The Spanish conquistadores never penetrated the wild reaches of Patagonia. Pushed back by the ‘Indian problem’, this land remained uncolonised, a final stronghold for Chile and Argentina’s Mapuche people. But five centuries on from the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Europeans – and North Americans – are once again discovering seemingly untouched wildernesses in the New World, and scrabbling to stake their claim to what they see as unclaimed land.
Patagonia has seen an influx of foreign investors, with the Benetton family turning a million hectares into cattle and sheep farms, and other impossibly wealthy speculators buying up forests, riverbanks and entire lakes, to turn into exclusive retreats, farms and golf courses. Argentina in particular has virtually no controls in place over the sale of land. In the late 1990s alone, over 8 million hectares were sold, and the economic crisis of 2001, which resulted in the devaluation of the Argentinean Peso, only worsened the problem. More recently – and more dangerously – Chinese agriculture companies have caught on to the availability of land, and with this comes the threat of dams, excessive water usage and heavy use of agrochemicals.
Not all landowners have used the land for their own gain, however. Most famously, Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, has conserved over 2 million acres of land across Chile and Argentina through his organisation The Conservation Land Trust
. Some of the land is now a private park with public access; while another tract was returned to the Chilean government on the condition that it would become a national park – it is now Corcovado National Park. CNN’s founder Ted Turner has also conserved vast swathes of land in Argentina. However, despite funding local community projects, the privatisation of these giant ranches and the resulting loss of public access to the land and fish-rich rivers has still caused its own controversy.
Because as well as the environmental damage caused by unscrupulous land use, the ‘Indian problem’ remains. Patagonia is the ancestral home of the indigenous Mapuche people, who have lived on this land for centuries, yet have no papers to demonstrate ownership. Land is sacred to these people, and moving them from one tract of land to another is not acceptable. They do not see land simply as a source of income, pasture or water – it is a part of their origins, and their spirituality.