The Tompkins Land Donation: Shedding Light on Chile’s Conservation Conundrum

Were not wise sons descendant of the wise,
and did not heroes from brave heroes arise.
-The Odyssey

Written by Fidgit

Patagonia took us almost 4 months to cross on foot at the price of blood, sweat, tears, close encounters, and disease; it will always hold a piece of my heart. Lately, as many of you have probably noticed, it’s been in the news. Much of the press to arise regarding the Tompkins land donation to the Chilean government focus on the act of the gift, but fail to address whether Chile’s park system is prepared to manage it. The key element to the success of this historical event will be the interplay of private and public lands, specifically regarding those intended for conservation.

This is a massive and complex topic. My endeavor here is to look at the gift in light of the condition and diligence which exist in Chile currently, what these parks systems demand, and how we need to revolutionize them. To that end I draw on a variety of sources ranging from experiences in the field to research articles.

I am going to break the article into pieces. The aim will be, first, to explain what has recently transpired regarding the Tompkins donation to Chile; then, to give a bit of background on the major players. From there, I will highlight some of the thoughts of affected parties; and finally, try to pull it all together with perspectives for moving forward.


What just happened

In short, something unprecedented.

In March 2017, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of Doug Tompkins, signed a pledge with Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet, to give over 1 million acres of the Tompkins’ land and park infrastructure to the Chilean government. This is generally agreed to be the largest land donation from a private entity to a government in history. The Tompkins Foundation leveraged the gift into converting 11 million acres of land into national parks.

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Michelle, left, Kris, right.     PC: AP photo

What Kris and Michelle signed was a pledge; essentially, a millionaire and politician’s version of a pinkie promise. Chile then announced a plan to rename the Carretera Austral the “Route of Parks,” accessing some 17 current and proposed national parks. It seems the Tompkins’ focus is, and always has been, on conservation; however, what I have seen to date from the Chilean government is more focused on driving the growing tourism industry in the region.

While these things are not mutually exclusive, they could lead to a long term disparity. As the research paper by David Tecklin and Claudia Sepulveda “The Diverse Properties of Private Land Conservation in Chile: Growth and Barriers to Private Protected Areas in a Market-friendly Context” puts it, “legal property theorists have long highlighted the dynamic, highly social, and complex character of property rights, and have pointed out the inherent tensions between the different purposes that property is meant to serve. “

No matter how you look at it, this pledge is an indicator of the beginning of a turning point. Now the hard work begins, and how it is handled will decide the fate of Patagonia and her people. As one American conservationist put it, “The one looming issue has been that they are making the donation without an accompanying management endowment, and it seems clear that neither country [Chile and Argentina] will be able to adequately steward such huge tracts.”

He elaborates, “But Tompkins Conservation and some other very smart people have been working behind the scenes to raise the money and develop the technical capacity to ensure that there will be a substantial focus on managing the new parks. And of course they have been brilliant about leveraging very large land matches from the Chilean government.” The vision and hope seems to be that this gift motivate Chile and its people to step up.

In an interview with NPR, Kris explains, “we [she and Doug] grew up within the national parks here in the United States. And there is a sense of, I would even say, ownership by every American who goes through the front gates of Yellowstone or Yosemite, that those are public parks. They belong to everybody. And Chile is no different. We hope that somehow between the creation of national parks, the development of what we call economic development as a consequence of conservation that precious masterpieces of the country will be preserved forever.”

In short, this is one of the most massive leaps of faith our generation has seen.


Background about the players

In this section I seek to give a summary of Patagonia, The Chilean Government, CONAF, and the Tompkins.

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Map of the territories of the original patagonian inhabitants

Patagonia was named for a mythical tribe of giants, called the Patagones, or “big feet.”  The earliest written documents come from European explorers in the 1500s, such as Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, whose contact was limited to being by boat, as the focus at the time was on the Spice Race.

The fjords, austere peaks, glacier fields, and tangled forests, left the inland regions largely to the natives, such as the Tehuelche and Mapuche, for several hundred years more. Settlers began to move into the area in the late 1800s both from Europe and inland. Around this time Argentina and Chile began sparring for control of the territory. In 1818, thanks to the efforts of San Martin, Chile emerged from under Spanish rule.

In the last 50 years the Chilean Government has moved between socialism, dictatorship, and democracy. Much of the infrastructure in southern Chile, as well as land and resource privatization across the country, happened under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990. The Carretera Austral, for example, was one of his pet projects. The cost in human lives and freedom which went into it, is cause for a lingering distaste among many Chileans and ostensibly, is why progress on the Carretera Austral has been slow in past decades.

For a long time Patagonians did not strongly identify with either Chilean nor Argentine central governments. As we walked across the region, we spoke with several people who remain resentful and mistrustful of the central powers, expressing that they were ignored until the exploitation of renewable energy resources (largely water reserves, both free flowing and in glaciers) drew attention. In speaking with one 3rd generation Patagonian he said, “first I am Patagonian, second I am Chilean.”

Today it is one of the final frontiers. The modern day wild west. And tourists are flocking from all over the world. Prices have soared accordingly.

The government has moved aggressively in recent decades to capitalize on natural resources, ranging from dams in Patagonia to solar in the Atacama. Again drawing on the work of Tecklin and Sepulveda, Chile’s distribution of property rights divides them “to an extreme level.” Various legal and constitutional sources have set it up such that “rights to freshwater, subsoil minerals, geothermal water and energy, and the coastal inter-tidal zone are all fully separate from land or ‘real property’ itself. Under these specific laws third parties can constitute rights that overlap physically and functionally with land property, without any priority of access on the part of the landowner.”

Dividing up rights to resources in this way has serious effects both on people who live on and own land in Chile. For example, it restricts residents on use of water flowing through their yards. They watch unhappily as rivers in their communities are dammed (as we wrote about last year). Even for someone with access to funds and desire to own all the rights as a part of their property, no privately protected area in Tecklin and Sepulveda’s study, “has been able to systematically acquire and hold rights to all resources within its boundaries. This is due to the legal and administrative complexities, the high costs of soliciting or maintaining rights, and political opposition to such consolidations.”

Vast tracks of Chile’s land have been decimated by logging and other profit-oriented efforts. One which stands out in my mind was as we began walking, south even of Patagonia, along the senos around Punta Arenas. Climbing the hills outside of the port city we moved into gale force winds sweeping across where a once mighty forest of Arctic Beech had stood. The weathered stumps stretched as far as we could see. We ended up taking shelter from a snow storm that night in a single remaining square of trees.

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Razed forest in the Magallanes region of Chile, outside Punta Arenas.

Meanwhile the town below was rebuilding bridges and widening waterways for the ever increasing floods which wash through the city streets annually from the Río Las Minas. The once narrow valley above the city had been stripped to make way for a mine (which has since ceased to produce and been abandoned), the trees which held together the banks of the valley were still being removed based on the theory that when the floods come, it is the washed out trees which do the most structural damage, so if trees are removed then the flooding will be less of an issue. Thus, the floods each year, widen the valley ever further. Standing on the crest of that valley, looking down at the city, I saw several small dams, intended to stymie the floods, which had been washed out as well.

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Fidgit above the Rio Las Minas Valley, Punta Arenas in the background.

In 2012 the Tompkins put a lot of resources into a fight against the creation of an altogether different kind of dam. Patagonia Sin Represas was and is a social movement which at its height, turned into an all out showdown between the scant population of the Aysén Region and ENDESA, a subsidiary of ENEL (a multinational manufacturer and distributor of electricity and gas). It began over their building HidroAysén, one of 5 mega-dams, which would flood massive tracts of national park and private land. The dam project had passed all the environmental impact studies and had the backing of the Chilean government, and particularly from then Chilean President Piñera. Only after a drawn out legal battle, was the project rolled back (though the mega dams continue in other regions).

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The ‘tu problema es mi problema’ (Your problem is my problem) united the population of Aysen, from fishermen to those who opposed the building of dams. The protest succeeded in drawing the attention of the central government, though, not in the way the people had intended. PC: Territorios en Red

CONAF, the National Forest Corporation, the Chilean public/private hybrid version of a Forest Service, was created in 1970 and is tasked with managing national natural resources and parks. Most of the park employees we encountered when hiking through parks were CONAF employees, who draw on a large community of young volunteers, generally heralding from Santiago. Again, citing Tecklin and Sepulveda, this institution, “has remained in a legally precarious and chronically underfunded situation (Espinoza 2010). Political discourses around the public PA system have been poorly articulated, reflecting the low priority that it has received since its inception.”

From early in our interactions with the park guards it seemed clear their main interest is to make as little work for themselves as possible. A few times when I felt I could inquire, they cited that they were not paid enough to do anything more than the bare minimum.

