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Patagonia: The End of the World Is on Sale

08/23/2010 06:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This is the conclusion of a two-part report.

Perito Moreno Glacier -- "Desert and sterile" Patagonia (in Charles Darwin's initial assessment) boasts no less than 230,000 square kilometers of river basins flowing into the Atlantic. It holds 4,000 square kilometers of continental ice and glaciers -- as well as one of the largest reserves of fresh water on the planet.

We are currently in the advanced stages of a relentless global war for oil and gas (Patagonia, by the way, has both). A crucial 2000 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization already warned that in the next 50 years, problems related to lack of water or contamination of masses of water would affect practically everyone on the planet. It's when the Great Water Wars explode -- perhaps as early as around 2020 -- that this Patagonia of crystal-clear blue lakes and millenarian glaciers will be at a premium price; possession of water will be infinitely more valuable than possession of oil and gas.

Analytical/warring minds at the Pentagon and the United States Central Intelligence Agency cannot possibly block the wet dream of a secessionist Patagonia as the definitive Liquid Saudi Arabia; sparsely populated (less than 2 million people), with all that water, plenty of hydroelectric energy and 80% of Argentina's reserves of oil and natural gas. The degree of neglect felt by most residents of Patagonia in relation to Buenos Aires can be reasonably compared to what is felt by the Baloch in Pakistan in relation to Islamabad. Recent polls have shown the desire for an independent Patagonia to be always over 50% (with 78% among the young and unemployed).

A crash course on four centuries of Patagonian "development" would go something like this. In the beginning were the indigenous peoples. Then came the Iberian navigators, the English pirates, the all-European science buffs, the religious missionaries, the exiles who dreamed of making it in America, the austral version. Then came the landlords -- from Chile or Holland, Wales or Poland, Scotland or Denmark. Getting rid of the indigenous populations was a colonialism no-brainer; northern Patagonians were exterminated by the infamous, euphemistic, 1879 Campaign of the Desert; southern Patagonians were forced to become the workforce for agribusiness. And then, in the 1990s, came the First World billionaires.

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As every wildlife-loving billionaire plus rows of sharp-dressed corporate executives duly know, the sale of Patagonia started in 1996, under the ultra-neo-liberal Carlos Menem government. Menem, in his own words, wanted to sell "surplus land" of the country he presided. There's no federal law in Argentina regulating the sale of land to foreigners. Only in the late 1990s, more than 8 million hectares were sold. According to the Argentine army, more than 10% of the national land is foreign-owned -- and counting. The problem is not the sale itself; it's the absence of virtually any control over proposed investment projects.

If you're flush, you can still buy whatever you want anywhere - even inside spectacular national parks. Each province sets its own rules. If you reach the right functionary with the right cash-filled Samsonite, the world -- Tony Montana-style -- is yours. No wonder virtually every resident of Rio Negro or Santa Cruz provinces say the local mayor's offices are always the top real estate agency in town. And these same residents will inevitably lament that Patagonia is being gobbled up by foreigners -- from Ted Turner to the Benetton family. Moreover, two of Patagonia's largest oil companies are also foreign-owned; one of them, state-owned, was sold to Spain, and the other, private, to Brazil's Petrobras.

Walking on water

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - the End of the World version -- are known as Tompkins, Turner, Lewis and Benetton. They are the 21st-century breed of Patagonia's conquistadores, adventurers and pirates -- from Francis Drake and George Newbery to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (their ranch is still there in Cholilla, a dejected pueblo which would be at home in the more dejected parts of New Mexico). Foreigners have always dreamed of the end of the world. And its violent beauty -- as we'll see -- makes grown man cry.

Californian green guru Doug Tompkins, former founder of both The North Face and Esprit, is known in Patagonia as the "owner of the water". He's the biggest private owner of natural resources in Chilean Patagonia as well as the Corrientes region in Argentina, and owns a number of strategically placed haciendas. When Tompkins first saw southern Patagonia, on the Chilean side, and then northwest Patagonia, on the Argentine side, in 1961, he cried like a baby. Then he came back - and started buying.

Trout-fishing fanatic and CNN founder Ted Turner has a spectacular 5,000 hectare villa in the south of Neuquen province and controls most access to one of Patagonia's most pristine rivers. He has another 35,000 hectares in the same province plus another 5,000 in Tierra del Fuego. Outside of the US, Ted only bought in Patagonia.

Villa Traful is a green, hilly private valley bordering the spectacular homonymous lake. It's virtually empty in winter - projecting the sensation this is what Shangri-La must have been all about, before the advent of Facebook. Buying land in Traful during the 1990s was a piece of cake. Those in the know quickly grabbed public land around the lake. Now the dream is over. Jorge Sobisch, the Croatian-family former governor of Neuquen province who wants to become president, is basically selling it all for huge mass tourism groups.

