Chile: Karukinka Nature Reserve is much the same as when Darwin first saw it

It is not every day that a Wall Street bank finds itself in possession
of a chunk of land 50 times the size of Manhattan, covered in pristine
forest, windswept grassland and snow-capped mountains. But that’s the
position Goldman Sachs found itself in, in 2002 when it bought a
package of distressed debt and assets from a US company called

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The resulting conservation project in the very south of Chile has been
hailed by the bank and its partners, a US-based NGO, as an example of
how the public and private sectors can work together to safeguard the
world’s last remaining wildernesses. Chilean environmentalists are
more sceptical but, even so, have largely applauded the project. The
story of what is now known as the Karukinka nature reserve dates back
to the 1990s when Trillium bought land on Tierra del Fuego – a cluster
of inhospitable islands between Chile and Argentina – clinging to the
southernmost tip of South America. “The more we realised what we had
the more we realised how unique this property was.”

The bank considered selling the land but realised it would face the same
opposition as Trillium had. So it took what some environmentalists now
regard as a radical and enlightened step – it gave the land away to a
New York-based environmental group, the Wildlife Conservation Society
(WCS). WCS President Steve Sanderson says the donation marked a
watershed in conservation policy, not only because Goldman Sachs gave
the land away, but also because it pledged around $12m of its own
money to ensure the land’s protection for years to come.

The reserve is home to around 700 plant species, including several types of moss which are thought to be unique to these islands, and is teeming with
birds including condors, eagles and Patagonian woodpeckers. “On our
side we believe the private sector has to help in conservation or we
will fail, and Goldman Sachs believes it has to take into account
environmental factors in its own business practices, or they will
fail,” Mr Sanderson said. The plan now is to open Karukinka up to
visitors, so that eventually it can help pay for itself. Already,
intrepid hikers and fishermen have started visiting the reserve, drawn
by its wild beauty and trout-rich rivers. “We want low-impact tourism
and we are developing trails for hiking…and allow people to
appreciate the area on a day trip,” Mr Sanderson said.

The WCS also wants to incorporate a visit to Karukinka into the schedules of the many cruise ships that ply the icy waterways around Tierra del Fuego
en rote to Antarctica each year. “We are in a credit crunch and a
financial market that is very different from what it was six months
ago, let alone how it was when we started the transfer of this
property,” Tracy Wolstencroft acknowledges. “But we don’t see any
threat to the objectives of Karukinka and we wouldn’t hesitate to do
this again.” Meanwhile, in Karukinka, life goes on much as it has
since the 1830s, when Charles Darwin visited the islands. “A single
glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different
it was from anything I had ever beheld,” Darwin noted in his diary as
his ship, HMS Beagle, approached Tierra del Fuego. Nearly two
centuries on, it remains a place of rugged, isolated beauty.

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