Chile’s Indigenous Pehuenches turn to tourism in Alto Biobio

Chile’s Indigenous Pehuenches turn to tourism in Alto Biobio

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March 16, 2007

Chile’s Indigenous Pehuenches turn to tourism in Alto Biobio
By Beatrice Karol Burks
March 16, 2007

Chile’s indigenous Pechuence population – which lost part of their ancestral homelands when Spanish utilities company Endesa built two major dams, the Pangue and the Ralco, on the Biobío River in the 1990’s – have turned to ecotourism as a means to protect both their rapidly disappearing culture and their livelihoods.

The new initiative, “Horse riding and Walking Along the Old Paths,” is financed by Chile’s National Environment Commission (CONAMA) and the United Nations Development Program and offers trekking – on horseback or foot – through 200 kilometers of sacred Pehuenche land left relatively untouched by the dams.

As well as uprooting 92 Pehuenche families (550 people), the dams destroyed major kayaking and rafting tourism on the Biobío River (Region VIII), a river famed as one of a half-dozen great rivers in the world for these sports.

Now, five communities in Queuco Valley are taking part in a new tourism project that includes tours led by Pehuenche guides along the beautiful river. The area offers a visual feast of jagged canyons, deep forests, fertile grassland and snowy volcanoes. Along the way, the guides tell the ancient histories, myths and legends of the indigenous tribe at risk of marginalization in modern Chile.

“The most exciting thing for tourists is that they get to follow the ancient paths of the tribe and learn the original folktales,” said CONAMA’s executive director Ana Lía Uriarte.

Although tourism may be a way out of the poverty plaguing Chile’s indigenous groups, local leaders – or “loncos” – voiced concern that high levels of tourism in the area could be just as damaging as Endesa’s dams.

“We aren’t interested in tourists who want to party,” said lonco Luis Vita. “We only want people who are interested in sharing our culture. We want tourists who recognize us and respect us as a legitimate community.”

It is not surprising that the Pehuence community is wary of government initiatives such as this. CONAMA initially rejected the Ralco dam project on environmental grounds, but the central government provided another environmental impact report which, second-time round and amongst rumors of considerable pressure, was accepted by environmental authorities.

The controversial dams were built with the aim of meeting Chile’s growing energy demands and initially received US$70 million from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. Following the building of the dam and vigorous protests from the Biobío Action Group, the World Bank has strongly criticized Endesa’s actions in the region.

Despite this, the Spanish company continues to go ahead with similar damming projects in the heart of Patagonia. The so-called Aysén project – a US$2.5 billion plan to dam the Baker and Pascua Rivers in Aysén (Region XI) – has come under criticism from environmentalists, salmon farmers and celebrities (ST, Feb. 28, March 2). It will take more than belated attempts at ecotourism to compensate for the enduring impacts of these projects.

By Beatrice Karol Burks (


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