Maintenance even on some of the most famous trails (The “W route” of Torres del Paine, for example) was not exactly inspiring. Free camping sites across most parks were usually trashed and often where there were restrooms, they were locked and water was shut off. When we asked, they explained these were free campsites and if we wanted amenities, such as sanitation, we needed to go to the private pay-sites.

Our experience of the Chilean parks’ inefficiency came to a culmination in February 2017 when, as fires were raging on the coast, we came in to Parque Rio Clarillo just south of Santiago, as usual, from the back way, descending from the mountains. The park seemed abandoned. We wondered at this, until we exited the front gate and passed through 4 rounds of CONAF employees telling us we couldn’t be there because all of the national parks were closed. Why? Due to fires burning in a different region, posing no threat to that area. That’s right, CONAF shut down nature. Sound familiar? (I’m looking at you, USA circa 2013 Government Shutdown).

One more example of the Chilean government’s lack of follow through, which particularly galled me, is all the website information and books available for purchase by and for the “Sendero de Chile.” Rolled out by the Chilean government to celebrate the 2010 bicentennial of the country, originally it was aimed to create an 8,500 km long trail running the length of the country. A lot of money and resources went into the initiative up front. They even flew in trail builders from around the world to teach CONAF and volunteers how to build trails. As the initial funds and enthusiasm shriveled, so did that dream. A story which has played out time and again on many fronts in Chile, as the government has changed hands time and again.

Chile, in its current political iteration, is quite young, being only decades old in many ways. In a recent conversation, a friend reminded me that in early exploration, everyone makes mistakes. The editors of this piece have time and again reminded me of the importance first to give context and grace. Action and accountability can and must also be woven in, to generate progress. Information, preparation, determination, and renovation are keys to moving forward. While Chile is young, what the Tompkins are doing is heretofore unheard of.

Cerro Kristina.

Doug Tompkins in front of Cerro Kristina, which he named after his wife. PC: Nat Geo blog

The final major players in this story are Doug and Kristine Tompkins. In the 1960s, Doug Tompkins co-founded and ran the North Face and Espirit brands with his first wife. He fell in love with Patagonia and his second wife, here referred to as Kris, in the 1990s. He came to know these lands deeply, making first ascents and exploring unnamed peaks and lakes. Private Protected Areas [PPA] began to appear in Chile in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and Doug and Kris were at the forefront. Their focus was on land conservation and environmental activism. To realize their vision they bought massive tracts of land across Chile and Argentina and began ‘rewilding’ them by removing ranches, fences, and other structures.

According to Tecklin and Sepulveda, “In the absence of a legal framework for private conservation, the Tompkins have used multiple strategies, none of which fit well with market-based characterisations of private land conservation. These have included attempts to weave together existing legal tools and ownership structures to make the future sale or exploitation of conservation lands difficult. Primarily, however, they have sought to pass property to the Chilean state for the creation of national parks, including Tompkins’ offer in 2012 to donate all of his large properties in Chile for this purpose.”

They were able to initiate conservation efforts across a scope well beyond most measures. According to a Montecarlo Time article, “Asked why she focused her efforts in South America, [Kris] Tompkins noted that the conservation potential was large—some areas were threatened by logging and intensive agriculture—and the land relatively cheap.” The unprecedented breadth of their work goes beyond the amount of land they held and delves into the scope of projects (see Tompkins Conservation Website).

As one of our editors adds, “They were able to protect land at an enormous scale, allowing them to accomplish truly world-changing conservation. Who remembers the political skirmishes that dominated the debates over the creation of places like Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Adirondack parks in the US?  The people who created these places are now unanimously heralded as visionaries.  And I think that it is very likely that that the Tompkins’ will be remembered the same way in 100 years.”

The Tompkins are invested in “rewilding” and ascribe strongly to a structure of ideas which I am not equipped to fully or fairly explain. One of these ideas with which I am familiar is the “Half Earth Project which was proposed by my favorite ant man, E. O. Wilson in his book Half-Earth which, “proposes an achievable plan to save our imperiled biosphere: devote half the surface of the Earth to nature.”

Much like my understanding of Doug himself, it was all or nothing. Either the lands are wild, or their use is hurdling us deeper into the extinction crisis of the Anthropocene age. Again by contribution of one of our editors, “there are far too few conservationists working to create forever wild, ecological reserves. The great majority of us make deep compromises to accommodating a variety of sustainable land uses, notably agriculture and forestry, which sometimes is genuinely sustainable, and often is not.”

Douglas Tompkins died living out Edward Abbey’s call, “it is not enough to fight for the land it is even more important to enjoy it while you can, while it’s still here.” He perished after a kayaking accident on Lago General Carrera in 2015. We passed there on our hike the next year and as I gazed out across the choppy blue lake, I wondered whether there is any better way to meet the end of one’s life than among friends, doing what you love, and fighting diligently and as best you know how for what you believe in.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

~George Bernard Shaw

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Doug Tompkins flashes a smile on the Middle Fork San Joaquin. September 1980.  PC: Canoe & Kayak



Contemplations and Concerns

In this section, I outline some of the concerns and questions to arise around this land gift. In short these are: some straw man arguments, impugning sense of national identity, concern for losing the frontiersman, whether this move makes it accessible to the local population, and whether the government is really going to be long-term stewards of the land.

Let’s start with the straw man arguments. There were and still are outlandish accusations that the Tompkins’ actions were a land grab to establish a Jewish state, that they were members of a cult, or were setting up a base for CIA spies to intervene in national affairs. These are generally regarded as laughable by everyone from the ground level up and are withering with time and, particularly, in light of Kris’ pledge.

The Tompkins’ land acquisitions were met with skepticism from many Chileans. In 2016, we were still seeing “Patagonia sin Tompkins” bumper stickers, a response to the “Patagonia sin Represas” stickers from the 2012 battle cited above, which we saw far more often. This is the uphill battle against old ways of thinking.

A sense of national pride has been injured by having a foreigner intervene in such a huge way. As Marcela from Villa O’Higgins, reflects, “it is difficult in these times to understand a person, a philanthropist, a conservationist on top of that, is difficult to accept. Especially when consumerism makes you only see one thing, that those who have money want more and not to give it away, as he has done.” That said, Doug and Kris’ actions go against MOST people’s way of understanding.

Still, there are reasons for sentiments against outsiders purchasing large tracts of Chilean land. One example is the German businessman Víctor Petermann. As Jan explained in his comprehensive rundown of the Greater Patagonian Trail:

During the later days of the Pinochet Regime large parts of the state owned forest around the Lago Pirihueico were sold under obscure circumstances to the German immigrant Victor Petermann. He later converted the forest into a “private for profit natural reserve”. The emphasis seems to be the profit and not so much the natural reserve. Permanently manned gates now limit access to guests of the luxury resorts on this immense property. Wood logging continues in more hidden parts of the “profit reserve”. When we attempted to take the former public road from Puerto Fuy to Pirihueico we were turned back on several of the gates.

It seems reasonable that after almost two decades of having large tracts of their land sold by Pinochet to wealthy foreigners, locals were dubious of the Tompkins purchasing thousands of hectares, and promising to one day return the lands to the interest of the people. This was a promise existing against the backdrop of dozens of examples of underhanded manipulations, and the Tompkins’ efforts are entirely unprecedented anywhere.

A second concern we heard was if Doug did give the land back, whether it would be accessible for locals’ purposes (largely ranching). This relates to a concern about loss of Chilean identity, edging out the way of the gauchos. The quintessential Chilean cowboy, the legend, Don Rial, who has worked the remote valleys between Villa O’Higgins and Cochrane, delivered his favorite one-liner on the matter, saying “the Tompkins are making a ranch for mountain lions and guanacos.”

As a friend from Cochrane explains,what he sees as the primary local concern is, “that we have lost our culture and an activity which defines these lands, which generates identity by working livestock, which, to some extent, is true.” From what we observed, the Patagonian settlers are hard workers and, by and large, good stewards of the land, though the temptation of an easy buck, when laid on the table, is hard to pass up.

The Tompkins’ ethos does not leave room for the residence of settlers maintaining the ranching lifestyle, instead it focuses on redirecting them. As our conservationist cited above points out, “As for local people, there has been the misconception that the Tompkins were not supportive of local communities. My observation is that the opposite is true in Chile. They have engaged with and employed local communities and been good for local economies.” At the same time, it is clear that much of the efforts on their reserves have engaged volunteers from abroad to help dismantle the fences and settlement structures of the pioneers, while construction crews raise eco-friendly, posh lodges.

Whereas an outsider might see those who choose to live on the frontier as impoverished, they make and cultivate almost everything they need and often seemed quite content and, we found, were happy to share what they have. What is more, removing them from the land and prohibiting their way of life takes away what they draw pride from, working animals and knowing the land.  Removing these people, who worked the land all their lives, forces them to move into towns and cities; thus, placing them on the lowest wrung of a chain they never wanted to be on in the first place. Dismantling the frontier structure and pushing the settlers out is a black or white move which removes perhaps the most knowledgeable, invested, and grounded stewards.

