Lake General Carrera under threat from Chile’s government?

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View of Lake General Carrera. Photo: Catalina AhumadaView of Lake General Carrera. Photo: Catalina Ahumada
By Andres Gillmore
Translation by William Young
The Lake General Carrera watershed in southern Aysén is an enormous territory approximately the size of Holland and Belgium combined. This watershed, one of the largest freshwater reserves on the planet, is shared with Argentina and it is part of a 1991 environmental treaty on shared water resources between the countries. This treaty obligates both countries to defend this great shared lake (In Argentina, the lake is called Lago Buenos Aires) from any source, be it a person, company or any other national or foreign interest that threatens the environmental sustainability of the communities that inhabit the surrounding region.
We could also call this large lake an interior sea and it acts as a recipient for the thawing ice of the Northern Patagonian Icefields, which are also in Aysén. The watershed begins at Bajada Ibáñez, 70 kms south of Coyhaique, and ends 400 kms further south in the small village of Caleta Tortel at the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. It’s most iconic rivers are the well-known Baker and Pascua.
The watershed was first colonized in 1903 by Chileans who were forced to flee Argentina, where they had lived since the 17th century in search of a better life because of the large land holdings controlled by just a few families, or latifundia, and a bloody civil war. However, because nothing lasts forever, one General Roca in Argentina considered the Chileans to be “personas non gratas” and drove them out of the country. These Chileans and their families defended themselves as best they could but had no alternative other than to swiftly flee south, escaping the hordes of this ruthless general. At one point, they crossed the Jeinimeni River, which nowadays forms part of the border between Chile and Argentina between the towns of Chile Chico in Chile and Los Antiguos in Argentina. Upon seeing that the troops didn’t cross the Jeinimeni River and left them alone, the refugees realized that they had reached Chile.
Years passed by and the colonists settled in and prospered. In 1918, they had to defend themselves from external interests, who wanted to take over the Lake General Carrera basin and expel them from the place they now called home. A military conflict occurred between the colonists and the Sociedad Explotadora Río Baker (a transnational company backed by capital from England and Magallanes), later called the Chile Chico War. The colonists successfully defended themselves, and after intense negotiations with the Ramón Barros Luco government they forced the Sociedad Explotadora to back down. From this date forward, the prosperity of the Lake General Carrera basin was considerable, fueled by impressive growth in wool production. This continued all the way up till 1991, when, under the centrist Patricio Aylwin government, Chile joined the Mercosur trade union in South America and, consequently, the Chilean textile industry collapsed. The great wool market of the Lake General Carrera region was forever lost and a structural, historical and existential crisis of great proportions commenced. Many were forced to sell off their lands with the decline in the wool market. As such, foreign capital also entered and seized an opportunity, such as American nature philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, who bought up the former sheep ranch at Valle Chacabuco.
A guacho en Chile Chico. Photo: Chase EstrinA guacho en Chile Chico. Photo: Chase Estrin
For longtime residents of this magnificent basin, it has not been been easy adapting to the realities imposed upon them by fundamentally centralist governments and an economic model determined primarily by market forces, which did not and have not appreciated the good qualities of this territory as well as strategic role it plays for Chile. At the end of the 90s, the region began to establish new plans for sustainable development, primarily centered upon private tourism businesses taking advantage of the natural qualities of the watershed: its great scenic and environmental beauty.
In 1994, the salmon farming industry also entered the region, justifying their presence with promises of jobs and a better future. But the people of the Lake General Carrera basin realized what was going on and opposed the salmon invasion. For six years, there was, for example, a hard-fought battle between the local citizens group Corporación Costa Carrera and the salmon farmers association. Eventually, we won, and in 2000 the watershed was officially declared a Zone of Tourism Interest (ZOTI). The first such designation in Chile, and it helped halt the salmon companies’ expansionary interest in the territory.