But above all this is Ted Turner land. Turner is the owner of La Primavera, a spectacular 5,000 hectare estancia right on the mouth of the Traful river, where he can blissfully fish for the best trout and salmon nature can manufacture. Jane Fonda was a sucker for La Primavera. Tompkins was a guest, as well as George Bush senior and Henry Kissinger. Intruders are monitored by satellite. As this was winter and everything was dead, I could not even afford the pleasure of navigating on Turner waters. And of course Ted never shows up on Vila Traful himself - although he visits La Primavera a few times a year.

La Primavera was actually founded by an American, odontologist and former vice US consul in Buenos Aires George Newbery, in 1894. George and Ralph Newbery (father of famous aviator Jorge, whose name now graces one of Buenos Aires's airports) were convinced that Patagonia should be populated with cowboys imported from Texas.

So already in the early 20th century there was widespread fear in northern Patagonia of a yankee colonization drive. The Texas cowboy exile route soon dried up. La Primavera was sold to an Englishman, then a Frenchman, then an Argentine and finally fell on Ted's lap as he was deeply involved in a 2 million hectare conservation project -- or territorial expansion -- in Montana, New Mexico and Nebraska. But Patagonian Ted has always been adamant; this is only about fishing.

1, 2, 1,000 Shangri-Las

Brit Joseph Lewis, the 6th largest fortune in the United Kingdom, known in northern Patagonia as Uncle Joe because of his overdrive philanthropy, controls all the 14,000 hectares of land bordering sublime Lake Escondido ("Hidden Lake"), 92 km out of Bariloche on the Chile border, as well as the basin of the prized Azur river. Ultra-discreet Lewis, who lives between London, Orlando, the Bahamas and Patagonia, is a big shark on financial speculation as well as genetic investigation, and the hands of his Tavistock Group are in everything from oil and gas in Siberia to Puma and Gottex outfits.

Lewis' Andean-Patagonian Shangri-La is not far from El Bolson, the Argentine hippie Mecca of the 1970s transmogrified into the country's first ecological municipality in the early 1990s. Its Tolkien-style forests are filled with prized alerces, or lahuan wood -- the oldest living organism in Argentina, third-oldest in the world. Almost as ubiquitous as the alerces are mixed feelings over Lewis' push to actually do the work expected from provincial and national authorities -- establishing what is a de facto state within a state.

In just a few years, Lewis bought land equivalent to three quarters of the city of Buenos Aires -- but in the form of millenarian forests, glaciers, crystal clear lakes and rivers. Lewis stopped short of buying the lake itself -- because the law does not allow it. But what he did was to buy the whole land surrounding the lake, so if you want to reach the border you have to cross 18 km of his private property. Seeing Shangri-La live thus can only be done with a helping hand from above -- that is, Lewis' minions. Lewis is also suspected of trying to buy the nascent of numerous rivers in the region. And considering Tavistock is heavily involved in genetic investigation and biotechnology, there's also ample suspicion it is extracting and exporting very rare species out of the Cordillera.

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There are many other players in the Great Patagonian Sale. There's Jacobo Suchard (the owner of Nestle). There's the Swarowsky jewelry family. There's french fries king Ward Lay, who also got into the wine business with the Rutini family and usually brags that "Patagonia reminds me of Texas in the 1950s" (it actually does, in terms of unlimited opportunities; landscape-wise, it would be more like a cross between Montana and New Mexico). Lay owns the 80,000 hectare Alicura estancia, a valley crisscrossed by three rivers and precious wild animals and fleeting former abode of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

There's Belgian group Burco, owner of the Dubai crowd-style country club Arelauquen near Bariloche -- a sort of de luxe agrarian reform project in reverse, pristine forest turned into a polo-and-golf gated condo. There's a group led by Frenchman Michel Biquard, which has built a lone five-star hotel right in front of Argentina's most famous glacier.

But among all these the big sharks are undoubtedly the Benetton brothers - Carlo and Luciano, who control 1 million hectares of productive land under the Compania de Tierras Sud Argentino (CTSA), originally founded by the British as the Argentine Southern Land Co. in 1889 and now the most important agribusiness in the country. The Benetton brothers are the biggest private owners of land in Argentina -- apart from the state.

It's the same old story. When Carlo and Luciano first trekked on ice over the Perito Moreno glacier in 2004 -- sealed off for the occasion, as if they were the Emir of Qatar and his wife shopping at Harrods -- they also cried. But they had been right on the money since 1991, when they started buying haciendas. CTSA, a huge agribusiness corporation spanning the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean, owns at least 16,000 head of cattle and 260,000 sheep -- producing up to 1.3 million tons of wool a year, all exported to Italy.

It didn't help that ultra-politically correct United Colors of Benetton got involved in a nasty conflict with "delocalized" Mapuche families in the early 2000s -- leading it to be known in many progressive quarters as United Colors of Land Grab. Suffice to say that the Benetton spokesman in Argentina at the time used to be the governor of Chubut province, politician Mario das Neves. The corporation pulled no punches buying media and unleashing a lavish public relations exercise in both Argentina and Italy. A Mapuche committee was received by Luciano Benetton in a Rome palazzo. But they didn't get their property back.