In the Montecarlo article cited earlier, “Reflecting on why she [Kris] was donating her private parks to Chile, she told an audience at Yale University last year, “We could have locked up our land; it would have been cheaper. But if you don’t make your land public, you’re losing half its value.” The implication is that the land being accessible to the general public is important to informing that public so they will work to brighten their own future.

This leads to the next question, will this land gift open the door and attract the general public?

Following the path of least resistance and current precedent in Chile would mean, no, it is not accessible. Current trends are already moving in that direction. At least not to the general public and even less so the average Chilean. As Matias, one of the more illuminated wilderness guides we have met along the way explains it:

“Monetarily it is ever less accessible for Chileans to get to know and explore our own mountain ranges. The prices of services are through the roof, that combines with the lack of vision and commitment to safeguarding and protecting the environment. In my opinion it is the exploitation of tourism lodges without mitigating measures, nor protection to the flora and fauna. In Torres del Paine you no longer see birds along the trails. The entrance and camping fees make it impossible for a Chilean of middle means to know these places. Much less schools/students.”

Recall, we are contending with a similar issue in the United States. Locals are not engaging with their parks next door. The USA Parks systems are severely lacking “in their consideration for local community development and supporting that in a sustainable way- the core focus has been on tourism and tourism dollars, which is now leading to the US visitors ‘loving their parks to death,'” as Greta, an adventurer and sustainability thought partner who lives and works in Chile, notes.

It is widely acknowledged, even among Chileans themselves, that most Chileans have a garbage problem, in that they throw it everywhere. We saw this being manifested in what we came to call the “toilet paper flower gardens” which bloomed all around national park campsites (remember- closed bathrooms). When we “friendly trespassed” on private land, whenever possible we would approach landowners to ask permission for access. In conversation these Chilean landowners expressed mistrust other Chileans using their land because of trash and abuse, but welcomed us as foreigners.

So where has this line of inquiry taken us? Those who live on the land and work it are running it into the ground. Those Chileans who would visit it, can’t afford to and when they do, they trash it. Who else is there? Foreigners. While many locals think all foreigners are wealthy, Parque Patagonia knows better.

Neon and I felt out of place sitting in the lawns of the massive buildings of Parque Patagonia Headquarters last year. It is a plot of lush green luxury in the otherwise arid Chacabuco valley. We were ushered out of the buildings because you have to take your shoes off to enter. I’m a thru-hiker, trust me, you don’t want me to take my shoes off and all I wanted was a bathroom, though I’d be just as happy peeing under this massive willow tree.

Probably because of hiker trash like us coming through last season we learned that this summer Parque Patagonia moved the campground several kilometers down the road, away from the headquarters. So, the parks and infrastructure are not for the locals, nor the average Chilean, also the cash-strapped traveler should be kept at a safe distance.

So, what “public” are these parks going to be accessible to?

I don’t have an answer for that. I’m just a dirty hiker and all I know are trails. And what I know of those are that the best maintained trails we hiked in Patagonia were the paths taken by gauchos and arrieros moving their animals seasonally across private or otherwise disregarded land. Some of the worst maintained, most overused, and grossly trashed trails were ones in national parks.

Greta corroborates, citing her own experiences:

“When we rode horseback across Patagonia, we passed through a wide variety of wild places, as well as private (with permission) and developed places. We were moving in a manner that was historically typical for the locals, but not so typical for the tourism industry. We felt the areas where the ‘way things were’ are rubbing up against ‘the way things are’, and ‘the way things will be.’  

We couldn’t ride through National Parks because we traveled with dogs (which is very common for gauchos/and locals). We packed out every last piece of trash and waste we generated in the backcountry, and saw little trash in the wild places still maintained by gauchos; yet witnessed shocking amounts of litter when we rode along the Carretera Austral and along National Parks bordering the road.

Since moving to Chile several years ago, we’ve traveled through much of the country, backpacking across many of the parks, and to be frank, I haven’t seen a substantial effort throughout this country to manage parks in a progressive or sustainable way. The concept of Leave No Trace still seems to be a new one, and many parks do not have effective waste management systems or trail maintenance systems that empower visitors to get out and explore with confidence that they won’t end up lost unless they hire a guide. In many ways, we are still lacking imagination and resources.”

Of the Chileans I have spoken with about the transition of land from the Tomkins’ hands to the government, every single one has expressed reservations as to whether the government is up to the task. The comments section of a Spanish EMOL article about the matter overflows with remarks pointing to parks, airports, hospitals, all sorts of neglected projects, begun with much pomp and circumstance, which dwindled into neglect.

As we walked through the region we saw massive government billboards with a beautiful picture of what is being developed, boasting the price paid, timeline (often long since past), and construction party hired; standing over an empty lot. We’ve also moved through tourism infrastructure where you can see all the money and dreams that went into it up front, now crumbling.

This leads one to ask, why would the Tompkins opt to give the land to the Chilean government? As Kris explains in an NPR interview, “there is a sense of.  .  . ownership by every American who goes through the front gates of Yellowstone or Yosemite, that those are public parks. They belong to everybody. And Chile is no different. We hope that somehow between the creation of national parks, the development of what we call economic development as a consequence of conservation that precious masterpieces of the country will be preserved forever.”

The doubt I’ve heard from many Chileans and those who know the country is whether those precious masterpieces really will be preserved forever. Matias from above puts it simply, “it seems to me a gift which we Chileans do not deserve. I sincerely believe that neither CONAF nor the government know how to manage natural areas.”

In that awareness, that self-critique, I believe lies the seed of hope for the forest and wildlands and the potential for Chile’s future as a world leader in protected areas.


Potential- Where does it go from here

The Tompkins Foundation seem to be playing this one close to the chest. There is not much information out there about conditions and plans for the long term preservation of the land. This makes sense, considering they are likely in the midst of negotiations with the Chilean government.

According to an email reply to my inquiries from the Tompkins Conservation:

We are still in the initial phases of this donation process and do not have all of the terms and conditions formalized. President Bachelet and Kristine Tompkins signed a pledge for the creation of 10 million new acres of national parks in March, 2017, but the parks have yet to be formally transferred over to government control. Before this transfer takes place, the terms will be solidified to ensure a smooth transition and long-lasting protection for the lands and wildlife.

In the NPR article cited above Kris acknowledges they know there are many who are curious what is going into it but is proceeding with the deal because she believes, “Chile does have the desire to run these parks in a world-class fashion. And I think the most stable means to protect these lands is in the form of national parks.”

The closest I have found to something concrete regarding ongoing support is mention of creating a Chilean-based Friends of National Parks foundation.  According to one article, “To support the government in this ambitious endeavor, Tompkins Conservation, together with key partners, is committing to creating a Chilean-based Friends of National Parks foundation for ongoing park support.” So, things are moving with hope, idealism, and a lot of positive dialogue.

This lack of information has created space for conjecture, therefore, the ideas shared in this section are just that, ideas. Hopes. The first point is, based on several of the links shared throughout the earlier sections, setting sights on the American Park system as a paradigm is to undershoot the potential for progress this could mean as a global community.

This land gift places Chile in a position to either shine or sink. Again, borrowing from Greta, “Chile is in a position to change the dynamics and bring local community impact into the conversation of local conservation efforts- they are intertwined and interwoven and inevitably impact one another.”

From this vantage point, for the long term success in both protecting the land and making it accessible to the public, there needs to be a significant component of education regarding protecting natural resources for the Chileans themselves, a way to make it accessible to those of limited resources, and a source of ongoing human and financial support for maintenance. What would be nice on top of that is some sort of project to enable those nationals who wish to pursue a responsible “frontiersman lifestyle.”

One audacious hope we might hold is that this gift and added responsibility be enough to provoke an overhaul of CONAF, if they are to be the entity responsible for the long term maintenance of these lands and resources.

Working at Philmont Scout Ranch over several years, a large reserve of private land in New Mexico held by the Boy Scouts of America, I observed the ranch operating both as a hiking destination and a working cattle ranch. So I believe there is a middle ground, a way to conserve both the landscape, people, and traditions.

Reflecting on several months of traveling on horseback through Patagonia, Greta shares an idea of how this might look,

“large scale agriculture has definitely done a number on many areas of Patagonia- and the impact of overgrazing was intense the closer we got to Coyhaique. I think the dynamic of all the other economies pushing into the region (aside from tourism) is also a point to note. What is happening in Patagonia is an opportunity for us to be creative about what happens to the people working in an industry when it is pushed out- and agriculture is a key industry to consider, as in many ways it was the easiest one for the gaucho culture to transition into.

