AT THE PERITO MORENO GLACIER - "Desert and sterile" Patagonia (in Charles
Darwin's initial assessment) boasts no less than 230,000 square kilometers of
river basins flowing into the Atlantic. It holds 4,000 square kilometers of
continental ice and glaciers - as well as one of the largest reserves of fresh
water on the planet.
We are currently in the advanced stages of a relentless global war for oil and
gas (Patagonia, by the way, has both). A crucial 2000 report by the United
Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization already warned that
in the next 50 years, problems
related to lack of water or contamination of masses of water would affect
practically everyone on the planet. It's when the Great Water Wars explode -
perhaps as early as around 2020 - that this Patagonia of crystal-clear blue
lakes and millenarian glaciers will be at a premium price; possession of water
will be infinitely more valuable than possession of oil and gas.
Analytical/warring minds at the Pentagon and the United States Central
Intelligence Agency cannot possibly block the wet dream of a secessionist
Patagonia as the definitive Liquid Saudi Arabia; sparsely populated (less than
2 million people), with all that water, plenty of hydroelectric energy and 80%
of Argentina's reserves of oil and natural gas. The degree of neglect felt by
most residents of Patagonia in relation to Buenos Aires can be reasonably
compared to what is felt by the Baloch in Pakistan in relation to Islamabad.
Recent polls have shown the desire for an independent Patagonia to be always
over 50% (with 78% among the young and unemployed).
A crash course on four centuries of Patagonian "development" would go something
like this. In the beginning were the indigenous peoples. Then came the Iberian
navigators, the English pirates, the all-European science buffs, the religious
missionaries, the exiles who dreamed of making it in America, the austral
version. Then came the landlords - from Chile or Holland, Wales or Poland,
Scotland or Denmark. Getting rid of the indigenous populations was a
colonialism no-brainer; northern Patagonians were exterminated by the infamous,
euphemistic, 1879 Campaign of the Desert; southern Patagonians were forced to
become the workforce for agribusiness. And then, in the 1990s, came the First
As every wildlife-loving billionaire plus rows of sharp-dressed corporate
executives duly know, the sale of Patagonia started in 1996, under the
ultra-neo-liberal Carlos Menem government. Menem, in his own words, wanted to
sell "surplus land" of the country he presided. There's no federal law in
Argentina regulating the sale of land to foreigners. Only in the late 1990s,
more than 8 million hectares were sold. According to the Argentine army, more
than 10% of the national land is foreign-owned - and counting. The problem is
not the sale itself; it's the absence of virtually any control over proposed
If you're flush, you can still buy whatever you want anywhere - even inside
spectacular national parks. Each province sets its own rules. If you reach the
right functionary with the right cash-filled Samsonite, the world - Tony
Montana-style - is yours. No wonder virtually every resident of Rio Negro or
Santa Cruz provinces say the local mayor's offices are always the top real
estate agency in town. And these same residents will inevitably lament that
Patagonia is being gobbled up by foreigners - from Ted Turner to the Benetton
family. Moreover, two of Patagonia's largest oil companies are also
foreign-owned; one of them, state-owned, was sold to Spain, and the other,
private, to Brazil's Petrobras.
Walking on water
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - the End of the World version - are known
as Tompkins, Turner, Lewis and Benetton. They are the 21st-century breed of
Patagonia's conquistadores, adventurers and pirates - from Francis Drake and
George Newbery to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (their ranch is still
there in Cholilla, a dejected pueblo which would be at home in the more
dejected parts of New Mexico). Foreigners have always dreamed of the end of the
world. And its violent beauty - as we'll see - makes grown man cry.
Californian green guru Doug Tompkins, former founder of both The North Face and
Esprit, is known in Patagonia as the "owner of the water". He's the biggest
private owner of natural resources in Chilean Patagonia as well as the
Corrientes region in Argentina, and owns a number of strategically placed
haciendas. When Tompkins first saw southern Patagonia, on the Chilean side, and
then northwest Patagonia, on the Argentine side, in 1961, he cried like a baby.
