You can’t drive all the way to the southern end of Chile, where the lakes give way to an archipelago and the narrow mainland becomes even narrower. About 45 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, the overland traveller must take two ferries to reach Chaiten, the town adjacent to a volcano that erupted in 2008 and forced the evacuation of its 3,000 residents.
There are plans to extend the Carretera Austral (formerly known as the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet) to connect the remote towns in Chile’s far south, but the land on this narrowest stretch of mainland territory is covered by the Parque Pumalin(www.parquepumalin.cl), a nature reserve created by American businessman and environmentalist Douglas Tompkins. The park’s defenders argue that building a road would damage the area, which supports small organic farms and eco-tourism. According to its website, the project “is aware of the need to include neighbours of the park to create a shared feeling for the need to protect wildlands and biodiversity, often a consciousness that is lacking due to the cultural and historical conditions.”
This week the Chilean minister of public works Laurence Golborne (former mining minister who oversaw last year’s rescue of 33 trapped miners) met with Tompkins to inform him the government was going ahead with the road extension and was confiscating the first six miles of territory inside Parque Pumalin. Judging by Tompkins’ and Golborne’s statements following the meeting, the encounter was relatively civil.