When we were in Puerto Cisnes, I sat at the dinner table with a quiet old gaucho and tears streamed down his face as he described how deeply he longed to live as he used to, up in the mountains with his horses and dogs. He had long since lost his job on a ranch, and his family sold their land, moving them into town. Now he spent his days standing on the street looking for a daily job he could fill to cover the cost of his food. When we’d ridden into town, he rushed to us, his limp slowing him slightly, and told us we must come and stay with him on the small property outside of town that he care-took. He expressed how much he missed having a horse around, and how wonderful it was to see us traveling with a pilchero (packhorse) using traditional chiwas, as he did as a child with his parents.

I’m not advocating the large scale agriculture has to stay the way it is so people can keep those jobs; however, we are talking about a culture of people who are deeply connected with the land, losing the only option they have to be on the land when those jobs do go away. In many ways this culture is slipping away silently.

When we arrived in Coyhaique we stayed with a friend who had bought 1000 hectares of very damaged, overgrazed land and began managing it using holistic ranch management methods with intentional grazing rotation. They are members of the group Ovis 21, who despite receiving some negative press from a narrowly focused PETA campaign a few years ago, has actually had a hugely positive impact on the health of the land where the ranch management techniques are applied. We witnessed this impact, noticing how damaged all of their neighbors lands were while our friend had pastures that were resilient and lush. This is more than an ‘all or nothing’ conversation- we can be dynamic in the way we preserve and nurture wild places and local cultures. “

Another iteration of what this could look like, of involving locals and engaging their skillsets and know-how, was a highlight in our first four months of walking. We had hiked through the popular trails of Cerro Castillo and arrived at the northern edge where there was only one official trail out. Yet, we had beta on a now defunct CONAF trail. None of the park guards posted at the vehicle entrances had knowledge of the area (as they were from other parts of the country) or even knew of the existence of that trail.

It was to our delight that the backcountry outpost from which we sought to launch the exploratory route happened to be manned by Juan, a gentleman who had lived in the campo outside of the town of Cerro Castillo his entire life. As had his parents and grandparents before them. Once we made it through the initial, “no, you can’t go that way. It is closed,” once we saw we had the same information, he became excited and quite open. Sharing everything he had heard of this “once upon a time trail”, indicating the logging roads which would get us there, and warning about the landslide area.

We conversed late into the evening and he shared that he was delighted to have this job, that it was almost by a fluke that he had landed it, as it is very hard for people of low education to get a CONAF position and that most people from the campo can barely read. He professed a dedication to his work, to protecting the land and to holding his job with a tenacity I have rarely seen in park employees anywhere in the world. While he had to use his finger and mutter the words to himself, I watched entranced from the loft as he read by candlelight into the night.

There does exist a middle ground between shunning the poorly educated locals, keeping them and their animals off the land and maintaining an inviting and healthy ecosystem for visitors to get to know. Finding and maintaining that balance will take a lot of work.

There is a lot of positive dialogue happening, and only by giving air to the concerns can we move forward with a complete perspective, in a hopeful direction. In the words of our conservationist friend:

“I have seen a lot of conservation projects all over the world in my career, and I can honestly say that theirs [The Tompkins’] is the most impressive I have ever seen. Everything they do is exceptionally executed with amazing ambition and vision. Overall, I think that their gift is truly a transformational act of generosity and conservation.
.  .  .
And yes, the Chilean Gov’t did originally agree to the dams, and the Tompkins fought like crazy against them. But I think that that the Tompkins also believe strongly that there are many ways of bringing governments around to doing the right thing. And securing this amazing land match represents a huge breakthrough.”

While the idea of the move is a positive one and received a lot of such attention from the international press, the idea does not define the outcome. That will be determined by the execution and there is precious little information on how that has been/will unroll. I think many of us who have been watching, like Greta,  “wish there would have been more actual coverage of the state of the park system here in Chile, and how this will improve how the parks are run or influence that in any way.”

I believe it falls to those who regard this massive move with a critical eye. Not critical in being negative, but rather, objective analysis and evaluation to form a balanced judgement. We can celebrate that this is an unprecedented gift but that also means there will have to be unprecedented effort and structures to make it work and there is not much history or foundation for that and relying on models by countries such as the United States stunts potential from the get-go.

Fortunately, there are people like Greta, Matias, Marcela, Coce, and hundreds of others, who think and live differently. These people stand out and are in the minority, so tapping their wisdom and perspective is crucial to unrolling this in a way which will bring about a positive outcome.

For example, I again turn to Greta:

“I’m brewing up a project down here that is digging into the root of what it would actually take to preserve and conserve large swaths of land/wild places while also supporting local cultural preservation and engaging visitors, and the local community, to be in relationship with the land – through story and curiosity- rather than the typical exploitative or extractive experience of

‘I’m here because I need to get my Instragram photo with the towers.’

Taking a look at access from the perspective of how we can inspire people to be curious and respectful, rather than just giving them some ecological/naturalist facts and rules to follow- we need to create an environment of real connection and relationship with nature. That is the goal. We need to consider the role parks and preserved lands play within the ecosystem of the place they inhabit- they are part of a larger ecosystem after all, one that includes communities and industries and economies. They’re all interconnected, so we have to consider how they are impacting one another, and how this impact can be positive and regenerative.  .  .  . But we’re still in the midst of a long journey. We can do better, we can always do better.”

Yes, we can do better and I believe we must. If you have the curiosity and follow through to have made it through this piece, you hold the promise of the future. Apply that to watching this matter, as information trickles out. Follow up from time to time. Be conscientious and inquisitive when you come to Patagonia. Best of all, be active in the Conservation efforts around your home.

In conclusion, what the Tompkins have done by gifting this land to Chile is a first leap toward unknown potential. Whether and how we as a global community and Chile as a nation and individuals handles this will be the determining factor of the long term effects. The Tompkins have been clear about their intentions. Now it is time for each of us to determine ours.


Massive thanks to Greta for giving me the fodder to write this piece, contributing, and corroborating throughout the entire process.

Thank you to Matt for asking the questions and having the curiosity. To my hiking partner for being patient as I type loudly into the night while camped in the field and push into towns to get electricity and connection to work further.  To the dozens of voices from across Patagonia who replied to my inquiries and shared their insights and experiences. 

It has only been with a great deal of input, advice, resources, and patient editors that this piece is as it stands. I hope it does you credence because each of you are who I aspire to live up to. It is the combination of your insight, hope and humility which drove me to seek your insight and I cannot thank you enough for all you give.

Further Learning:

Tompkins Conservation Website

“The Diverse Properties of Private Land Conservation in Chile: Growth and Barriers to Private Protected Areas in a Market-friendly Context” by: 

Adventuring: We have it Better than Ever Before. . .

Sixth-extinction-nonfiction-book-kobert*Part 1 of a 2 part post*

There have been explorers since the dawn of human kind. Because we are curious beings. Which is one of our defining attributes and that is both terrible and awesome. As Elizabeth Kolbert lays out while exploring Homo Sapiens’ relationship with Neanderthals in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History:

Somewhere in our DNA must lie the key mutation (or, more probably, mutations) that set us apart– the mutations that make us the sort of creature that could wipe out its nearest relative, then dig up its bones and reassemble its genome.

Some of the earliest explorers embarked on balsa boats and sailed over the horizon into the unknown. Fundamentally, that is an explorer’s charge: to expand horizons. While the originals were pushing into new physical spaces, today we venture more into nuances such as how and why. A lot has changed since the ancestors set sail, one thing which has not is what it takes to see a long term project through.
These are a few:

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While we count on our down, wool, and synthetics to stay warm, one local man told us that when his mother was a girl out on the pampa their family would bury coals in the sand and then sleep on top of that to stay warm.

  1. You have to Contend with Mother Nature

One universal rule for explorers is, you are at the mercy of the environment. Whether an astronaut, deep sea diver, or mountaineer, one of the challenges in this line of life is adapting to survive whatever you encounter. In that, we have improved dramatically. An excerpt from Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: How One Man’s Courage Changed the Course of Historyabout the Spice Race of the 15th and 16th century laid out the experience of those who sailed half way around the world:

“. . . bold and fearless men who steered their ships through such ‘greevous stormes’ that one in three was lost. The weather was not the only threat: scurvy, dysentery and the ‘bloody flux’ killed hundreds of men, and countless vessels had to be scuppered when there was no longer a crew to sail them.”

Nowadays we have it better than that. Much higher chance of overall survival, better medications, more sophisticated navigation systems, emergency response and information networks, improved materials for equipment, and the list grows ever longer. When these men set out there was a 1 in 3 chance their families would never see them again and if they were able to be in contact it was maybe a letter a year. We, on the other hand, mark our campsites nightly and message with friends and family on our Garmin InReach. It tracks our route points every few minutes and we can cross reference that with our other GPS and whatever maps we might have gotten lucky enough to get our hands on.

