In Patagonia, the end of the world is near

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THIS APPEARED IN THE 2/22/88 WORLD EDITION `IN the forests there is [not much] grass,'' Thomas Goodall says dryly of his 50,000-acre estancia, a ranch that stands on the boot of Argentina, closer to Antarctica than to Buenos Aires. ``Mountains are pretty useless, swamps more so. It's a lot of work with little usable land. We have quite a number of islands, and so that means work to remove animals: You've got to load them onto a homemade landing barge and bring 'em across and all that.''

Nearby, Brent, Ashen, and Upland geese cackled in a chilly breeze that never seemed to stop blowing up from Cape Horn. The cape lay just over the hill, so it was a chilly breeze, even though it was summertime.

Mr. Goodall's estate, the Estancia Harberton, is on the Beagle Channel. The estancia is home to 5,000 sheep and 400 head of cattle (a mixture of shaggy Highland and Hereford), all raised for the local market.

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Goodall is continuing a family tradition going back to the pioneer days: He is the great-grandson of the Rev. Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary who ministered to the Yahgan Indians of Patagonia, before they were all but annihilated by measles and tuberculosis. When Mr. Bridges retired from his pastoral work and became an Argentine citizen, the president of the time rewarded his work with the gift of Estancia Harberton.

Over a century later, Goodall still speaks English with a British accent (and fluent Spanish, of course). He and his American-born wife Natalie lead a life with a turn-of-the-century quality; their children grew up without television, pinball machines, or video games.

Mrs. Goodall is a noted naturalist and author. In her guidebook to the region, the Fuegians, as the people of Tierra del Fuego are called, seem neighborly, trustworthy: ``At present, most Fuegians leave their cars open with the keys inside. It is probably not advisable for tourists to do this, however, as tourist cars are very conspicuous.''

With neighboring ranchers (some of British, others of Yugoslav origin), Mr. Goodall built the 60-mile dirt road to the territory's main town, Ushuaia, making it easier for visitors to drop by. ``This being the oldest farm in Tierra del Fuego, it's fairly famous. ... We were having tourists appearing [all the time]. We would be working in the garden or in the shed, and suddenly we would have half a dozen people looking at us working! So we decided ... we might as well charge 'em for it!'' Now Harberton has a Victorian tearoom for guests, with daguerreotype portraits of the Reverend and his wife on the walls.

Still, change has come to ``El Sur,'' as Argentines call this remote region. ``Five years ago,'' says German Antonio Noguera, editor of the local daily newspaper, La Voz Fuegina, ``Ushuaia had 7,500 inhabitants, and since then there has been an increase in population of 15,000 people: Most of the newcomers [work] in the electronics factories in the region.''

To increase the population and bolster its hold on Tierra del Fuego, the Argentine government set up electronics factories in Ushuaia and another town, Rio Grande. Tierra del Fuego is split down the middle, shared by Argentina and Chile. At the same time, it is only 300 miles from the Falklands Islands, where the Argentine armed forces launched a futile invasion in April 1982. According to Argentina, the Falklands (or ``Malvinas,'' as they are known in Spanish) are part of the National Territory of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica, and the South Atlantic Islands. The territorial government is based in Ushuaia.

``Some appliances are manufactured here,'' notes Mr. Noguera, in the cramped offices of his paper, ``others are assembled with parts imported from abroad: things like television sets, calculators, mostly electronic appliances.''

``Imported from abroad,'' I am told, means shipped by sea from Japan and Taiwan to Vancouver, Canada, then by rail to Toronto, and finally by air to Buenos Aires and the last 2,000 miles to Patagonia. All together, that's about five times the distance between New York and London.

Workers are attracted to Ushuaia wages, which are double the pay most Buenos Aires workers get. They are also drawn by a legal exemption from income tax - though this is a less persuasive inducement than one might think, since many Argentines skip paying the taxes they owe anyway. The standard of living is 30 percent higher than in the capital.

In addition, Ushuaia is a duty-free-zone, like a giant version of an airport shop: Store-windows are full of imported cameras and ``Walkman'' radios that you can buy at prices much lower than in Buenos Aires.

Mr. Noguera's paper is regional. Typical subjects he covers are: the first visit of a Chilean naval vessel to Ushuaia since Chile and Argentina nearly went to war in 1983 over possession of some islands in the Beagle Channel; whether the National Territory should remain dependent on the federal government, or become a self-governing (and self-financing) province.

There's also talk about the hole in the ozone layer that periodically opens up over Antarctica and Patagonia. People call this ``the end of the Earth,'' but it is strategically located, and subject to the environ- mental damage of far-distant industry.

The scenery of Patagonia is much like the far west of the United States and Canada: flying in a Fokker or LADE, the regional airline (run by the Air Force), up to R'io Gallegos on the mainland, then to Calafate in Santa Cruz Province, we passed over the monotonous scrub of the Patagonia desert. Its dirt roads reach out to lonely estancias; emerald glacial lakes appear at the foot of the snowcapped Andes.

In Calafate, a cattleman grumbles about being so remote: ``Just [let me] give you an idea of the problems we have ... with communications. Once we received an official notice from the government giving the scale of wages we had to pay for January. Only we received the notice in August. So we were faced with a retroactive wage increase. We have only one sale per year. The cash only flows in once a year. So with the incredible inflation, 180 percent in 1987, we have to find some way to protect the value of our earnings.''

One of the hotels in Calafate has a rustic restaurant decorated with stag heads. ``There wasn't much wildlife in the area,'' a hotel employee explains. ``But people stupidly brought in beavers, deer, muskrats, which displaced the local animals.

``It was mostly the military who did that,'' he added, nervously glancing over his shoulder (a common Argentine reflex after so many years of military rule), ``so they could have fun hunting!''

Everybody in Argentina sees Patagonia, the far south, as the treasure-chest of the nation: It's blessed with coal, oil, gas, livestock, fish. Rio Grande used to be known as the site of the country's largest beef-freezing operation. Now it's the operations center for the Tierra del Fuego offshore industry.

A roughneck interrupted our lunch at a restaurant in Rio Grande: ``You from Buenos Aires? No? Well, people from Buenos Aires are loco, crazy! They insist on wearing neckties when it's boiling hot!''

We counted six offshore oil platforms in the Strait of Magellan, on the Chilean side. In April 1987, the French oil company Total Austral, launched Argentina's first offshore development project in the Hidra field, in the South Atlantic just east of Tierra del Fuego.

``The results of exploration,'' according to Total Austral director Pierre Dupal, ``have been exceptionally good, if you compare them with whatever worldwide average you can work out for the success of an exploration wildcat. ...

``In the first exploration campaign we drilled from [1981] to '83,'' he said. ``We drilled 14 wildcats, and we had 10 discoveries, which is way out of any sort of average. The world average at this stage is about one discovery for 17 wildcats.''

But the offshore work is hard. The ocean here is cursed by Antarctic storms and the caprices of Cape Horn: There are 200 days each year with winds in excess of 75 mph, winds that sank many a clipper ship in the 19th century. The ocean currents are three to four knots. Winter temperatures in July and August often drop to 20 below.

Mr. Dupal expects to see 1989 production reach 30,000 barrels of oil a day, and 6 million cubic meters of natural gas from the nearby Ara field, all to be delivered to Argentina's state companies YPF and Gas del Estado.

The offshore resources could well dictate the region's future. Already, a gradual transition from a ranching to an industrial economy is under way.

The transition is raising the geopolitical stakes here as well. After all, sovereignty conflicts in the South Atlantic are resource conflicts as much as anything else.

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