The Last (Guaranteed Absolutely Last) Frontier

September 25, 2007

While environmentalist agonize over the burning of the Amazon, another, even more remote region of South America confronts greater immediate dangers: a swathe of temperate forest still clinging to the Pacific slopes of the Andes in southwestern Chile that contains species found nowhere else. Densely growing on thin glacial soils, it has lured timber exporters, who value its easy access and nearly pure stands of beechwoods. Pinochet’s government hoped to stimulate exports by selling these tracts to investors for as little as $1.25 per hectare.

This forest extends as far south as Tierra del Fuego, that glacially-scarred island, about as large as New Hampshire and Vermont together, which is shared between Chile and Argentina, and which is separated from the continent by the Straits of Magellan. On the Chilean side, plans to cut down this forest for lumber and wood chips are being pressed by a Canadian company, Cetec-Sel, despite misgivings from local residents. The company’s managers was indignant over the waste of good timber in the mature forest, where trees are allowed to die and decompose. Cetec-Sel hasuo plans to replant, which would be highly impractical in any case only local species could withstand the harsh climate and thin soils, and even they require as much as 100 years to reach full growth. The prospect, therefore, is that nothing but peat bogs will remain, once it has been cleared.

On the Argentine side of the island, a bizarre transformation is being worked out, the result of another kind of human intervention. In 1946, an Argentine entrepreneur took it into his head to found a fur industry by setting heaven loose in the woods. The beavers, also natives of Canada, multiplied rapidly. There were no native predators on the island capable of attacking the beaver, nor any introduced predators, save humans no bears, wolves, or wolverines. The beavers also left behind in the sub-Arctic whatever parasites or plagues that assailed them there. They thrived in great peace and tranquility. Within 25 years they had occupied all of Tierra del Fuego and had crossed the seven-kilometer Beagle Channel to the island of Navarino. There is every prospect that they will eventually cross the Straits of Magellan and invade the mainland as well.

Their handiwork is shown off as a sort of ecological object lesson to beroused tourists who have time enough to tear themselves away from the duty-free zone on Ushuaia’s main street. All over the lowlands the beavers have gnawed down trees to build darns, creating lakes to shelter their underwater lodges from non-existent predators. The result is forests of dead beech trees, roots strangled by the rising water table.

The demand of the fur trade is insufficient to deal with the natural increase of the industrious and prolific, rodents. The islands host an estimated 250,000 of them, but only exports 20,000 pelts a year. A few shabby boutiques in the duty-free zone stock beaver coats. For a few hours each day they are thronged with tourists from the love boats that dock in the harbor long enough for local merchants to sell to each of them a plate of king crabs and a few beers. Argentine tourists pass up the coat racks for locally-assembled Japanese hi-fis. (Here in the world’s most southernmost city the Argentine government has passed out tax breaks to persuade transnational electronics firms to build factories.) And the foreigners won’t even look at them, since newer styles and better cuts are going begging back home.

Those who have wielded power in the New World for the last five hundred years have displayed a terrifyingly obtuse willingness to trade natural patrimony for cash, and to rearrange ecosystem in the often-thwarted hope of making them more profitable. These are characteristics not of peopler native to a place, solicitous of their progeny’s patrimony, but of people who have airline tickets in their top drawer, always ready to move on after extracting whatever is most easily made off with––in a word, conquistadors.

The potential failure of regrowth of Tierra del Fuego’s forest and the botched introduction of an exotic species furthermore, demonstrate how peculiarly fragile is the South American natural realm. Having broken off front the other continents at a very early date, its native species evolved separately and for the most part under conditions less competitive than the much larger land masses from which it was isolated. It is rarer for South American species to invade North America (though there are a few––the redoubtable armadillo and the prolific water hyacinth are two), and rarer still for, species of either to invade the Old World. The fragility and uniqueness of the New World is another reason to preserve it.

Warren Dean teaches history at New York University and is a member of NACLA’s editorial board.

Tags: Patagonia, logging, environmental destruction, fur trade

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