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PC: Their Only Portrait

2) You have to Sell your Dream

Another thing that is still the same is Explorers have to market their vision and therefore, sell ourselves, before we are even at the gate. Whether you were Ferdinand Magellan or a couple gals out for a long walk (Wow jeeze, Hyperlite Mountain Gear and Farm to Feet sure do RULE!), barring independent wealth, you have to peddle yourself to fund the dream. For Magellan, that meant wooing royals, this day in age it means Social Media.

From here things get convoluted. You have to have a “story”, which obtains supporters and which could, intentionally or accidentally, be wholly different than your intentions. Such as the Spice Race captain who actually took his ships and found an island which he tried to establish as his own nation until his team talked him down when they began to run out of supplies. Or today, people aiming to make a name for themselves, heavily falsify their hikes.

Fame does not come of doing what is unheard of, fame comes of making yourself a hero i in a story about what people know to be impressed by.  This pattern is just as true today as it was 500 years ago. Whether we’re talking about Christopher Columbus or Cheryl Strayed they were not the first nor of the strongest integrity, they were good at making a splash. And publications, be the movies or history books, want tagline identities.

To have staying power a motivation must be something which strikes a spark to your core. That in itself is rarely so cut and dry as those who have to write headlines would like. This means the first to lead or who are driven by internal motivations rarely present the story which put financial stresses at ease or makes for easily followable plot lines.
It is difficult, as a wee human, to hold purchase in both experiences of self promotion and honest presence in the journey.

3) You have to be at least a little crazy Know why You are Out There

Again, as in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, the first to venture into the unknown were doing it for their own reasons. Motivations were intangibles such as the spirit of adventure, pride of their nation, to fill in the map, to direct a crew of salty sea dogs in Shakespeare plays and perform them on distant islands.

Obtaining tradeable goods was necessary to satisfy the merchants funding the journeys. It was the means to their own quirky ends and fame was far less probable than death. In fact, in the Spice Race, doing it for glory did not arise until several decades and multiple cycles of voyages had gone and returned. Much like with long distance trails today.

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Also, their maps were even worse than ours. The quest for good maps is an interesting subplot throughout the book with which I keenly identify

For those who remain undeterred and take a risk in pushing past the horizons of comfort, ahead lies uncertainty, fear, danger, hunger, and anonymity. For every great athlete and explorer you can name there are thousands who will never be known or celebrated, many whom gave their lives in the pursuit.

For example Nathaniel Courthope, the namesake of Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. A man who was murdered abroad when the support his nation had promised never arrived and the rally cry for which he gave his life, like his body, was quickly lost. Yet, the spirit in which he did it and ripples of the outcome resulted in the America we know today.

 

Bolivia: Cultural Memory and Lessons Ahead

In many cases Bolivia seems to have grasped the concept of modern development but missed the point. Seeing Bolivians riding motorcycles on narrow and winding mountain roads with a full face helmet cocked back and perched on their forehead. Walking up to a fast food counter and ordering, then waiting 30 minutes for a chicken sandwich. Drivers stopping at a red light to make sure no one is coming from the opposite direction before driving through. Or, wiping the spoon before eating out of a grubby metal bowl.

The socialist nation, which is majority indigenous, has in some ways prioritized maintaining cultural history over progress. Yet, as they sit atop a wealth of mineral resources, push to make water and transportation available, subsidize gas, develop an elaborate gondola system in the government capital, and a myriad of other efforts, I see a scramble to keep up in a globalized and modernized world.

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There is a dissonance between the population we saw, who maintain a lifestyle much as their ancestors, cholitas in trenzas (2 braids) and polleras (skirts) with lots of children living in homes of handmade mud and straw bricks vs. the power lines, smart phones, and incessant honking of the “minis” (white van transports) offering a quick and cheap ride to the city where you can watch “cholita wrestling“.
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This week I offer two lists of 4 observations. These fall into the broad categories of: “What Bolivians have retained that developed nations almost forgot” and “what developed nations know that Bolivians don’t quite get.”


What Bolivians Never Forgot How to Do

  1. Make things at home
    Based on need and limited resources, I was impressed by the amount of at-home production: bricks, bread, clothing, the list is long. The women were always knitting, even spinning wool into thread as they walk. Talking to one school I took an unofficial survey: when I asked how many students had parents who could make bread, every hand went up. Could make their own cheese? 1 in 10 hands went up.

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    A hillside of plots, farmed by hand.

    Where soil is fertile (largely on the slopes or in valleys) many gardens bloomed with varieties of vegetables. We often saw piles of corn drying in the sun. I watched one morning as a woman who hosted us for a night scattered red corn kernels as feed for the chickens while the 12 year old took the pigs out for a walk and the 6 year old giggled and fed the 2 year old crackers for breakfast.
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  2. Wear your child
    It has become a resurrecting trend in the US to wear your baby. The positive effects of this practice are elucidated in studies and special carriers have been developed. In Bolivia, it is the most natural and common thing to see. They bundle the littles in layers of blankets and extra clothes and jackets, tuck them in to their aguayo, toss it over their shoulders, tie it at their chest, and go. With one rectangular piece of cloth they situate the littles in any variety of positions, from recumbent and completely covered to peering over mom’s shoulder. The aguayo is also used to carry groceries and any other number of things.
    2017-08-14 11.26.22Another side point to this is breastfeeding. It is wonderful. The women are free about it and it is a universal practice, far more so than use of bottles. Whether you are having a conversation or conducting a business transaction, she will begin feeding without missing a beat.
  3. Home birth
    I have been inspired by women who choose home births and, particularly, by the mid-wives in my life. Here in Bolivia, the majority of adults I’ve asked report having been born at home. Except one elder man who teased, “how would I know, I was only a day old!”
    While most of what I have read on the matter say the high numbers of home births are because of cultural preference, the few in depth conversations I’ve had about it, the women cite finances and accessibility as primary factors in the decision. About half said they had a señora there to help them, others said her parents or husband helped.
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    A woman we spoke with in Sorata explained proudly that the same woman who helped deliver her and all her mother’s children, also helped deliver all 9 of her children (8 of whom are still alive). “Ella siempre ata mis guaguitas.” [“She always ties off my babies] she beamed toothlessly.Several times I’ve thought this would be a fascinating subject of study for those pursuing higher learning. I enjoyed the compelling photos and stories with this New York Times blog.
  4. Walk places
    Another personal fascination and delight of mine, people in Bolivia walk places. When people ask what we are doing and how far we walk each day they often say, “wow, I could never walk that far.” Then I break it down and we talk about how far they walk their animals to pasture, or between villages and family homes. That you really only have to walk about 20 minutes a day to see positive health and mental effects. Then, employing a CBT line of inquiry, they end up talking about what they love about it.

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    When our trajectories happen to align with locals we enjoy walking together, hearing their stories, ambitions, experiences. This gentelman showed us a much more direct way over ancient trails to his village and we were able to pay him for “guiding” us, thanks to your generous support.

    Much like in some areas of the US, if you are walking, it means you can’t afford a vehicle, so judgment is leveled. In our case, this works to our advantage because, as walkers, we are accessible to fellow walkers and can have those conversations. To explain why two white women, from the United States would walk away from the opportunities and comforts of our home nation and end up on the same paths where they move their animals and in that, to affirm their value rather than to judge and degrade based on wealth.


What Bolivians Haven’t Caught on to Yet

For the beauty and strength of the heritage Bolivians have retained, some of the fundamental aspects of development which has made the first world as successful as it is have yet to take strong purchase here. I call these the “TIONs” and the lack of or weak hold of them were a pretty constant source of both frustration and concern.

  1. Education
    A lot of work has gone into developing and proliferating schools into the small villages. One teacher explained that so long as a school had 10 students, it would remain funded and provided with a teacher. Still, he said 90% of students walked to school, most for about an hour one way but some were up to 2.5 hours 1 way.

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    Neon overlooks a rural school we would speak at later.

    The realm of public education was the sore point for me. In the postas (small rural clinics) the halls were lined with dozens of signs about Influenza, the benefits of breast feeding, and massive hand drawn paper graphs to track shots and other medical records. Not a single box was checked.

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    A mother alpaca and her baby, going in the clinic gates in Pacobamba. I can only assume for a check up. I can only assume it won’t be recorded.

    While the components are there, they are not being utilized and the communities did not appear engaged.
    This is particularly frustrating as Public Education is the ground work for the success of the next 3 items.

