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ARGENTINA: Patagonia to the Highest (Foreign?) Bidder

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 12 2007 (IPS) - A new book based on a journalistic investigation into major land purchases in Argentina’s southern Patagonia region by foreign multimillionaires has been selling like hot potatoes, to both tourists and locals.

“I approached this job with the prejudice shared by the majority of Argentines, who believe their land is being plundered,” reporter Gonzalo Sánchez, author of “La Patagonia vendida” (Patagonia: Sold), told IPS.

But he soon discovered that the problem was not the foreigners who were buying, but the locals who were selling.

In the last 15 years, business magnates and public figures from all over the world, captivated by the beauty of this vast region shared by southern Argentina and Chile, have bought up huge tracts of land that encompass rivers, lakes and mountains and offer storybook views.

Patagonia, which is basically a barren, windswept region, runs from the Colorado River in central Argentina to Tierra del Fuego in the south, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans. It covers around one-third of the territory of Argentina, and is home to less than five percent of the country’s total population of 37 million.

Sánchez provides an objective view of the most famous new residents and their purchases. “I found that land in this region has long been sold off to foreigners, that there are foreigners making good use of the land, and that there is a legal framework that favours these transactions,” he said.

“Argentines are not victims of plunder, as I had thought,” he stressed. “There is a flexible legal framework that favours these sales, and draft laws to regulate these transactions simply do not prosper.”

The book, which will be translated into English, sold out even before it was publicly presented late last year. The first place this happened was in Patagonia itself, as Constanza Brunet, the head of the Marea publishing company, told IPS. “A social phenomenon has been generated that goes beyond literary interests; there is great interest in the south, and among tourists,” she said.

Without ignoring the pristine Patagonian landscape, which he describes as a paradise that Argentines are just now beginning to value, the author outlines the projects being carried out by these new owners, thanks to their immense fortunes.

Among these are the Benettons, the Italian family that owns the Benetton Group. The four Benetton siblings each figure just after Donald Trump on Forbes magazine’s 2006 list of the world’s billionaires.

Owning nearly one million hectares of productive land in Patagonia, the Benettons are among the largest landowners in Argentina today. Since 1991 they have owned Compañía de Tierras del Sur, which was British-owned between 1895 and 1975 and then Argentine-owned until 1990.

On their land, the Benettons have 16,000 head of cattle and 260,000 sheep, which produce 1.3 million kg of wool a year. They also have a tannery, pine plantations and other business initiatives.

The Benettons donate firewood, food and clothing to the local hospital. “I don’t see what the problem is. They generate jobs,” Mario Das Neves, governor of Chubut, the province where the Italian family is the biggest taxpayer, told the book’s author.

But there are a few problems. One of them made international headlines, when a Mapuche Indian family was evicted by force from a 535-hectare stretch of land that they had begun farming after asking a government land settlement agency for permission to use the idle land.

The property was known to the Mapuche people as unoccupied indigenous territory, which was verbally confirmed by the land settlement agency.

After waiting for months for a written response, the Curiñanco family finally received unofficial authorisation from the agency, and moved onto the land.

However, the Benettons laid claim to the property, and two months after the family began to farm it, the police evicted them and confiscated their belongings. The Benettons offered a settlement, which the family refused, and the case went to court.

A majority of the Mapuche indigenous people living in Patagonia do not hold legal title to the land that their ancestors lived on before the arrival of the Spaniards, but which figures as publicly-owned property. That is why indigenous land is frequently sold off, and it is the problem underlying many land ownership disputes in the region.

The conflict took the Mapuche family to Rome, where they met with Luciano Benetton at the urging of Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel. But the subsequent promise of a 7,500-hectare donation of land to the government of Chubut for the Mapuche people did not satisfy the family.

Sánchez also discusses the case of U.S. fashion magnate Douglas Tompkins, who owns 900,000 hectares in Patagonia, including 630,000 hectares across the Chilean border.

Tompkins, the second-largest private property owner in Chile, created the Pumalín National Park in that country, and the Monte León Park in southern Argentina.

“If the forests, water and soil run out, the economy will enter into crisis,” Tompkins told Sánchez. “For some reason I’m in the vanguard, but I know that in 20 years, we will all be talking about this. If natural resources are overexploited, the system collapses, and I prefer donating a national park to buying a jet.”

Another foreign owner of Patagonia is financier Joseph Lewis, one of the wealthiest people in Britain, who purchased 14,000 hectares in the province of Chubut.

Lewis has built an orphanage that looks like a palace near Lago Escondido, a lake that can only be accessed by asking for permission at Lewis’s estate.

Ted Turner, the founder of the U.S. cable news network CNN, also fell in love with Patagonia, buying the 10,000-hectare La Primavera estate in Neuquén in 1996 from the son of an Argentine man who had bought it from a British owner.

The man who sold it to him, Felipe Lariviere, provided the quote with which Sánchez opens his book: “Patagonia is Argentine only by chance.”

He also said that Turner, besides donating ambulances and helping the local community, is a fervent defender of nature.

Not until the late 1990s did Argentines, prompted by the strong interest shown by foreigners, begin to purchase land in Patagonia. The best-known were television personality Marcelo Tinelli and basketball star Manuel Ginóbili, an NBA champion.

But most of the large new owners are foreign.

“I don’t think there’s a more beautiful place anywhere in the world,” Turner said at his estate, which used to form part of a national park but was sold to him legally under Argentine law. Since then, he has bought other estates in Neuquén and Tierra del Fuego, bringing his total property in the region to 45,000 hectares.

“Everything that is scarce in the world can be found in Patagonia,” a Belgian man, Huber Grosse, told Sánchez. He owns 11,000 hectares in the province of Río Negro, where he runs a polo and golf resort for wealthy tourists.

“Patagonia was colonised by livestock, not people. No one was concerned about gaining formal land titles, and the state doesn’t know how to regulate the question,” said Grosse, who argues that this region “must be preserved by means of sustainable tourism.”

And the list goes on. There is Ward Lay, whose father was the founder of Frito-Lay and former chairman of PepsiCo. Lay bought 80,000 hectares from the Benettons on the Alicurá Ranch, in the provinces of Neuquén and Río Negro, where he runs a “world-class hunting & fishing destination.”

“In Patagonia, you can feel like you have a little part of the world all to yourself,” he commented.

Also enchanted by the wide open spaces of Patagonia are French singer Florent Pagny and another Frenchman, Michel Biquard, the owner of the exclusive hotel Los Notros in Santa Cruz, the only hotel with a view of the world-famous Perito Moreno glacier. Los Notros is located near the small town of El Calafate, where Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Senator Cristina Fernández, take holidays.

In Sánchez’s view, El Calafate is one of the places that best illustrate his argument that many Argentine officials are doing brisk business by selling publicly-owned land, to the point that they have transformed small towns into virtual real estate agencies which offer property to the highest bidder.

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