Patagonia Paradise Threatened by Population Boom
ARGENTINA: April 27, 2006

CHOLILA, Argentina - At the far end of Lake Cholila in the Patagonian Andes, snowmelt runs off jagged peaks and glaciers and flows into sparkling emerald waters brimming with trout.


At the near end, bulldozers carve 200 plots out of a mountainside for homes for city dwellers looking to get away from it all in this rough, remote corner of Argentina.

These new arrivals are simply seeking the same thing as Patagonia's pioneers -- freedom, wide open spaces, a peaceful existence, rare commodities in a crowded world.

A century ago, Cholila was where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up to make an honest living as cattle ranchers before the Pinkerton Agency tracked down the notorious American bank robbers and sent them running again.

But each day this piece of paradise becomes more accessible as new roads and airports bring tourists, tourists create jobs, jobs draw migrants, migrants demand government spending, spending brings more migrants, and so on.

It would seem there should be room for everyone in one of the world's least densely populated places, where some 2 million people live in a space the size of France and Germany combined.

But up and down Patagonia, in both Argentina and Chile, authorities face a tough balancing act between improving the lot of locals while preserving this place at the end of the world.

"This is the beginning of the world because it is paradise. You won't find what we have in many places," said Cholila Mayor Hector Miguel Castro. "But you have to strike a balance between conservation and life."

Cholila's population stands at 3,000 and the mayor expects it to hit 4,000 in five years before "hopefully" stabilising.


Cholila is gaining a reputation as a centre for abundant, well-paid work.

"It is a marvellous place and there seems to be a lot of work," said Virgilio Ruiz Diaz, 27, who arrived from Paraguay a few months ago to help build low-cost, government-funded homes. "As far as I can see, there is a good future here."

Many in Cholila say they want growth but they don't want the village to become another El Bolson, a beautiful mountain town one hour to the north that drew hippies in the 1960s and now struggles with slums.

"Our population is growing 10 to 12 percent annually and these last few years have been infernal," said El Bolson Mayor Oscar Jose Romera. But still there is work for his 25,000 inhabitants, in construction or fruit and flower harvesting.

The biggest Patagonian boomtown of them all is El Calafate, the gateway to the Perito Moreno glacier, one of Argentina's top tourist attractions.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner laid the foundations for El Calafate's growth as governor and since he became president in 2003, road and home building has been nonstop.

Alarm bells rang through Patagonia a decade ago as foreigners bought swathes of land. Italy's Benetton family is the region's biggest landowner with its sheep ranches and magnates like Ted Turner also own sweeping "estancias".

Across the Andes from Cholila in Chile, Doug Tompkins, founder of US clothing company Esprit, has created the world's largest private nature reserve, Pumalin Park.

But foreigners alone are not to blame for the encroachment. Argentines and Chileans are discovering the beauty of a land that loomed large in the imagination of the world's wanderers, from naturalist Charles Darwin to author Bruce Chatwin.


Cholila, or "Valley of Flowers" in the native Tehuelche language, was largely bypassed since the times of Butch and Sundance, and life offered few comforts.

But now the machines are moving in. An ATM was installed a few months ago and the local radio station gave patient instructions to first-time users who left their cards behind.

Road crews are paving the 32 km (20 miles) of dirt road to the north and an airport for small planes opened this year.

"Growth is good because this place was completely abandoned," said Manuel Hernandez, 75, who came to Cholila upon retirement and runs a grill serving the town's famed beef.

But there are also detractors who believe Cholila is heading down a dangerous road.

"I am anti-asphalt and I don't care if my car gets ruined on the dirt road," said Cristina Danelon, who runs La Caprichosa general store at the crossroads. "It is going to bring another type of people."

From her counter, Danelon sees the increased truck traffic going out to the Lake Cholila housing development, 15 km (10 miles) off the main road. She wonders if more developments will follow at Lake Cholila and other unprotected areas.

But the mayor says there won't be a rush on Cholila land because the wealthy landowners won't sell. Indeed, some are buying land around their ranches to stop it from falling into developers' hands.

"This growth has its limits," Castro mused. "Owners of large natural spaces don't want a massive influx of people. They want to preserve their land. And they also want to maintain its high value. More people means less value."


Story by Mary Milliken