  2. Nutrition
    I wrote a whole post about this. It is a big topic. There is a lot of information that focusing relief efforts on the youngest of us is the best way forward. I really enjoyed this Freakonomics Podcast which touches on it. That said, not focusing on the nutrition a mother receives during pregnancy or breastfeeding undercuts that. As women are often the last and least to eat in families of very limited means…public education could help with that.
  3. Organization
    Things continue wildly disorganized and inefficient in Bolivia. Why pick up 3 items in one go, when you can just make 3 trips? Unemployment is high and “maximizing” on time use is not a concept grasped. It is like a perpetual Saturday afternoon and the entire country is doing a home improvement project and making infinite, haphazard trips to Home Depot. Except there is no Home Depot.
    I have yet to see a grocery list in use, street signs are rare, street numbers (if they exist) go in no particular order and the idea of being on “time” or, really anything about time management or client care exists only in the tourism realm. In that way, just by visiting you are encouraging and helping Bolivians to develop. 
  4. Sanitation
    The lack of sanitation is an ongoing and serious issue.
    In the small 1 room, community table eateries, I was delighted that most and even street stalls put their food on metal or glass serving dishes and provide metal cutlery (less plastic waste!). You sit, eat, return the pieces and move on. They place the dishes in a tub of water, their kid wipes it down in a tub of water (there is rarely running water and where there is, it is not hot), and then the next guy eats off it.
    And still there are an inordinate amounts of plastics in the spots outside the towns where everyone throws their trash (usually in a pile by the road, down a cliff, or into a convenient river where the pigs and dogs then feed on it.)

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    Trash and feces are everywhere. This is the downside of the open comfort with bodily functions. Many times cars pulled over on the road just in front of us and the men would pile out and…pull it out. One elderly man even looked up and noticed me one time and waved with his free hand.

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    Be careful what you eat or you might get the. . . 

    It is not just the men. One of the benefits of the polleras is they can squat anywhere. A good example of how this plays out is, one day when we walked up on an illegal trade bazaar going on out in the middle of nowhere between Bolivians and Peruvians, the women would all go to the center of the event, the dry river bed which denotes the border and squat to pee there. The men would go to the edge and pee out into the wide open pampas, from which we were approaching.

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    Sign at a gas station outside of La Paz, in El Alto.

    Some villages have made an effort and built their own outhouses. These are community based and feature a hole into the ground. That is progress from what we have seen as we walk on roadsides and through ditches and past abandoned buildings. Usually people who live up high and along rivers consider the river their personal waste disposal system. We have even seen public toilets in villages built on stilts so as to be perched over top of the river.

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    There is SOME effort being made to teach sanitation practices. Like this sign at an elementary school loo.

La Paz to Sorata: Crossing the Cordillera Real

*Written by Neon*

We resupplied in La Paz and went out to a small outpost of Milluni, nestled near the base of Cerro Huayna Potosi- a towering mountain skirted with glaciers. Leaving Milluni, we immediately began our ascent to our first pass in the Cordillera Real. Beginning at an elevation of around 4,000 meters, we ascended for half the day up to around 5,100 meters and crossed over into the next valley. Descending to a small group of huts, we realized it was a refugio area and ate a snack in the shelter of the small buildings. As we left our refuge, the wind died down and the hail began. Thankfully we were prepared. The hail died down and we marched on along the valley to find camp for the night. We ended up following an aqueduct to a group of ponds and set up our tent between a couple of them to tuck in for the night.

The next morning, we set off to cross another pass. I was surprised at how rested I felt- I don’t normally sleep well above 10,000 ft(3050 meters). We continued along the expansive valley most of the morning, before gaining elevation at another pass right as the lunch hunger set in. Luckily, we were able to stop for some lunch and continue up the pass in front of us. We crested in the early afternoon, and headed down hoping to cross the next pass a mere five kilometers and 1,000 meter descend and re-ascent away. Fidgit and I made it to the bottom of the valley in the late afternoon/early evening and decided to set ourselves up for success and not try and climb over another 5,100 meter pass. There was a camping area at one end of the valley, but we didn’t want to pay to set our tent up so we headed to the base of the next climb. There, nestled into the base of the mountains, we found a small building. It turns out a group of people from down the valley came up and built a refugio together. As the evening winds picked up and the clouds descended, we decided to pay a small fee to stay indoors that night.

Waking up the next morning slightly refreshed, we made our way up and up to the top of the pass. As we neared the apex, I crossed some small snow patches and my oxygen-starved brain was taken back to the last time we had snow on the trail- in Northern Patagonia. I reminisced my way to the top of the pass, where Fidgit was patiently waiting to descend. I got ahead on the descent, and found myself standing on a ledge above a glacial lake, looking to my left at a cairn on the ledge next door.

As I began my descent, a small man showed up at the bottom of the rocky area, asking if I was OK. I replied and continued picking my way down with his watchful eyes on me. Fidgit showed up at the ledge and asked the guy at the bottom if this was the way down. “Si, son piercas!”, he replied as I reached the ledge with the cairn on it and Fidgit began making her way down/across. I made a loud noise with my poles, and the man ran up from the base of the rocks to make sure we were OK. He then helped us the rest of the way down the trail/down climb area, and, ignoring his own clients who had huffed their way up and were resting, walked with us to an overlook and pointed out the trail to take down the valley along a lake. We made our way down and along the lake to the base of the next ascent and stopped for lunch. We began talking about our gratitude that along this journey, people seem to show up at the exact right time. I don’t know how it happens, and I continue to be so thankful for it.

After lunch, we ascended to a high point which, sitting at a mere 4,700 meters seemed much lower than the 5,100 meters we had just come over. We came down to another valley and discussed the next pass, which was even lower in elevation. It was still early enough, so we began our ascent. As we went up, some clouds rolled in and we got to experience our second hail storm of the Cordillera Real, this time with the added bonus of thunder! With no trees having been in sight for days, I was grateful that I didn’t see any lightning because we had no choice but to be out in it. The storm rolled through quickly, coating everything in white, and chilling the air. We made it up and over the pass, descending to the edge of a larger valley and finding a lower place to camp for the night. I fell asleep quickly after dinner, exhausted by our 3-pass day.

Waking up the next morning, we began our descent further into the valley. I was tired from the day before and grumpy, so I just followed Fidgit. We ended up having to go down and around the valley to go back up the other side. It was longer than I would’ve liked, but it got us where we were trying to get. We made our way over another high point, coming upon a herd of llamas and their keeper along the way. As we made our way down across and into the next valley, I realized we had made it to the valley that we planned to cross from the western side of the mountains to the eastern side. I was interested in seeing what the other side of this range would look like, so I pushed myself harder again that afternoon. We made around 2 giant glacial lakes that took up most of the valley floor, and up to another lake before finding a camp spot and stopping for the evening. I crawled into my sleeping bag that night more weary than I had felt in a long time, and slept soundly even at the 4,300 meter elevation.

Waking up sore though ready, and adjusting more to the elevation daily, I was prepared for the next pass. It ended up seeming like nothing because it was on a dirt road and we had already done most of the climbing. So, up and over and down we went, and ate lunch at the base of our first eastern side of the Cordillera pass. After lunch, we headed up and I noticed a pretty immediate difference- there were far more trails on the east side of these mountains. At least noticeable trails going up and over the pass. This meant to me that more humans (with or without animals)  traveled through this area than the western side of the mountains. We had heard that before, which may color my perspective a bit, but the noticeable difference in trails was more evidence. Reaching the pass, we immediately began another steep descent into a valley that we would follow. The valley from above looked like a giant marsh, so I was relieved when I looked on the GPS and saw a trail that descended more gradually along the side of the valley to keep us out of it. We made it to where two valleys came together, and set up for the night.

The next day, we spent most of our time climbing up and up this beautiful wide valley with its glacier-fed river flowing along beside us. We- you guessed it- reached the pass and began making our way down into another valley. Still tired, we made it to the base of our descent and set up for the night. At this juncture, we knew we wouldn’t make it to our next planned resupply town of Sorata in the time we had planned to, and were running low on food. Thankfully, we looked ahead along our route and saw that there was a small town a day or two before Sorata. We began hoping and planning to at least find something there to sustain us through to Sorata.

We also had one more pass to go over before we would be in the valley with the small town, so we rested up and pushed on the next morning, with lighter packs and determination. It took us into the afternoon to get over the pass, but along the descent the trail meandered down and was easy to follow. We made it to town by early evening, and to our pleasant surprise it was bigger than expected. The town’s children told us where the small store was, and then asked us for candy. We didn’t give them any, though they stuck around anyway to gawk at the gringas until their parents or older siblings pulled them away. We hung out in town, repacking our food and snacking, then moved on to find camp for the night up the valley.

The next morning we headed off, relieved to have found food, though I wasn’t excited about making my pack heavier right before a steep climb. Up and out of the lush valley we went, following along a mostly visible path towards the next pass. We ran into a guide and his charges near the top of the pass, and Fidgit did some information gathering with the guide as I talked to the charges. We continued up and the weather was nice enough at the top of the pass that we had lunch up there, blocked from the wind by a large cairn. We then went down. Near the bottom of the valley, we tried to forge our own way to avoid dropping as far in elevation before once again gaining it. Failing miserably, we did have another adventure in bushwhacking, as the first trees we had seen in days showed up quite inconveniently. Making our way up part of the next pass so we would be once again  set up for success, we found some water and a flat area for our tent. Settled in for the night, I wrapped my sleeping bag around me and talked to the nearby cows as my dinner was cooking.

