With the exception of a couple of nearby Chilean islands with only a handful of people, the southernmost populated city on our planet is Puerto Williams, Chile. It is located on the island of Navarino, a UNESCO biosphere reserve north of Cape Horn, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet.
The subantarctic is a region just above Antarctica, lying between 48°S and 58°S in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and between 42°S and 48°S in the Atlantic Ocean. I have made the long journey to this remote location because Puerto Williams is becoming a key player in the global fight to counter climate change. It also fights to promote tourism and economic opportunities without destroying the environment.
After taking a three and a half hour flight to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, we boarded a large ferry. Once a week he makes the 30-hour trip to Puerto Williams. No frills, just a seat that reclines slightly, a blanket, and a canteen that serves three simple meals.
It’s provincial, to say the least. Unlike the Argentine city of Ushuaia, just across the Beagle Channel, Puerto Williams has only one bank, one gas station (closed on Sundays), one general store selling food brought in from mainland Chile, and one school. A dozen small shops are closed most of the time and there are few places to eat. There is no cinema or entertainment. The hospital is new but so poorly equipped that patients must be flown to Punta Arenas on the mainland, weather permitting, in an emergency. That includes giving birth.
However, some 2,000 Chileans live in Puerto Williams. Half of them are Marines stationed at the island’s naval base leaving after a four-year tour. Another 25 percent are civil servants. Most of the rest are fishermen who brave the ferocious waves off the cape to catch king crabs.
“It pays well, but you risk your life every time you go out to sea,” Matías, 28, tells me.
There is also a small indigenous Yagan community. The Yagans were the original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, nomads who arrived thousands of years before Charles Darwin set foot in the area and who used canoes to fish. They kept warm in the windy and freezing temperatures by smearing sea lion grease on their skin and wearing animal skins. But when Europeans, and later Chileans and Argentines, settled in the region in the mid-1880s, the near extinction of the Yagans began.
Today there are only about 200 living on Navarino Island. The last yagan who spoke their language died last year.
Cape Horn is known for its harsh climate and natural beauty. The air is pure and the glaciers and the snow-capped Darwin mountain range are impressive.
“It’s a gem,” says Ricardo Rozzi, director of the recently opened Cape Horn International Sub-Antarctic Center (CHIC). “There are very few places like this left in the world. It also has the cleanest water in the world.”
Rozzi is a Chilean biologist and philosopher who divides his time between the sub-Antarctic and the University of North Texas.
Rozzi’s charisma and passion for saving our natural world have helped convince 250 climate change researchers, anthropologists, geophysicists, ornithologists, engineers, educators, and many other scientists from around the world to join forces at CHIC, funded primarily by the Chilean government with the participation of half a dozen Chilean universities.
“We want to reorient the world from Cape Horn turning it into a biocultural, educational and scientific center”, says Rozzi. “There are huge and mostly virgin subtropical forests here that are home to 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. However, the world is losing its cultural and biological diversity, the former faster than the latter.
From here and the surrounding islands, scientists measure greenhouse gases, changing ocean and air temperatures, and a host of other indicators that will help predict environmental changes.
But those in the new subantarctic center say that pure science is not enough.
“The crux of this is to turn CHIC into a laboratory to be able to design an educational system that is ecocultural, that can expand not only to all of Chile, but to the region and the world,” says anthropologist Andrea Valdivia. “It is designed so that humans can appreciate and understand nature and not destroy it.”
That is why CHIC emphasizes what it calls biocultural education. There are courses for students to learn why and how to protect the environment, starting in kindergarten.
However, as pristine as Puerto Williams is, changes are coming. The locals tell me they need to develop more economic opportunities, or young people won’t want to live here.
A new pier is already being built to allow large cruise ships to dock and use the island as a new gateway to Antarctica.
“That would be very welcome. Of course we would need restaurants, a bigger airport, hotels, better services. We also have to protect our environment. But growth is inevitable”, says Edwin Olivares, leader of the Fishermen’s Union.
Right now the airport is one big room with two big wood fired heaters to keep passengers from freezing while waiting for the local airline plane to arrive. There are no security checks or modern control equipment. It’s actually very refreshing.
Although Puerto Williams is small, residents admit that they live quite segregated from one another. Marines and their families stick together, as do fishermen, civil servants and Yahgans.
The teacher Luis Gómez is president of the Yagan community. He tells me that he wants progress but he is not sure that Puerto Williams and its surroundings are prepared for such an influx of people.
And he is also concerned that his people will not be included in the progress that may come.
“For example, we want to be able to sell our handicrafts, not only for economic reasons but because they almost wiped us out,” says Gómez. “So when someone buys a small handmade canoe or basket, it’s not just a souvenir, but part of our history and culture. It’s important to us.”
For its part, CHIC is promoting another type of tourism: bird watching in the Omora Park on the island. Why bird watch?
“Love for nature is in our DNA. It’s on schedule, even if our society pushes us away,” says Greg Miller of the Audubon Society, a US-based conservation organization. “There are more bird watchers than golfers, 70 million of them, and they want to protect the flora and fauna. fauna that allows people to observe these animals from afar with binoculars in their natural habitat.
Miller is working with CHIC to promote sustainable tourism. As we talked, we looked up to see several woodpeckers pecking at trees at lightning speeds. The reserve is home to the second largest of its kind, and they are everywhere, as are owls, hawks and other birds.
Ornithologists also work in the reserve, studying and marking birds, observing their migratory and reproductive patterns.
“Birds are like sentinels of climate change,” says Chad Wilzie, a scientist with the Audubon Society. “They are an important type of indicator of the impacts of climate change on our environment because they are very sensitive to it. I mean, we can go back to the 19th century or earlier, when canaries were taken into coal mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide.”
The premise is that Cape Horn will become an important natural laboratory to identify the factors of climate change and modify, or at least try, our relationship with nature.
“The changes in the sub-Antarctica are precursors to Antarctica and provide key information about what is happening or will happen on that less and less frozen continent.” says geophysicist Matías Troncoso. “And it could give us clues on how to mitigate and reverse possible effects of climate change through public policies.”
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