Caleta Tortel and defining progress

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Several years ago, on my first trip down the entire length of southern Chile’s spectacular Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway -- a 1240-kilometer journey from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins -- on the return trip northward I had one of my most memorable adventures as a journalist.
 
On my way south to Villa O'Higgins, I had stopped in Coyhaique and had a talk with Peter Hartmann, the longtime Aysen region director for the Chilean Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna (Codeff). Peter at one time had lived in the small, then-isolated village of Caleta Tortel at the mouth of the Baker River. He told me that he was greatly concerned that this town’s quiet charm would be damaged irrevocably by the construction of a road connecting it to the Carretera Austral. He recommended that I pay a visit.
 
This was late March 2001, and the road was slated to be completed before the end of the year. I had stumbled upon an amazing chance to get a look at a place where people still lived without roads and cars – a rarity in today’s world. As well, I was able to check out the debate going on among the town's residents about the post-road future for Tortel. Even then, years before the company HidroAysen publicly announced its plans to build dams on the Baker River, some environmental groups were keenly aware of such a threat. The end of Tortel’s roadless-era spelled not just the opening up of the town’s beauty to a greater influx of tourists; but many were worried that it might also be one part of a regional trend toward uncontrolled industrial development and a possible decline in the quality of life in Chilean Patagonia.
 
Its interesting to look back and see how prescient many environmentalists were. Below, an article I wrote about this topic for the U.S. newspapers San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday, along with a photo gallery from that trip: 
 
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, OCT. 28, 2001
 
 
Caleta Tortel, Chile -- At the end of a boat ride five hours down the Baker River from an outpost along the Carretera Austral, the Southern Highway, the tiny hamlet of Caleta Tortel appears tucked away among the canals and fjords of the desolate Patagonian coast. 
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For more than 50 years, the small community -- population 448 -- has survived without a single road. Instead, residents created a unique network of wooden walkways built from the sweet-smelling lumber of the local cypress trees.
 
The outside world has slowly arrived over the past decade, dotting the landscape with cable television, putting telephones in the main plaza and bringing indoor plumbing and electricity to homes and stores.
 
Now the pace of change is quickening. The government is building a road that will link Caleta Tortel to the Southern Highway by the end of the year, ending the rugged villagers' isolation.
 
The highway is a largely unpaved 775-mile road cut -- at a cost estimated at $200 million -- into an unspoiled region of snowcapped mountains, aquamarine lakes and temperate rain forests. It was pushed through in 1976 on the orders of then-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet to join long isolated Patagonia, Chile's southernmost region, with the rest of the nation.
 
Last October, more than 20 years after its construction began, the highway reached Villa O'Higgins, a settlement of 300 perched between the Argentine border and the Campos del Hielo Sur, one of South America's largest glaciers. The highway will reach Chile's southernmost city, Punta Arenas, in about five years.
 
While some hope that tourism and other business ventures will bring prosperity, others are worried.
 
"People come to Tortel because it is a rare place, where there are no roads, no cars, but cypress walkways and tranquility," said Valeria Landero, who runs a small inn. "This road will ruin that experience."
 
For years, Tortel townspeople earned a living mainly by cutting cypress and coigue trees. The Chilean Navy transported the lumber to market in Punta Arenas. But these days, the timber business is disappearing and many residents are out of work. The highway has opened the region to tourism, which is fast becoming Patagonia's main source of revenue.
 
Last year, even without a road, some 1,700 tourists visited Caleta Tortel, mostly in the summer months of December through March.
 
A few hours by boat from the village are immense glaciers and two national parks, while just yards away are hiking trails with astounding Patagonian vistas. Recently, Chile designated the village a cultural preserve.
 
Mayor Jose Vera, 43, who is a big booster of the Southern Highway, says he wants to turn Caleta Tortel into "a 100 percent tourist economy." He is lobbying to build a small rail system on the town's hilltop to make it easier for visitors to see the outlying areas.
"The road will have a big impact," said Vera. "We need to prepare for the onslaught of tourists."
 
But some environmentalists are worried about the companies that will come to exploit the area's timber and minerals.
 
"The road is just not needed," said Peter Hartmann of the private Committee of Flora and Fauna. "A good boat can do the same thing."
 
Hartmann and other environmental activists say the road could put the region's eco-tourism potential at risk by facilitating the arrival of business ventures that will contaminate air and water.
 
"The world needs to support an alternative route for Patagonia," said Daniel Gonzalez, a Chilean ecologist, "one that is compatible with the region's incredible landscape."
 
Chile is considering large hydroelectric dams on the Baker and Futaleufu rivers. North of Caleta Tortel near Coyhaique, Noranda Inc. of Toronto plans a $2.7 billion aluminum reduction plant that would be powered by another dam.
 
Moreover, Chilean companies have filed 26 applications for salmon farming concessions around Caleta Tortel, according to the Terram Foundation, an environmental group in Santiago.
 
Marcel Claude, president of Terram Foundation, says the salmon farming industry is one of the nation's worst polluters, pouring tons of salmon excrement and blood into waterways as well as fish food that depletes oxygen and affects plant life and bottom eating fish.
"Chile does not have clear regulations requiring these businesses to repair their environmental damage," said Claude.
 
But Angela Urrutia, 87, who moved here in 1954, disagrees. She and her husband, Prospero, 88, remember the hard times and want the comforts the road will bring.
 
She remembers when they lived in tents, sleeping in pits in the ground to keep warm. Before there were motor boats and small airplanes, villagers rode horses to the Argentina border to buy supplies, she recalls. The 288-mile round-trip journey took from three weeks to a month.
 
"When we arrived here, we had nothing," said Urrutia. "Now, we have everything we need, but this road will make life even easier."
 
Roberto Vicera, 82, founded Caleta Tortel after claiming land in 1947, and his 13 children and 29 grandchildren form nearly 10 percent of its population. He marvels at the luxuries the road will bring and says it will all be thanks to Pinochet.
 
"Pinochet came here in 1996 and told me personally that he wanted a road to come here," said Vicera.
 
But boatman Saturuino Casanova, 56, says it will be a sad day when the road finally arrives.
 
"We will lose all that made this place special," he said.
 
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URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2001/10/28/MN180956.DTL

  

 

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