The peace of Patagonia is being threatened by the influx of outsiders purchasing land, leading to a widespread concern similar to a plague.
Six years prior, the government of Chile established the Cerro Castillo national park, a large area of 138,000 hectares (341,000 acres) that includes stunning glaciers, vibrant Andean lakes, and sharp mountain peaks resembling miniature Matterhorns. With the preservation of this ecosystem, there has been a resurgence of endangered huemul deer, the national animal of Chile, and efforts to remove invasive plant species have been successful.
However, in the small valleys beneath the mountaintops, individuals looking to capitalize on land are dividing the terrain into numerous lots measuring half a hectare each, to be sold to those seeking to possess their own piece of paradise.
The sudden interest in Cerro Castillo (Spanish for Castle Mountain) has sent prices soaring. Twenty years ago, land here sold for as little as $500 (£410) for one hectare. Today, the price is closer to $50,0000, and that increase is exploding the culture and traditions in this village of just 800.
Small farmers with a hillside of land, a few sheep and horses are now millionaires on paper yet struggle to find money to pay for petrol. “The people from Santiago or foreigners come here as tourists and fall in love with Patagonia,” says Pedro Aguilar, 57, who was born nearby and works a one-acre plot of potatoes and beets.
Aguilar, while enjoying a cup of maté tea next to a warm iron stove, expresses his appreciation for the allure of Patagonia. He describes it as a peaceful place with clean water and stunning lakes. However, he also acknowledges the influx of new people and their different customs, which he believes is causing a loss of his culture and the traditions passed down by his grandparents.
Several local investment plans are providing over 200 individual parcels, resulting in a division of the land similar to a suburban community on the outskirts of a large city. According to Chilean regulations, subdivisions with less than 80 parcels are not obligated to obtain an environmental impact report. Nevertheless, these parcels frequently rely on municipal services such as water, electricity, and waste disposal. The addition of numerous new residents can alter traffic flow, lead to more wildlife accidents, and disrupt long-standing traditions.
Marcelo Santana, mayor of Río Ibañéz municipality, which includes Cerro Castillo village, believes that Patagonia must be populated. He explains that the goal is not just to maintain a regional population of 100,000, but rather to determine where to place these settlements. According to Santana, it is important to have people living in rural areas for reasons beyond preserving traditions and culture. It is also necessary for food production and to provide protein for a majority of Chileans.
Attorneys representing environmental organizations have been fighting for increased government monitoring and enforcement, claiming that the permits for subdividing land were originally intended for agricultural purposes rather than constructing homes in scenic rural areas near national parks. A bill has been proposed in the Chilean parliament to address these issues.
The majority of the plots are purchased by residents of Santiago, a large city in Chile located 870 miles (1,400km) to the north. Unfortunately, many buyers are unaware of the area and are often deceived into purchasing land without basic necessities such as water, electricity, and roads. In the southern area of Cerro Castillo, lots were sold on steep hillsides, making it necessary for buyers to trek for hours in order to reach their property.
According to Gemita Galindo, proprietor of a small hostel in Cerro Castillo, a number of lakes are currently enclosed by private landowners who have restricted access. She describes the situation as a one-way street with locks and signs prohibiting entry.
Other condominium developments near Cerro Castillo seek to balance respect for nature with precautions such as making all owners sign a code of conduct that ensures a more ecologically responsible relationship with the land. These developments set aside as much as 95% of the land with conservation easements, ban pet dogs – which may attack endangered deer known as pudú – and prohibit fencing, thus allowing wildlife to follow natural migration paths.
For thousands of years, Indigenous communities along the coast, such as the Selk’nam, flourished by gathering shellfish, catching seals, hunting whales that washed ashore, and finding shelter in the numerous bays to escape the powerful storms of the Pacific Ocean. These storms were so intense that the first Spanish sailors to navigate the area gave it the name Gulf of Pain.
The Indigenous people used wooden canoes to migrate and typically stayed near the shore. However, there is not much proof of them establishing settlements further inland in northern Patagonia due to the difficult terrain and lack of resources for hunting, farming, and grazing.