For the Mapuches this was just another step in the invasion of Patagonia. First by the Spanish in 1492; then by the 1879 Conquest of the Desert, the Buenos Aires-conducted ethnic cleansing sold as taking "civilization" to a "desert" peopled by Indians; and finally by big corporations and foreign billionaires.

Austral tehuelches used to live between the Magellan Strait and the Santa Cruz River. They were cousins to the onas of Tierra del Fuego. There were two other tehuelche tribes more to the north, one of them fusioned with Araucans from Chile. This "araucanization" led to the forming of the Mapuche nation - a single territory spanning parts of Argentina and Chile. Nowadays, there are around 76,000 Mapuches in Argentina, compared to 350,000 in Chile.

Right inside the enormous Benetton-owned Leleque estancia in Chubut province, the Mapuche controversy reaches its peak in the form of a museum The museum's lavish catalogue, boasting detailed historiography, aims to basically prove that the Mapuches were not Argentine Patagonia's original inhabitants; ergo, they cannot possibly claim ownership of a land now occupied by the immaculate, vertically integrated Benetton sheep. Make no mistake, the war between Indians and wealthy foreigners is still on.

Patagonia as Pandora's box

El Chalten - not more than 700 people at the foot of the Andes, the starting point for trekking to the spectacular Torre and Fitz Roy peaks, is the youngest pueblo in Argentina. But it is above all the Holy Grail for politicians from Santa Cruz province who now rule the country, everyone very cozy with former president Nestor Kirchner and the current president, his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. The local economy is virtually dollarized. When Tompkins first visited, in 1968 - no Paris barricades for him -- El Chalten was not even on the map.

Tompkins' own Shangri-La is actually in Pumalin, on the Chilean Cordillera -- 300,000 hectares of land declared a nature sanctuary in 2005 by the Chilean government after 10 years of tough negotiations, complete with glaciers, snow-capped volcanoes, pumas and wild horses. Pumalin is now a national park with public access -- but private control.

Ever since the mid-1990s, there had been rumors about a mysterious American ecological guru who was the sole owner of Patagonia. Although far from it, Tompkins finally struck gold in Argentina with Monte Leon in Santa Cruz province, which the World Wildlife Fund duly includes among the 237 top conservation regions on the planet -- as it mixes the species-wealthy Mar Argentino (including a 60,000 strong colony of Magellan penguins) with the oil-and-gas rich Patagonia steppe.

When the Gulfstreams of foreign billionaires started landing in Patagonia during the 1990s, the Menem government did recognize the remaining Indians as original peoples. But that did not solve many problems as most are still enmeshed in fierce territorial disputes with dodgy landowners not as famous as the Benetton. The problem is that the tandem real estate agencies/provincial state functionaries are bound to keep indulging in a perpetual Patagonia-on-sale party.

Everywhere I went I had the feeling that the Cordillera is on sale. The price of a hectare depends on the timeless mantra - location, location, location. In Villa La Angostura, north of Bariloche -- an aspiring cousin of Aspen and Vail -- buying and selling land is a more popular topic of conversation over a bottle of Malbec than soccer.

Same in more austral Patagonia, in Calafate, Santa Cruz province, an historic crossroads for selling cattle and sheep, a magnet for dodgy adventurers in search of limitless estancias, and today a boutique pueblo with a totally dollarized economy. A humongous -- and empty -- casino dominates main street.

I stayed very close to the Kirchner couple's mansion (they usually show up on weekends). The FOK (Friends of Kirchner -- the austral equivalent to good old Friends of Bill, or Friends of Bush) control everything, with a special mention to Jorge Fernandez Campbell, owner of the sole monopoly exploiting the ultra-profitable navigation around the spectacular glaciers in Lago Argentino, the largest mass of continental ice in the world. The Glaciers National Park ends only 500 meters from the Magellan Peninsula, where the glacier touches the earth; from there onwards, all land is subjected to market valuation.

All over the place, from the Beagle Channel to the empty steppes, I was told that Patagonia was colonized with cattle and sheep -- and not with people. So there were always very few land ownership titles flying around. Tough questions though remain -- and they apply to virtually all the developing world. How to "develop" Patagonia? How to preserve it from serious environmental contamination? There is a necessity for a clear policy setting serious targets for responsible tourism, and the necessity for a clear policy regarding industrial development.

As Argentina is a country of immigrants -- a sort of austral Europe -- foreign ownership may not be such a problem per se; the question is how the land should be used or developed. It's up to the state to delimit the rules; if there is enough land for wealthy foreigners, there must be enough land for aboriginal peoples as well. And even for Argentines. As much as the striking beauty of Patagonia may be financially off-limits for a typical Argentine middle-class family, it is also Argentines who are indiscriminately selling land to foreigners.

And still the verdict on this spectacular land that makes grown men cry is open. Will it be the ultimate, pristine gated condo for the globe's ultra-wealthy? Will it be the granary for those lucky enough to escape the disasters about to engulf the developed North? Will it be the Pandora's box of natural treasures that will unleash the next world wars?

This post originally appeared at AsiaTimes.com.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.