How Locals Saved ‘the Yosemite of South America’

How Locals Saved ‘the Yosemite of South America’

By Oghale Apr30,2024

In central Chile, not far from where the Andes Mountains meet the Pacific Ocean, a vast swath of pristine wilderness is changing hands under the most unusual circumstances.

Roberto Hagemann, a Chilean businessman who owns the 325,000-acre property, has agreed to sell the land to his longtime adversaries, a band of upstart environmentalists who spent years thwarting his efforts to develop the property.

The price: $63 million.

It is a landmark transaction that will preserve some of the most ecologically significant territory in South America. Known as Hacienda Pucheguin, the property is surrounded by national parks and is cut by wild rivers, forests of ancient Alerce trees and the Cochamó Valley, a cathedral of towering granite walls popular with rock climbers around the world.

The deal is also a case study in modern-day conservation. At a moment when ecologically sensitive lands are under threat around the globe, it takes a unique confluence of legal, financial and political resources — plus a bit of luck — to protect them from relentless development.

“This is an irreplaceable place,” said Jeff Parrish, a senior executive at the Nature Conservancy, which is advising the nonprofit group leading the purchase. “We need to make sure that it stays the way nature intended it to be.”

The land Mr. Hagemann came to own is almost entirely untouched by humanity. Over the past century, a few hundred settlers established small farms in the area and were granted property rights. For the most part, however, the area was left alone, providing a verdant habitat for pumas, rare Darwin’s frogs and the endangered South Andean deer.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Chilean government proposed building roads through the area. But local residents, opposing the development in an ecologically sensitive area, scuttled the efforts.

Around the same time, the Cochamó Valley developed an international reputation among climbers. With steep granite walls rising thousands of feet above the valley floor, the area was soon being called the “Yosemite of South America,” a reference to California’s rock climbing mecca.

Then in 2007, Mr. Hagemann began buying up the land, piece by piece. He knew that the land was held by more than 200 families, and he saw an opportunity to unite the properties into one parcel that could be used for both tourism and development.

Mr. Hagemann, who made a fortune through mining and real estate, and a partner spent tens of millions of dollars of their own money acquiring the property with a flurry of transactions.

Assembling the patchwork landholdings into a single parcel was a complex task that had scared off other buyers. Doug and Kris Tompkins, American philanthropists who conserved vast swaths of land in Chile and Argentina, were aware of the property. But they concluded that it would be too difficult to navigate so many small real estate deals.

Mr. Hagemann was undeterred, and he ultimately came to own 325,000 acres, or roughly 508 square miles of contiguous land, almost completely surrounded by national parks.

Shortly after assembling the property, he and his associates proposed building a hydroelectric facility in the area. The project would have entailed the construction of a power plant on a river near the valley, 39 miles of transmission lines and a network of roads in what was still unspoiled wilderness.

“Our main objective was to invest capital on nature,” Mr. Hagemann said in an email, “adding value to our Chilean productivity growth as well as the local development of Pucheguin people.”

But Mr. Hagemann met resistance from the outset. In 2013, a longtime wilderness guide named Rodrigo Condeza founded a nonprofit organization called Puelo Patagonia, which was dedicated to preserving the land. Allowing the construction of a hydroelectric facility, he argued, would disrupt an important ecological corridor that passes thorough a vast series of national parks.

Mr. Condeza began to rally public support around his cause, drumming up opposition to Mr. Hagemann and his plans to develop the land. “He was our adversary for many years,” Mr. Condeza said.

Mr. Condeza also took the fight to court. Puelo Patagonia led a community effort to sue to stop the hydroelectric project, saying that it had not secured the proper environmental reviews. In 2017, a Chilean court agreed, scuttling Mr. Hagemann’s plans for the power plant.

Thwarted in his efforts to develop the land, Mr. Hagemann decided to sell. In 2018, Christie’s listed the property for $150 million.

“The rarity and diversity of this Patagonian wilderness is an incomparable piece of environmental art to be as treasured by its next owner just as a Picasso or Monet painting would be,” Rick Moeser, executive director of Christie’s International Real Estate, said at the time. “The property has been responsibly protected and could serve as a sensitively developed eco-resort, a private residence, or await its next conservation steward.”

No buyers came forward, but the listing caught the attention of conservationists and climbers around the world.

In 2022, Puelo Patagonia decided it would make a lowball offer. A lawyer brokered a visit, and after a decade as adversaries, the two sides began talking.

Mr. Hagemann explained that he also wanted to conserve the land, but that he had wanted to do so while also creating economic value. The Puelo Patagonia team tried to persuade Mr. Hagemann that he should sell the property for a fraction of the asking price.

“Due to this meeting, a long process of mutual knowledge and respectful dialogue began, that allowed us to reach mutual understanding and respect beyond our differences,” Mr. Hagemann said.

Shortly after the discussions began, Puelo Patagonia proposed to buy the property for $50 million. Though the organization had no money committed, Mr. Condeza and his colleagues believed they could raise the funds if a deal was secured.

“We are a bunch of hippies,” Mr. Condeza said. “We had no business doing this.”

Mr. Hagemann countered with $100 million.

For the next year, they negotiated. Mr. Hagemann’s son, a rock climber who has scaled the walls of the Cochamó Valley, also encouraged his father to sell the property to the conservationists, according to people involved in the deal.

Earlier this year, after more than a decade locking horns, the two sides reached a surprising resolution, agreeing on a price of $63 million.

Puelo Patagonia has already raised more than $15 million from two charities that support conservation efforts. The bulk of the money came from the Wyss Foundation, which was founded by Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss billionaire who has become a major donor to liberal causes in the United States. Another major donor is the Freyja Foundation, which is focused on conservation.

Mr. Hagemann has given the group two years to raise the rest of the funds. Puelo Patagonia also plans to raise an additional $15 million that will be used to build trails and manage the growing number of tourists visiting the Cochamó Valley. The group hopes that at least half of the contributions will come from Chilean donors.

“Safeguarding this region will preserve these jewels for generations,” Ms. Tompkins said in an email.

Preserving the land will protect an ecological corridor that allows animals to roam freely through nearly 4,000 miles of contiguous wilderness. It will also connect a string of national parks in Chile and Argentina that stretch from the lakes around Bariloche to the southern tip of South America.

“This is the missing puzzle piece,” Mr. Parrish said. “Had it been developed, it would have bifurcated a bunch of protected areas.”

And when the sale is finalized, it will put to rest concerns about the fate of one of the most ecologically important lands in the region.

“Everyone who cares about Cochamó was really scared about who was going to buy it,” Mr. Condeza said. “But we all got together and stopped fighting and now we’ve made a solution to conserve it forever.”

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By Oghale

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