So what exactly was I doing in Patagonia? What was my purpose in spending a
month in Valle Chacabuco other than just to see it? What is the guiding motive of the organization that I paid to do manual labor for and what cause was I helping support? Why, in my relatively novice status as a camper, did I feel inspired to live in a tent for a month in relatively difficult conditions? Why, as the lonely traveler, did I think it would be a good idea to do some communal living with complete strangers? How did I envision this time was going to help me find myself and ultimately my great life´s purpose? Funny you should ask...
I hadn't really thought of any of that. Justin had seen the movie 180degrees South, and we watched it together afterward. He told me, that if I plan on going to south america, that I need to go the estancia and volunteer. It just looked too amazing not to. That was pretty much all I knew, the rest I figured would all work out. If not, well, you can tolerate pretty much anything for a month.
So what about this organization, Conservacion Patagonica? What is it they are really trying to do? What's all this noise about Patagonia Sin Represas? Do the people here really support the creation of a new national park and what do they really think about a foreigner coming in and buying up a bunch of land with the promise of one day gifting it to the state? Sure, I had my doubts, but now...call me a convert. I believe in what they are doing down there, and if you feel inspired by what I've written or by the pictures I've posted I encourage you to support this cause: visit, donate, volunteer. It really is an amazingly beautiful place. They call it salvaje, wilderness...and it really is wild, I can only hope that it stays that way. Please click on the links if you want to know more about the organizations and what they are doing. I will give you the cliffs notes version, but I really encourage you to look into it some more.
Fly into southern Chile and you see the posters everywhere, Patagonia ¡SIN REPRESAS! Which means, patagonia without dams. This region has huge powerful rivers and a large supply of the worlds fresh water and glaciers. Some claim it is the ideal place to build huge dams to supply some of Chile´s ever growing energy needs. Other say it is one of the last wild places on earth and that it should be preserved for the future generations and for the native flora and fauna distinct to this region. The argument goes that those that who make the policies in the north are not aware of the life of those who live in the south, who's lives would be most affected by the dams. I can't claim to understand either, as I am just passing through, but this much I do know, I have never seen a place so beautiful, and it would be heartbreaking if it were gone. It's difficult to imagine that someone would not see the inherent value of this wild place. That, given a little more infastructure, tourists would flock here to see it. But as with anything, there are always challenges.
The driving motive behind Conservacion Patagonica is to create the future patagonia national park. Once this land has been restored to it's native state(fences and invasive plant species removed and natural wildlife has had a chance to return) and the infastructure has been put in place (trails, campgrouds, visitor center, lodge) that they would like to combine the land of the estancia with two existing parks, Reserva Nacional Jeinimeni and Reserva Nacional Tamango to create one new super park - Reserva Nacional Patagonia. My job as a volunteer was to remove fences. This is no easy task, as the fences stretched across swamps, hills, calafate fields, rocks, mud, creeks and overgrown with grass. The estancia had originally been 32 distinct smaller estancias or farms. They were pastureland for thousands of sheep and cows. The land had been fenced off to seperate the distinct farms and to facilitate moving herds throught the year. To create this pastureland acres and acres were burned and trees were removed. Eventually the land became ineffective as it had been compromised by years of overgrazing. It was at this point that this land was purchased by Kris Tompkins. It was with the intention that it would be resotored. This has been a many year process, and now, the effects of the work are being seen.
With the fences gone, there are corriders that allow the animals to move as they naturally would. Guanacos now are a familiar sight throughout the entire park. Huemules too are free to move and breed, an important development as they are a threatented species. Most of the critters that I was lucky enough to see, have benefitted by the removal of fences. No longer trapped in small corners or killed when trying to pass them. We saw evidence of lives lost, in bones left entangled in the fences.
The work I did as a volunteer was to remove those fences. We encountered 2 different tasks, removal of standing fences, and removal of fences that had been partially taken down and rolled. The majority of the work that occured in the first week was to remove fences that were rolled. Believe it or not, this was actually harder. The last 3 were to take down standing fence. We all worked together as a group, usually split into partners, working on different tasks along the same fence line. For the most part it was fun work. A welcome change from sitting in a desk or wandering around all day with no real purpose. It was rewarding to see the fenceline disappear, to hear the thud of a post and it was wedged out of the ground, to watch the piles of rolled wire grow bigger and bigger and to know that know this stretch of land was free to recover as if man had never placed a fence there.
It was easy to loose track of time. I would have my head down working on the task at hand, and every so often take a look up and remember where I was and what I was doing. Every time the view would take my breath away. Don't get me wrong, it's hard work. Backbreaking labor, carrying tools, carrying wire, fighting your way through swap and calafate (a thorny bush) and mud. There were a couple of days we got pelted with rain and hail, and even with the correct gear your fingers would freeze from the cold. But that view, even on the hard days would make it all seem worthwhile. We'd hear the sporadic calls from the guanacos and remember why we were there. I hear you buddy, you don't have to worry about these fences anymore.
The incredible thing about the work was that we were able to visit parts of the park that most people will probably never get to see. We were pretty far from trails at times and it was exciting to know that we would be some of the few people to set foot on this land. Pretty cool. We had a decent amount of down time, especially in the last to weeks where we were taken on little excursions to see more of the park. To see huemules and the furthest stretches of the park and to swim in the lake. We had asados with the gauchos that worked and lived there, and heard stories of hunts and the life of a guacho. They taught us about the different flora and fauna...and told us about the history of the park, the region and the people.
We were told that yes, there is a lot of skepticism from the locals about what Tompkins is really doing. There are nasty rumors and fear from outside the park about what happens inside. The locals that work there work hard to inform the others what is really taking place. They hope that with time and education that people will understand that this park is for the good of everyone and the region; that it has the potential to provide jobs and livlihoods for those in the surrouding communities. They have a difficult task. There is not really a culture or tradition of camping and hiking. All the locals know is that this was once pastureland...and now, they can't use it like before. Those who know about the true motive of the park see it's value. That this could rival the likes of what is happeing in Torres del Paine. But like anything, to build trust and allow the shift in mindset takes time.
This project has been in the making for several years. It is well on it's way to becoming the future patagonia national park. I hope, that someday I can return with my family and share it. With pride be able to admit that yes, I was a small part of this and had a hand in helping. I was lucky enough to get to see the beauty of this place before it was finished. That the hours spent in manual labor and the dollars donated to the cause are worth it, because in 5 years, 20 years 100 years there will still be this magical wild place. The rivers will still be flowing freely and thanks to those miles of removed fences, so will the natual rhythm of the animals.
I didn't really have a greater plan when I came down other than just to learn a bit about this world and myself. I learned some things in Patagonia that I didn't expect. I learned that deep within me there is a connection to this world and an appreciation for its strength, its beauty and its principle that unfolds itself every day. I learned that I'm not afraid of the dark or spiders or swamps or snow or rain or dirt in my water. I learned that it's possible to feel refreshed after a long days work, and that physical labor doesn't have to be exhausting. I learned that it's possible to connect with strangers and almost instantly become friends if you just allow yourself to be open to the idea that we are all working for the same good. I learned that even the noblest ideas can be met with resisence, but resistence can be overcome with love, hardwork and tenacity. But most importantly, I think my time in Valle Chacabuco, I learned of the fickleness of percieved need.