that Patrick has been working to start is one of many Riverkeeper groups around the world based on a successful model pioneered on the Hudson River in New York State over 40 years ago. Dedicated "riverkeepers" (in the Futa's case, a man named María José Ortiz) live in the watershed and work on a year-round, long-term basis to organize the local community around the environmental issues that are important to them. It's a bottom-up, slow and steady approach.

Patrick described the challenges they are currently facing in the Futa valley with bringing folks together around common goals. It is difficult largely due to the demographics. The Futa is one of the most renowned whitewater rivers in the world, famous for its surreal beauty and challenging big-water class V rapids, and at this point most of the riverfront property has been bought up by foreigners, either as personal vacation spots or tourism outfitter camps. Much of the tourism money that comes into the area goes to non-locals, or at least "summers only" locals, with most of the river guides being North Americans on endless summer schedules. With tourism being one of the most viable income alternatives to energy and mining exploitation in the valley, this dichotomy leaves many of the valley's more long-term and year-round residents thinking that the latter represents a better opportunity for them.

The corporations that seek to exploit region's resource are also cunning at exploiting the desires of local residents for a higher "standard of living" and manipulating public opinion. They have been spreading money around the area liberally, upgrading infrastructure and generally buying support in subtle and not so subtle ways. The most recent municipal elections in Aysén saw a scary number of pro-hydro candidates voted in and conservationist are worried that the tide of local opinion is turning. Of course, the "gifts" of the corporations are cheese in a mousetrap, as most of the jobs in the construction of mega-dams, for example, would go to those from outside the region, leaving locals with lower-paying jobs servicing the construction crews, followed by generations of eking out a living in a ravaged land. Just ask the residents of Page, Arizona how many jobs the power lines humming over their heads towards Las Vegas from the Glen Canyon Dam provide.

Bernardo explained that the environmental threats facing the Futa valley are very serious and pressing, despite the fact that they have taken a back seat in recent years to the proposed HidroAysén dams farther south in the region. Apparently energy and mining companies are conspiring to build up to three hydroelectric mega-dams on the river to power the mining of gold and silver ore further up the valley. With cheap energy, the mineral deposits would suddenly become extremely lucrative. These corporations are pitching the Futa dams to the Chilean public under the pretense of a desperately needed solution to an "energy crisis" facing the country. If, in fact, the majority of the power would be used to uproot one of Patagonia's largely intact and spectacular landscapes for the sake of the private profit of largely foreign-owned corporations, it would be a huge scandal that would seriously erode support for the projects. Struggles for conservation in the 21st century, like those for social justice (often the same thing) often boil down to which side has the best advertising team. Patagonia Sin Represas has excelled in this arena, with a sustained campaign of hard-hitting images and full-page exposés.

Bernardo and others have been working to uncover the same link between proposed mega-dams and local mining development for the HidroAysén project further south in the region. He and Patrick agreed that exposing such a link as the true motivation for the project would be devastating to HidroAysén, which, like the proposed project on the Futa, has been sold to the Chilean people as necessary to provide more power to a growing population in the metropolitan region of Santiago. Some of the electricity from the HidroAysén dams would almost certainly make it to Santiago, given the 2200 km long power line that would be built to connect the two, but suspicions are growing that the real fantasy of HidroAysén and its collaborators is to turn Patagonia into one of the biggest mineral exploitation centers in the world. After all, the region has large gold and silver deposits and an almost ridiculous abundance of the two key components needed for mining and refining ore: water and energy (in the form of the massive hydropower potential of it's high-volum and high-gradient rivers). A Chinese corporation is apparently even hoping to import mineral ores to Patagonia from Chinese mines for refining and and then export them to international markets. Clearly, there exist wildly different visions for the region... Reserva de la Vida? Or bauxite refinery?

To counteract the relentless efforts of the corporations, Bernardo is advocating for conservation groups to take a more active approach to winning the hearts and minds of the locals. He view this prospect, rightly I think, as key to lasting success in holding off industrial development. One of the really interesting initiatives that is in the works in the Futa Valley is to create a guide school to train local people, especially youth, as river guides, and then to possibly require a certain percentage of every outfitter's guides to be locals.

Kay and I are looking forward to going to the valley later this summer to check things out firsthand. Trying to get all the interested parties "in the room" and working towards any kind of consensus has apparently been quite a challenge, and this sounds like a perfect application for the sort of consensus-building and action-planning facilitation methods that Kay is teaching in her work here with disabled Chilenos. Who knows, maybe we can help get a community guide school going in Futaleufú...

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Scott Cushman has many years of experience in environmental and experiential education and river guiding and a degree in environmental biology from Dartmouth. He is exploring Chile and blogging about his adventures from November 2012-April 2013.