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In Patagonia, the end of the world is near

By George TombsSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1988

Patagonia Region, Argentina

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.''

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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.

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.