In the previous year, approximately 15,000 individuals explored Cerro Castillo national park, with only 40 visitors per day. This marks a significant rise from the average of two daily visits between 2010 and 2015, when the area was designated as a national reserve and not legally a park yet. Predictions from tourism and government officials indicate that by 2030, the number of yearly visits to Cerro Castillo, located close to a regional airport, will surpass 50,000. Patagonia is consistently ranked as one of the top adventure travel destinations in South America.
The influx of numerous individuals from outside into Cerro Castillo has sparked a heated discussion: who exactly are these new arrivals? What is the reason behind their sudden desire to reside at the edge of the world? Can their good intentions be matched with good actions?
Pedro San Martin, a longstanding landowner, laments that there is now limited grazing space for animals. He shares that he is forced to purchase frozen meat, and sometimes even meat from foreign countries. He also notes that farming has declined, as people now rely on phone calls to acquire crops like potatoes.
According to Macarena Soler, the creator of the non-profit environmental group Guete Conservación Sur, there is a risk of local identity and culture becoming merely a tourist attraction rather than a true effort to protect and preserve tradition, knowledge, and heritage.
The recent increase in real estate development has caused some long-time residents to feel like their community is being invaded. Edith Aguilar, an employee at the water company in Cerro Castillo, shares a frightening encounter with an outsider who yelled and threatened them for being on his property. The man was even armed with a shotgun and accompanied by two dogs, causing Aguilar and her group, including children, to hastily leave and never return.
Aguilar and her husband worked together to plan a cultural event that aimed to revitalize and showcase traditional handicrafts, such as wool weavings from the abundant sheep in the valleys. Aguilar laments the fact that nowadays, many people discard wool without knowing how to use it for creating. She recognizes the importance of embracing tourism in order to thrive and avoid being overlooked. She points out that outsiders with foresight will likely come in and profit, raising the question of why locals don’t take similar action.
The Chilean government and conservationists Doug and Kris Tompkins have collaborated to establish a series of 17 national parks in Chilean Patagonia, known as the Route of Parks. This long-term conservation plan has been in development for the past 25 years and was met with opposition at first, as some locals were concerned about being excluded from the land. However, it has ultimately become a cornerstone for preserving the region.
However, with the decline of sheep ranches and closure of goldmines, the large protected areas started to be viewed as sustainable sources of income through tourism and as a safe haven for native species affected by human activity in Patagonia. Preserving the natural balance in Patagonia and respecting its traditional culture in the midst of a thriving tourism industry is a pressing challenge that environmental advocates recognize must be addressed immediately.
According to Cristián Ugarte, a recent college graduate who designed Vista Baker two years ago, there is a widespread issue of people quickly selling their farms for large sums of money, which he compares to a plague. In various locations across Patagonia, including near the town of Puerto Bertrand, this trend is becoming an epidemic.
Ugarte initiated the creation of Vista Baker with the goal of merging ecological restoration tactics on a parcel of land alongside a small group of newly acquired landowners. The plan entails developing only 40 out of the 560 hectares purchased. Profits from the sale of lots are allocated towards planting indigenous trees, implementing sustainable livestock methods, and carrying out rewilding initiatives.
Ugarte explains that his team purposely acquired a plot of land that had been severely harmed by excessive grazing and unsustainable forestry practices. The intention is to improve the land’s condition rather than further degrade it.
Ugarte suggests sharing the model with local landowners by encouraging them to sell only a portion of their land instead of all of it. This allows them to earn some income while also preserving the land for future generations.
Ugarte acknowledges the existence of numerous instances of greenwashing and fraudulent land deals taking place in Patagonia. However, he remains optimistic that a solution can be found to accommodate the inevitable increase in population, while also implementing sustainable environmental practices and honoring the cultural traditions of the region’s ranchers, known as gauchos.
He stated that he has observed individuals who have sold their farms and relocated to the city. They no longer seem to have a happy expression on their faces.