Going over the last pass before Sorata was tiring, so much so that we attracted a few condors near the top. They rode the thermals lazily above us as I huffed and puffed up to the 4,800 meter pass. Getting to the top in the late morning and then carefully negotiating the scree field on the other side was very tiring for me, so I greatly enjoyed our lunch break that day. Fidgit wasn’t in a talking mood and was moving slowly, so I assumed she was also quite tired from this last week and a half of effort at high elevation. We chugged our way down towards Sorata- the lowest elevation we had been at in many days at 2,600 meters. It was a beautiful walk, though it was also tough to see where you are going from so far away and not be able to get there any faster. We ended up making it into town right around dinner time. Another successful section done reminded me that even though they can be brutal and exhausting, I much prefer mountain walking than walking along flat, boring areas.

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And we’re off!

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Where the glaciers hide

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One of the refugio huts

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Walking along the aqueduct

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Altiplano meets mountains

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One of the many llamas we crossed paths with

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Looking up toward the pass

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Fidgit and the mountains

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The glacial lake view from the ledge along trail

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The neighbor cairn and the guide waiting patiently at the bottom

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The kind guide holds Fidgit’s poles as she climbs down

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Lunch Break!

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During/After effects of our second hailstorm

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The Sunset

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Looking at our day along these lakes

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Valley floor lake selfie

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Camp at 4,300 meters

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The glass lake the next morning

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“No one’s ever been here” has become a running joke

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Looking out at the valley from my perch above

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Glacial stream break

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Hello, Mountain

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A Condor soaring high above

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Over the last pass and heading into Sorata

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We came across a ‘Peotonal’, or footpath, and were able to follow it into town

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The town of Sorata comes into view

 

Bolivia: Mountains as a Food Desert

I am by no means a health or nutrition person. I love sugar and all things unhealthy, I try to get as many calories as possible when long walking and that is about the extent of it. This is to say, It takes a lot to get me to notice nutritional health issues. Walking across Bolivia we not only witnessed but experienced the effects of lack of basic and essential dietary needs.

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One Country Study on poverty and malnutrition in Bolivia (World Bank, 2002) states “Malnutrition afflicts about one fourth of children under three years of age and between 12 and 24 percent of women in Bolivia. It contributes to high death rates, immune
deficiency, learning disabilities, and low work productivity.”

A later section of the study, “Myths of Malnutrition” goes on to state, “Debunking myths about the causes of malnutrition is also important. The dominant misconceptions are that malnourishment stems from: (1) food scarcity and a lack of self-sufficient farming, (2) lack of milk and meat, (3) high altitude, or (4) genetics.”

While their reasons stand, as these factors are not “causes” I argue that several contribute significantly. Some of which we became aware were: poverty, elevation, food preperation, and a lack of awareness about nutrition.
Let’s work our way down this list.

Poverty

One point on which I think we can agree is that poverty is clearly a factor in the effects of malnutrition with which many Bolivians contend. One figure from the study laid out the interplay nicely:

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From the 2002 World Bank Report “Poverty and Nutrition in Bolivia”

An example of the privilege we have is that the effect of the nutrition issues on us were largely: observing those who lived with it and our experiencing temporary physical set backs.

At the end of conversations I would sometimes ask the kids how old they were and they always reported being 3-4 years older than what I would have guessed.  The largest body of evidence I saw was talking to a school of 50 kids ranging from 5-12. Each grade appeared significantly younger than if they had been lined up next to, say, the Argentine schools we’ve talked at. Children are older than they appear, women were younger than they appear.

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A famiy who allowed us to sleep in their cellar one rainy night. Breakfast was crackers, tea, and soup. Soup is eaten at every meal.

When the effects of making this diet a practice began to affect us we were able to offset it by taking transport to larger well supplied cities every few weeks to stock up on nutrient rich basics and vitamins. One area in which we suffered significantly and consistently was from the water, which wreaked havoc in our intestines and stomachs. Cramping, protracted bouts of diarrhea, all the fun stuff.

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Lack of access to water was a longtime issue. This has been improved by public water access projects but that is no guarantee of the water quality. While we do bleach our water, the soups and other things we consumed rendered us vulnerable.

Elevation

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Entering the country from Villazon in July, 2017.

The study cited above argues that elevation is not a factor in malnutrition because of misplaced belief that greater altitude stunts children’s growth. While I agree with this, our experience as travelers through the highest and most isolated country in South America is that elevation has other effects.

We entered from the south at about 11,000 ft and left out the north at about 15,000 ft. The lowest we dropped to was around 9,000 ft. The first month we were lightheaded, dizzy each time we stood up, reduced muscle response to commands, and having to stop or slow often to breathe.

Another, unanticipated effect of the elevation, was that healing was dramatically slowed. About a month in and we were both going through rounds of illness ranging from dehydarrhea (my new favorite hiker word, as coined by Drag Man from the GPT and very accurate to the symptoms), fever, weakness, aches, etc. We also noticed simple things like cuts, split lips, etc took longer to heal.

Another effect of the elevation is persistently lower temperatures which affects the capacity for growing food.

Food Prep and Growth

The World Bank’s study cites, “Insecurity of the food supply is often held up as the chief cause of malnutrition in Bolivia (CEESA, 1997).  .  .  . In reality, fairly recent data (1999) suggest that total food availability is 2,237 calories per person per day, an amount adequate to feed the population if distributed equally (FAOSTAT, Sept. 12, 2001).”

One frustration we had was that almost all of the cheap food was fried. Primarily it was fried in vats of obviously very old and low quality oils. In some regions pollo a la brassa (rotisserie chicken) was prominent and delicious but relatively expensive. Besides that the main meat was llama, whose health benefits were widely professed but also non-specific. They all told us llama meat was healthy, no one could explain why.

Most of the regions through which we traveled were dry, the soil was semi-arid at best, while prolonged cold temperatures and deep frosts limited growth periods. The land was largely used for llama grazing. If you are fascinated by soils, this is a good read. The planting we saw and talked with people about were: lima beans, quinoa, and potatoes.  Not just plain, low value Yukon Golds, but a cool and crazy variety of potatoes from ancient lines.

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A local man in southern Bolivia gives us directions. He was pedaling home with a bushel of lima beans. The beans are for the humans, the leaves are for the animals, and the straw is for bedding, he explained.

So, I agree with the first point of the Nutrition Myths made by the World Bank study but if, even with growing season and capacities limited, they are able to grow such super power foods, why the malnutrition? The study offers interesting research which I encourage you to read. My experience, living out of a backpack in the field, limited my information gathering capacity to asking around.
I asked dozens of Bolivians this question.

Awareness

“The price of our quinoa has dropped by 400%,” Naomi laments. Her family and entire community subsist on quinoa crops, “the people can’t even afford to buy rice at the shops!”

“Why don’t they eat the quinoa?” I ask.

“Because that is for export. If we don’t sell it we don’t get money. I hear people in China will pay a fortune for just a handful of quinoa but we make almost no money from selling it.”

“People pay a lot of money for quinoa because it has a lot of good nutrients and calories,” I explain, “In the United States we call it a super food’.”

“Then we should be paid more for it, then we could afford rice!”

“But if you are not able to sell it for a fair profit, why don’t you eat it yourselves?” I press.

“Because,” I can sense she is frustrated, that I am missing some link in her line of reasoning, “it is for export.”

The dissonance of this conversation has become familiar. Some say their grandparents ate it, others say it was for the animals. There seems a hint of prejudice against quinoa as a food for the very poor, even if they know it fetches a high price in foreign countries. The shop owners I’ve asked say no one buys it, that people want bleached rice and pasta instead, so they don’t sell it. This strikes me as a lack of understanding for the true wealth of the ubiquitous grain.

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Neon at an open market in Oruro, witnessing the wealth of things grown and available but only in the larger cities.

The small, one room or even closet size shops in most of the villages sell almost exclusively empty carbs: crackers, juice mixes, puffed cereal, Coka Quina (the national soda), “chocolate flavored” wafers, and mayonnaise. Bottles of 96% denatured alcohol (which we use for our stove) which is consumed as a beverage is in every shop.

We found quinoa only in La Paz, and a few towns as a pre-packaged “for distribution” good. Dried lima beans are also common when we found bulk sales shops (semi-regularly), and potatoes were also eaten as a staple.

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3 variety of papas with our fried trout and rice.

In terms of what foods are available for purchase in the shops, the Bolivian altiplanos are a food desert beyond almost anything I have seen in the US. Therefore, basic and important nutrients come from what people can produce. I believe the gains they and their children would experience from directly consuming what they grow far outweighs the pittance they are paid for selling it but many fail to grasp this. Entrenched in poverty, immediate gains are always more pressing and evident than long term returns.