Then he came back - and started buying.
Trout-fishing fanatic and CNN founder Ted Turner has a spectacular 5,000
hectare villa in the south of Neuquen province and controls most access to one
of Patagonia's most pristine rivers. He has another 35,000 hectares in the same
province plus another 5,000 in Tierra del Fuego. Outside of the US, Ted only
bought in Patagonia.
Villa Traful is a green, hilly private valley bordering the spectacular
homonymous lake. It's virtually empty in winter – projecting the sensation this
is what Shangri-La must have been all about, before the advent of Facebook.
Buying land in Traful during the 1990s was a piece of cake. Those in the know
quickly grabbed public land around the lake. Now the dream is over. Jorge
Sobisch, the Croatian-family former governor of Neuquen province who wants to
become president, is basically selling it all for huge mass tourism groups.
But above all this is Ted Turner land. Turner is the owner of La Primavera, a
spectacular 5,000 hectare estancia right on the mouth of the Traful river,
where he can blissfully fish for the best trout and salmon nature can
manufacture. Jane Fonda was a sucker for La Primavera. Tompkins was a guest, as
well as George Bush senior and Henry Kissinger. Intruders are monitored by
satellite. As this was winter and everything was dead, I could not even afford
the pleasure of navigating on Turner waters. And of course Ted never shows up
on Vila Traful himself - although he visits La Primavera a few times a year.
La Primavera was actually founded by an American, odontologist and former vice
US consul in Buenos Aires George Newbery, in 1894. George and Ralph Newbery
(father of famous aviator Jorge, whose name now graces one of Buenos Aires's
airports) were convinced that Patagonia should be populated with cowboys
imported from Texas.
So already in the early 20th century there was widespread fear in northern
Patagonia of a yankee colonization drive. The Texas cowboy exile route soon
dried up. La Primavera was sold to an Englishman, then a Frenchman, then an
Argentine and finally fell on Ted's lap as he was deeply involved in a 2
million hectare conservation project - or territorial expansion - in Montana,
New Mexico and Nebraska. But Patagonian Ted has always been adamant; this is
only about fishing.
1, 2, 1,000 Shangri-Las
Brit Joseph Lewis, the 6th largest fortune in the United Kingdom, known in
northern Patagonia as Uncle Joe because of his overdrive philanthropy, controls
all the 14,000 hectares of land bordering sublime Lake Escondido ("Hidden
Lake"), 92 km out of Bariloche on the Chile border, as well as the basin of the
prized Azur river. Ultra-discreet Lewis, who lives between London, Orlando, the
Bahamas and Patagonia, is a big shark on financial speculation as well as
genetic investigation, and the hands of his Tavistock Group are in everything
from oil and gas in Siberia to Puma and Gottex outfits.
Lewis' Andean-Patagonian Shangri-La is not far from El Bolson, the Argentine
hippie Mecca of the 1970s transmogrified into the country's first ecological
municipality in the early 1990s. Its Tolkien-style forests are filled with
prized alerces, or lahuan wood - the oldest living organism in Argentina,
third-oldest in the world. Almost as ubiquitous as the alerces are mixed
feelings over Lewis' push to actually do the work expected from provincial and
national authorities - establishing what is a de facto state within a state.
In just a few years, Lewis bought land equivalent to three quarters of the city
of Buenos Aires - but in the form of millenarian forests, glaciers, crystal
clear lakes and rivers. Lewis stopped short of buying the lake itself - because
the law does not allow it. But what he did was to buy the whole land
surrounding the lake, so if you want to reach the border you have to cross 18
km of his private property. Seeing Shangri-La live thus can only be done with a
helping hand from above - that is, Lewis' minions. Lewis is also suspected of
trying to buy the nascent of numerous rivers in the region. And considering
Tavistock is heavily involved in genetic investigation and biotechnology,
there's also ample suspicion it is extracting and exporting very rare species
out of the Cordillera.