Following in the footsteps of explorers Fitzroy and Darwin to Argentina’s Atlantic coast, Leon McCarron finds wildlife and wonders aplenty on the Rio Santa Cruz. But he also discovers a huge threat to this region’s biodiversity.
What was immediately apparent was how little had changed. We stood there—three people and five horses—at the estuary where saltwater meets fresh, and looked at the shape of the land in front of us.
The curve of the river, the dip of the hill, the profile of the horizon; it all perfectly matched the picture that we held in front of us. The only difference, if you were being picky, was that in the image in our hands there was a large ship that had been beached on the shingle. But we couldn’t have everything—this was more than we’d ever hoped for, and the starting point for a remarkable and poignant journey.
In 1834, another team had tried to do just this. The HMS Beagle was a British research vessel, tasked with charting the coastline of South America, and on board alongside its imperious Captain Fitzroy was a clever and enthusiastic young man, who had failed to join the clergy and come to sea to find himself—a mid-19th-century gap year, if you will. He was from the upper classes, and his official role was that of ‘Gentleman’s Companion’. His education and charm made him good dinner conversation for Fitzroy after a long day at sea. The other thing to note about the young man was that his name was Charles Darwin, and he would go on to change the world.
They’d grounded their vessel at the estuary where we now stood to allow for repairs. To make the most of the occasion, they sent a party of men to ‘discover’ the source; there were indigenous people in the area, but the maps of the British were blank, so exploration deemed necessary. The men walked along the banks of the Santa Cruz, dragging with them three rowing boats, so when they finished they could hop in and float back down quickly. It was a wise move, but that didn’t spare them from a tough journey. They were constantly concerned about the local tribes watching them (though they didn’t bother to try and make contact); they became exhausted and ran out of food; weather and isolation and uncertainty gnawed at them.
Ultimately, they never made it. They reached a point just a few miles from the source but, with no elevation, they couldn’t get the perspective and never realized they were so nearly there. Instead, with death by starvation a real threat, they turned back and headed for the ocean. Darwin was devastated.
At two separate sites, initial preparations were being made for the construction of dams … The local population in El Calafate, the nearest city, was outraged, as were many throughout the country.
Our attempt was somewhat more successful, although it goes without saying there can be no real comparison. We were faced with strong winds and long days, but ours was a journey of sparse beauty, of enjoying the wonderful wild scenes of the Rio Santa Cruz. We watched condors swoop overhead (Darwin loved these birds and, in the style of the time, he even shot one to properly study it.) Guanacos—llama-like creatures—darted around in front of us, and flightless rhea birds bounced along in the distance.
We stayed mostly outside under the stars, and occasionally in the abandoned estancias, the homes that once housed families and workers when sheep farming was a more lucrative proposition. It was in the wake of the journeys of Fitzroy and Darwin that these settlers had first arrived in the mid-1800s.
Much has changed in the last few decades that means the woollen trade no longer supports life on the steppe—the market shifted, demand dropped, and prices plummeted. As we moved upstream, we found that even more stands to be lost here, and on a much greater scale.
At two separate sites, initial preparations were being made for the construction of dams. The Nestor Kirchner and Jorge Cepernic dams, as they’re now known, have been talked of since the 1950s, but it wasn’t until the premiership of Christina Kirchner that the idea came to fruition in 2007. When we arrived on the river, in late 2014, a deal had just been agreed that saw a $4.7-billion-dollar budget agreed for the project, with Chinese banks providing most of the capital.
What compromise are we willing to take in the name of development and so-called ‘progress’?
The local population in El Calafate, the nearest city, was outraged, as were many throughout the country. The official line was the dams would create employment in the region, even adding as much as 10 per cent to an ailing national grid. Environmental groups countered that the jobs would be short-term, and would likely go to Chinese contractors, and that the ageing infrastructure to send power to the cities of the north was hugely inefficient. Plus, in one of the windiest places on earth, plants for wind or solar might be wiser.
And perhaps most damaging of all, the dams would destroy the pristine ecosystem of the Santa Cruz river, flooding huge parts of the valley and potentially affecting the glaciers near the source. The Perito Moreno glacier, which feeds the river, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. In 2016, the Supreme Court halted work so that a more realistic Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) could be carried out. This gave great hope to those fighting the dams, as did the incoming administration of Mauricio Macri.
Now, it seems like those hopes are to be dashed again. Last year, Macri ordered work to restart after the new EIA was released and, although there have been some minor adjustments to the details, the impact remains much the same.
I have kept in contact with many of the activists and environmentalists in El Calafate, who believe this to be a travesty. Over the last four years, I’ve tried to remain as impartial as possible but, having seen what’s at stake, and watching the fiasco unfold, I can nail my colors to the mast: This is a disaster.
The Santa Cruz river valley is sparsely populated by humans, making it easier to exploit, but it’s a remarkable and unique part of our planet. To threaten its glaciers and the biodiversity, and to displace the many bird species that rely on the area is a huge mistake. Communities and environments across the world face this question: What compromise are we willing to take in the name of development and so-called ‘progress’? Too often, it’s at the expense of the natural world. It seems the Santa Cruz is lost, but that doesn’t mean we should let other treasures go so easily.