We’ve put together a history of the Chacabuco Valley, including relevant regional events and political movements. Check it out!
A History of Valle Chacabuco
Some of our neighbors call Valle Chacabuco, heart of the future Patagonia National Park, the “light” of the region. Why? Its unusual landscapes—expansive grasslands in a largely forested region—have shaped a rich human history, which informs and enriches our conservation work. Prior to the 1800s, Valle Chacabuco (like most of the Aysen Region) was unknown except to the handful of nomadic native communities from Northern Patagonia. Expeditions south in the late 19th century discovered the rich grasslands of Valle Chacabuco, leading to the valley’s transformation into a vast sheep estancia. For decades, amidst land reform and shifting ownership, tens of thousands of animals grazed throughout this ecologically sensitive valley. Although ranching damaged native grasslands, in the current transition from estancia to park, Valle Chacabucois rapidly recovering.
The history of Valle Chacabuco reflects larger political movements throughout Chile, and this timeline draws in regional history where relevant to provide context for the major shifts in land management and ownership that have occurred throughout the years. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of the valley—and why we are doing everything we can to conserve and revitalize this amazing place for generations to come.
PREHISTORY: As a rare East-West valley running from the Andes to the Patagonian steppe, Valle Chacabuco (the Chacabuco Valley) has a particularly rich history. Through investigating many of the three hundred sites around Valle Chacabuco, archeologists have discovered that native Tehuelche peoples have moved through this area for thousands of years, using the valley as a migration route from the eastern steppes to the southwestern shores of Lake General Carrera.
CHILE–1520: Ferdinand Magellan is the first European to set eyes on the future country of Chile, sparking three centuries of conquest and colonization by Spanish forces in the region. During Magellan’s first journey to the South American continent, the explorer describes his encounters with the so-called giants that resided in the region today known as Patagonia. Magellan most likely refers to the Tehuelche people, a native group averaging 5’11” in height according to archeological records—quite tall compared to the average 16th-century Spaniard. Magellan refers to these people as “Patagones,” or “Big Feet,” and thus the name “Patagonia” is born.
CHILE–1541: Captain Pedro de Valdivia of the Spanish Army attacks and subdues the population of Santiago de Nueva Extremadura (now Santiago de Chile), effectively establishing Spanish rule over the territory.
For a long time, Santiago de Chile is considered the effective southern reach of the Chilean colony. Regions further south, including Patagonia, are simply too remote and have as yet no promise of capital returns to draw the interest of the colonizers. Chilean Patagonia thus passes largely unaffected by the influence of European colonialism throughout this period. Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries Chile remains the least wealthy of the Spanish crown’s territories, and most of the wealth and development is concentrated in the northern half of the territory.
CHILE–1818: Chile declares independence from Spain after a contentious internal struggle between loyalists and those favoring self-rule. After three centuries of exploitation and control from the Spanish crown, Chile begins transitioning towards new political leadership in the formation of a republic.
PATAGONIA REGION–1839: Darwin publishes The Voyage of the Beagle, in which he recounts his encounters with the landscape and wildlife of Patagonia. Darwin makes special mention of the guanaco, a creature that captured the imagination of the young biologist:
I have more than once seen a guanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but prance and leap about in the most ridiculous manner, apparently in defiance as a challenge.
PATAGONIA REGION–1860s-1880s: The young Chilean and Argentinean nations both turn their eyes southwards and escalate efforts to lay claim to the lands of the southern cone. Both countries send expeditions to defend invisible borders across the Patagonian region.
PATAGONIA REGION–1881: Chile and Argentina finally draw up an agreement settling the border disputes of the 1860s-80s, drawing a line along the highest peaks of the Andes. Tensions over the border zone persist for decades, however, driving the settlement and exploitation of Patagonia.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1899: German geographer Hans Steffen leads explorations in the Aysen region of Patagonia with the Chilean navy to document the potential for development and exploitation. During these voyages, Steffen traverses the Chacabuco valley, christens the Baker River, and documents the settlement potential of this remote region of Chile.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1908: Under the auspices of Hans Steffen’s promising report, the Sociedad Explotadora del Baker leases the land in and around the Chacabuco Valley to begin the operation of a large-scale sheep and cattle ranching operation.
The Sociedad is administered by Englishman Lucas Bridges. Bridges, a well known and influential explorer in South America, takes a particular interest in the Chacabuco Valley. In the early years of the Baker Company, Bridges wrangled thousands of sheep from the Argentine steppe into the valley, employing over 200 workers from around the region.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1916: While Bridges is away in Europe fighting in WWI, the estancia suffers from tragedy and financial turmoil. The death of almost 100 workers, the assassination of the foreman, and near-bankruptcy all put the young company in a precarious position.
Bridges brings his family to live at the Estancia in 1923 and sets to work trying to dig the estancia out of debt. He makes some radical investments in the company, including creating a long mule path through the Andes and fashioning a bridge across the Rio Chacabuco from 6,000 strands of fencing wire.
CHILE–1926: Chile’s first national park is founded—Vicente Perez Rosales National Park, in Llanquihue Province. Vicente Perez Rosales is the first of many national parks designated in Chile throughout the 20th century. Today, Chile boasts 36 national parks spanning nine million hectares of land.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1929: The Baker Company builds the basic infrastructure for the town of Cochrane, in order to house and support the people who live and work near the Chacabuco Valley. On orders of the Chilean State, the company establishes roads, houses, public buildings, and a school. The town is officially founded in 1954 as Pueblo Nuevo, later renamed Cochrane after British naval captain Thomas Cochrane, a revolutionary politician who was influential to the independence movement in Chile.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1933: In the face of the best efforts of Bridges over the first two decades at the estancia, the Baker Company is still failing to turn a profit. Several of its stakeholders, even including members of Bridges’s own family, decide to sell out this year.