A few years later, the watershed once again entered into conflict over whether it would have a sustainable future: this time involving Endesa España, a Spanish electricity company, which hoped to exploit Aysen’s most iconic rivers, the Baker and the Pascua, to build a series of big dams to produce hydropower. The issue attracted worldwide attention. It wasn’t at all easy – but with national and international support from many, diverse organizations – we managed to put a stop to this terrible plan. Instead, the idea was finally dropped in favor of a future in which the Lake General Carrera watershed, given its strategic value and the promising future for local communities based in an economy built around sustainable tourism, ought to be protected.
Valle Lunar, Chile Chico. Photo: Paz VillarroelValle Lunar, Chile Chico. Photo: Paz Villarroel
Water supply to dry regions is becoming a strong issue worldwide. Areas like Lake General Carrera will be strongly disputed in the future. Photo: Gianluca Lombardi Water supply to dry regions is becoming a strong issue worldwide. Areas like Lake General Carrera will be strongly disputed in the future. Photo: Gianluca Lombardi
From then on, after stopping HidroAysén, the Lake General Carrera watershed entered into a very positive process of appreciation for its many natural, economic and cultural qualities. Two more ZOITs were declared in Aysen and the sea off the coast of Caleta Tortel was nominated to become a marine protected area.
The icing on the cake occurred during the second term of the center-left Michelle Bachelet government when they created Patagonia National Park and Cerro Castillo National Park. It was the final consolidation of this Aysén basin, and the Chilean state recognized this watershed must be protected from any schemes which would go against the sustainability of its communities and the pristine quality of the waters that runs freely through the territory.
Today, from this watershed there are cherries are exported from Chile Chico to China and California; the most southerly wine in the world is produced; there are organically-raised livestock with a strong national market; an interesting culture of intelligently-designed greenhouses is being developed; organic agriculture here is expanding to become a commercially viable activity; and last but definitely not least there is the the magnificent tourism industry rooted in ecotourism and adventure travel. The Aysen region has been designated by the Lonely Planet as an ideal global destination for people who love the outdoors given its incredible scenery and the pristine quality of its waters.
On the road between Puerto Guadal and Chile Chico. Photo: Gustavo OlmedoOn the road between Puerto Guadal and Chile Chico. Photo: Gustavo Olmedo
Puerto Sánchez, located on the northern banks of Lake General Carrera. Photo: Gustavo OlmedoPuerto Sánchez, located on the northern banks of Lake General Carrera. Photo: Gustavo Olmedo
In July 2018, this whole splendid future was put at risk by Chile’s national property minister minister Felipe Ward, who is now currently the secretary general in Sebastián Piñera’s government. Ward, with the co-operation of the right wing senator David Sandoval Plaza, took 5,000 hectares of land from the Patagonia National Park and handed this land over to the mining company, Australiana Equus. The ex-minister Ward’s explanation for gifting this land to foreign mining interests was wholly untrue given that he had referred to this land as part of an act toward the “future Patagonia Park” when in fact the Patagonian National Park had already been declared by official decree during the previous Michelle Bachelet government in February 2018. This is set forth in the Ministry of National Property plans coded “11401-1613 C.R” and registered in the comuna of Cochrane as amounting to altogether 309,000 hectares. In other words, the ex-minister Felipe Ward changed the previously existing decree establishing the Patagonia National Park and removed 5,000 hectares in order to give it to the mining company Australiana Equus.
The Carrera Costa Corporation, informed of the rationale utilized by the ex-minister of national property, and taking note of the illegality of this action, on January 14 went to the offices of the National Property Ministry in Aysen to register our complaint and rejection of the reasons given concerning the transfer of 5,000 hectares from the park to the Equus mining company. The Corporation’s objective is that these lands must be restored as soon as possible to the Patagonia National Park where they belong.
The Lake General Carrera watershed and its communities have a magnificent, sustainable future ahead of them, one based on a green seal reputation as a region that produces ecologically sustainable services and products. But this is currently faced with a terrible threat. If this illegal taking from Patagonia Park becomes a reality because of the the invasion of a mining company into the basin it will inevitably lead to disastrous toxic pollution of the most essential thing of all that this territory possesses: it’s pristine water.
The author, Andres Gillmore, is a sociologist, tourism entrepreneur and founder of Corporación Costa Carrera.

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