We tried to proliferate the values of the foods right under their feet but this is a matter requiring much more education, challenging of prejudices, and fostering opportunity than we were able to provide.
Though, I do hope we planted some seeds. . .

Bolivia: A Mining Story

Written by Fidgit

It was around midnight, we were hitching back to town from a day of roadwalking and were picked up by a mine truck driver. “When they can, families delay sending their boys into the mines until we have graduated from secondary school,” he peers ahead into the darkness across the comically large steering wheel of the semi,  “because once you start going under ground, you only have 10 or 20 good years of life left. But most go underground around the age of 15 because their family needs the money.”

“It is the breathing that kills them, the mines give us masks but after a while, the men quit wearing them, they get in the way.” Continue reading

Uyuni to La Paz

Written by Neon

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Walking along the tracks

As things sometimes go, I got sick shortly after Fidgit was feeling better. We believe it was with the same illness, because the symptoms were the same. We were still in Uyuni as I was getting sick, but decided to try and move anyway because Uyuni is an expensive (by Bolivian standards) tourist town. We ‘slack-packed’ as far out of Uyuni as we could with day packs, and then rode a bus to the next large town, Oruro. I was so grateful to have a more than competent hiking partner during that time, because I was basically useless. I just shuffled along behind her, blowing my nose, coughing and wheezing. Continue reading

Villazon to Uyuni

Written by Neon

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A kind Bolivian border guard posed for a photo with us at the border!

We were unsure what to expect from Bolivia, our first ‘new’ country since we entered Chile across the Straight of Magellan. We had asked around, and heard many differing opinions both on crossing the border as well as about the people of Bolivia, so we just decided to see what we would see – as per usual. Continue reading

What we can Learn from Argentines

Somos un nacion atada con alambre.
[We are a nation held together by wire.]
-Argentine saying

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Looks stable to me.

Martin recalls a story about when his father was in elementary school. A government program was instituted in schools to encourage the children to save money. They would make deposits into a bank and the savings would be reflected on a chart in class. The boy was so invested in it he would walk instead of taking the public bus and sometimes would skip lunch to save up. It was reflected and celebrated on the classroom wall.
Then, one day, that political party lost power.
The Argentine peso lost value.
The program and several banks disappeared.
Along with the kids’ savings.

If you ask any Argentine, they have the most beautiful and diverse country on the planet, the greatest futbol team and player ever (MESSI!), and if God were human, he would be Argentine. They also deeply mistrust their government and think other Argentines are lazy.

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There is a lot the United States can learn from our fellow Americans. We can start by remembering we are not the only Americans, and while nations across the globe watch the United States, we can learn from their experiences as well.

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Where there are puppies and yerba mate, life can’t be all that bad.

There is a deepening social and political division coming to the forefront in the United States. From out here it appears that many people are choosing camps and digging trenches. When I shared this observation in dismay with Argentines they shrug casually, “Oh, yes, that is called ‘La Grieta’.” The name they have given to the division in social and political ideology, one of “us vs. them.” Their acknowledgment of the division, which I so deeply dread, felt almost flippant.

Then I was reminded, they have memory of the Dirty War (1974-1983) during which it is contended that 30,000 people disappeared. To this day, we see news reports of families being reunited after 40 years because of a government run, elective blood test program to identify children whose parents were killed or “disappeared” during that war in which the babies were given to parents who were loyal to the Triple A (Argentine Anticommunist Alliance). The disappearance of the children is what gave rise to the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.

Madres de Plaza de Mayo

“Where are the thousands of babies born in captivity?” demand these grandmothers.

The mothers and grandmothers who stood in the 1980s demanding reunion of their broken families were a powerful force against the political tyranny, because who can open fire on a plaza of unarmed women? After the fall of the regime, they continued to fight for their understanding of social justice, at least managing a federally funded housing program, Sueños Compartidos until 2011 when it was switched back to government control due to irregularities found in management of finances.

Hebe de Bonafini, one of the founding mothers who bravely began this movement, demanding to know what became of her sons and daughter-in-law who disappeared during that time, has pressed forward with brazen political action and statements. She has aligned with former Argentine President Cristina Kirchner (wife of deceased former President Néstor Kirchner, who together form the ideology of ‘Kirchnerismo’ and who to this day continue to try to regain political power) decries the new Argentine President, Macri; she has had a long letter writing fight with Popes; and she took a dump behind the altar of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires in 2008 (see link to Hebe’s name for a clearer explanation of these events).

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An ongoing political front, regarding prison sentencing and handling of crimes against humanity committed during the regime.

She is an embodiment of the kind of strength and iron will it takes to stand up against an oppressive regime. Now, without an equal or greater opposing force, she seems to spew wildly like a firefighter’s hose, after the fire is out, aiming itself at the Pope or any political event or leader who does not hold her same values. And when the political values in Argentina shift, they make a 180*.

 

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A couple boys out on the town in Cerrillos, Argentina.

We saw, time and again, tourism and building complexes begun and abandoned. Or the fiber optic cables which have been laid throughout the region but run no internet and are decaying before even having been used. Political parties do not follow through on projects begun by opposing parties, instead dedicating their energy to dismantling those undertakings. This has yielded a  pervasive “get what you can while you can” mentality.

When I talked about saving up money for this trip and about retirement savings, one Argentine friend said, “that must be nice.” We stared at each other for a beat.
“Let me put it this way,” he explained, “I could spend my entire life saving up for a trip or to retire. I wouldn’t put it in a bank because they would disappear with it or would not let me withdrawal it when I want. Even if I did, my life savings could, overnight, become so worthless it won’t even buy a tea bag.”

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Spending time with Ale & Laetitia of B&B Belen, I learned a great deal both about the politics and landscape of Argentina. Awesome guides, quaint stay.

There is a cycle of economic crisis in Argentina. Everyone remembers the crashes, and from those I’ve asked, they can list at least three in the last several decades. They also talk about sensing that another crash is coming. These are the larger political and economic cycles, but these also make for smaller cycles.

This mistrust of funds being available and of holding value from day to day means that when pay day rolls around the line for the ATM stretches around the block. Everyone withdraws their entire check in cash. Then the supermarkets swarm. Where credit cards are accepted, they offer to divide your grocery bill into 12 easy payments. Then, everything goes quiet. The ATMs are out of cash (a huge inconvenience as long term visitors). People begin trading or obtaining goods from kiosks or smaller markets where they can buy on credit.

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Line for the ATM in Belen, Argentina. We waited for about an hour and got to the machine but the ‘Link” system of ATMs do not issue to foreign cards.

An output I have observed from these constant political and economic fluctuations is a resilient and crafty people who know how to enjoy the here and now. They are not obsessed with the “almighty dollar,” because they know it isn’t.

They are creative in finding ways around impediments, be they legal or physical. Until recently, there was a very strong black market for the US Dollar called “Dollar Blue.” We traded our US bills to friends or, I kid you not, a tiny windowless room in the back of a Chinese restaurant.

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Argentines have a particularly thick skin. It is tough to get by so the people are tough. Several times as I observed interactions my sensitive mid-west self had to ask whether people were fighting or joking. Always they were joking.

Also, they don’t see cheating the same way we do. I dare you to play cards with them. I taught a group of them to play “BS” and whenever I took the deck and looked through it, every single person had lied with their cards, every time. Even if they didn’t have to. They laughed at my incredulity.

Another example was, during an enduro race we unwittingly walked into, the locals watching took us under their wing, they talked about the longstanding champion of the race, an older local guy who always finished covered in dirt and twigs.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because, he knew all the shortcuts around the race course,” they explained as if it was the most obvious thing.

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We ended up taking a nice long mate break with the family, eating homemade pizza, and chatting.

 

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We then became something of an unofficial aid station, giving directions, helping with minor repairs, distributing water, and helping an injured rider off the course.

That experience belied another truth we learned and got to experience from Argentines, they know how to take care of themselves and anyone they choose to take under their wing, and if you are adopted, you will be well cared for indeed. They will give to a fault and it is the recipient’s responsibility to insist when enough is enough.

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Case in point: the asado we enjoyed with Antonio and Isabel. They fed us until we literally could not eat any more, which is saying something!

They will give of everything they have and will not breathe the unspoken rule that as a guest, bring a gift and contribute as you can. If you have the fortune to travel in this beautiful country, bear that in mind. If you are coming from the US, you have access to all sorts of goodies and gifts which are hard to come by, ranging from jelly beans to Garmin InReaches.

To wrap this up, a final observation is that Argentines are great at jerry-rigging. Fence posts made from rail road ties from the abandoned rail line. We saw cars from the 60s still on the road. Cars that have been driven hard their entire lives, still chugging away, belching clouds of black smoke, windows in a permanent position, parts held on by wire.

I will always love Argentina and the Argentines, because they showed me what it is to survive amidst political tumult.

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