Over the next few decades the Baker Company continues expanding in size in a constant battle for solvency. In its heyday, Estancia Valle Chacabuco trades in as many as 85,000 sheep on over 500,000 acres of land.
CHILE/VALLE CHACABUCO–1964-1973: Agricultural Reform. Eduardo Frei Montalva is elected President of Chile on a broad-scale reform and anti-poverty platform. Under the Frei (1964-1970) and Allende (1970-1973) administrations, the great estates of the hacienda landed property system are dismantled in an effort to redistribute land and wealth throughout a larger portion of the population. During this period, 5809 estates covering ten million hectares (59% of Chile’s agricultural farmland) are expropriated from their former owners/leaseholders, and redistributed to 54,000 peasant households.
The lease on the holdings of the Baker Company ends at the start of reform in 1964. The Chilean Government reappropriates the land instead of renewing the lease. The Baker Company is liquidated, and the lands of Valle Chacabuco are redistributed to dozens of local families.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1967: Lago Cochrane National Reserve and Jeinimeni National Reserve, both bordering the lands of the estancia, are established this year.
CHILE–1970: CONAF (Corporacion National Forestal), Chile’s National Forest Corporation and the formal adminstrator of the State’s National Park System, is founded. Today (2012), CONAF manages 36 national parks, and a long list of protected areas. In total, CONAF manages 19% of Chile’s land mass.
The conservation of the grasslands of the Chacabuco Valley is among CONAF’s priorities from the beginning, though it lacks the funds and political will necessary to purchase the lands outright.
CHILE–1973: General Augusto Pinochet takes over power in Chile in a military coup. Pinochet’s regime conducts an infamous war against leaders of the popular movements under Frei and Allende, killing and imprisoning thousands of campesinos and other revolutionaries who had been a part of the movement for social justice and reform.
CHILE/VALLE CHACABUCO–1974-1990: Capitalist agrarian counter-reform. Under the Pinochet regime, thousands of campesinos are torn from the lands they were granted under agrarian reform. The re-appropriation of previously expropriated lands drives the formation of an agro-industrial bourgeoisie, an open land market and a greater concentration of wealth and lands in the hands of an exclusionary agricultural elite.
The lands of Valle Chacabuco that had been leased to local families during reform are reclaimed by Pinochet’s regime. In 1980, the estancia is sold at auction to a Belgian landowner, Francisco de Smet. De Smet buys the estancia for around $500,000 USD, and operates a 30,000-head sheep and cattle ranch on the now much-degraded grasslands for over two decades.
CHILE–1990: Patricio Aylwin Azócar is elected president of Chile, ending Pinochet’s 16-year military dictatorship and facilitating Chile’s transition back to democratic rule.
VALLE CHACABUCO–1995: Kris Tompkins (founder of Conservacion Patagonica) visits Valle Chacabuco for the first time. Having heard of its conservation potential, she is astounded when she saw not only the incredible beauty of the landscape, but also the severe degradation of the grasslands.
Kris recalls, “when I drove through the Chacabuco Valley for the first time, I saw the extra-high ‘guanaco fences’ designed to keep these first-rate jumpers out of the best bottom grasslands, which were reserved for the cattle on the estancia. My eyes glazed over looking out on the tens of thousands of sheep grazing the bunch grasses up and down the valley. The grasses looked patchy and dead. Nothing left for wildlife.”
The vision for a new Patagonia National Park—including the nearby Jeinimeni and Lago Cochrane reserves—is born soon after this first trip to the valley.
CHILE–2000: Kristine Tompkins founds Conservacion Patagonica. Its mission: building new national parks in compelling, ecologically critical areas of Patagonia. CP’s first major conservation project and the initial inspiration for the organization was the restoration and donation of a 165,000 acre former sheep ranch along the coast of Argentina’s Santa Cruz Province. Between 2000 and 2002, Kris worked with Dr. Francisco Erize, former director of the Argentine National Parks Administration, to purchase and donate the lands to Argentina as a national park. In 2002, Monte Leon National Park officially became the first park created by Conservacion Patagonica.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2004: Estancia Valle Chacabuco is offered for sale. After two unprofitable decades of sheep ranching, Francisco De Smet decides to cut his losses and sell the estancia. Kris Tompkins leaps at the opportunity to conserve this historic landscape, which has been on Chile’s priority list for conservation for over three decades. Conservacion Patagonica purchases the land to begin the work of creating the future Patagonia National Park.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2005: CP hosts the first annual Ruta de Huemul, a two-day, high summer hike from the heart of Valle Chacabuco to the nearby town of Cochrane. This event represents a keystone of CP’s work to include local communities in both the work and the fun of the Patagonia National Park project.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2007: Conservacion Patagonica begins building public access infrastructure for the Patagonia National Park project, starting with the construction of the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2008: CP purchases an additional 21,000 acres of contiguous land for the Patagonia National Park project, moving the project one plot closer to its ultimate goal: compiling one continuous national park, including the original Estancia, the Jeinimeni and Lago Cochrane Reserves, and all the lands that lie between.
During 2008, CP also initiates research on huemul deer–puma interaction (the first study of its kind in Chile), and continues construction of park buildings, including employee housing.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2010: CP breaks ground on the first trail system and the first major campground for the future Patagonia National Park.
VALLE CHACABUCO–2012: Westwinds, the first campground in the park, is completed and opened to the public.
CHILE/VALLE CHACABUCO—2012-2020: Conservacion Patagonica plans to finish the construction of park headquarters, campgrounds and trails, and continue wildlife monitoring and recovery programs. Within the next ten years CP plans to finalize an agreement with the Chilean government to donate the park.