With the exception of a couple of nearby Chilean islands with just a handful of people, the southernmost populated town on our planet is Puerto Williams, Chile. It is located on the island of Navarino, a UNESCO biosphere reserve north of Cape Horn, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet.
The sub-Antarctic is a region just above Antarctica, found between 48°S and 58°S in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and between 42°S and 48°S in the Atlantic Ocean. I have made the long journey to this remote place because Puerto Williams is becoming a key player in the global fight to counter climate change. It is also struggling to promote tourism and economic opportunities without destroying the environment.
After taking a three and a half hour flight to Punta Arenas in the Magellan Strait, we boarded a large ferry. Once a week it makes the 30-hour trip to Puerto Williams. No frills, just a seat that slightly reclines, a blanket and a canteen that serves three simple meals.
It is provincial, to say the least. Unlike the Argentine city of Ushuaia, just across the Beagle Canal, Puerto Williams has only one bank, one petrol station (closed on Sundays), a general store that sells food brought from mainland Chile and one school. A dozen tiny shops are closed much of the time, and there are few places to eat. There is no cinema or entertainment. The hospital is new but so poorly equipped that patients must be flown to Punta Arenas on the mainland, weather permitting, in emergencies. That includes giving birth.
Nevertheless, about 2,000 Chileans live in Puerto Williams. Half of them are marines stationed on the island’s naval base who leave after a four-year tour. Another 25 percent are civil servants. Most of the remainder are fishermen who brave the cape’s ferocious waves to catch king crab.
“It pays well, but you risk your life every time you go out to sea,” 28-year-old Matias tells me.
There is also a small Indigenous Yagan community. The Yagans were the original inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, nomads who arrived thousands of years before Charles Darwin set foot in the area and who used canoes to fish. They kept warm in the windy, freezing temperatures by spreading sea lion fat on their skin and wearing animal furs. But when the Europeans, and later the Chilean and Argentines, settled in the region in the mid-1880s, the near-extinction of the Yagans began.
Today there are only about 200 living on Navarino Island. The last Yagan who spoke their language died last year.
Cape Horn is known for its harsh weather and natural beauty. The air is pure, and the glaciers and snow-capped Darwin Mountain range are stunning.
“It’s a jewel,” says Ricardo Rozzi, director of the newly inaugurated Cape Horn Subantarctic International Centre (CHIC). “There are very few places like this left in the world. It has the cleanest water in the world, too.”
Rozzi is a Chilean biologist and philosopher who divides his time between the sub-Antarctic and the University of North Texas.
Rozzi’s charisma and passion for saving our natural world have helped convince 250 climate-change researchers, anthropologists, geophysicists, ornithologists, engineers, educators and many other scientists from the world over to join forces at CHIC, financed mainly by the Chilean government with the participation of a half dozen Chilean universities.
“We want to reorient the world from Cape Horn by turning it into a biocultural, educational and scientific hub,” Rozzi says. “There are enormous and mostly untouched sub-tropical forests here that house 5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. Yet the world is losing its cultural and biological diversity, the prior faster than the latter.”
From here and the surrounding islands, scientists measure greenhouse gases, the changing ocean and air temperatures, and a series of other indicators that will help to predict environmental shifts.
But those at the new sub-Antarctic centre say pure science is not enough.
“The crux of this is to turn CHIC into a laboratory to be able to design an education system that is ecocultural, that can expand not just throughout Chile but the region and the world,” anthropologist Andrea Valdivia says. “It is designed so that humans can appreciate and understand nature and not destroy it.”
That is why CHIC emphasizes what it calls biocultural education. There are courses for students to learn why and how to protect the environment, starting from kindergarten.
Yet as nearly pristine as Puerto Williams is, change is coming. The locals tell me they need to develop more economic opportunities, or young people will not want to live here.
Already a new pier is being built to allow large cruise ships to dock and use the island as a new gateway to Antarctica.
“That would be very welcome. Of course we would need restaurants, a bigger airport, hotels, better services. We also have to protect our environment. But growth is inevitable” says Edwin Olivares, leader of the Fishermen’s Union.
Right now, the airport is a large room with two big timber-fuelled heaters to keep passengers from freezing while they wait for the local airline plane to arrive. There are no security checkpoints or modern screening equipment. It is actually very refreshing.
While Puerto Williams is small, residents admit that they live quite segregated from each other. The marines and their families stick together, so do the fishermen, the civil servants and the Yagans.
Teacher Luis Gomez is president of the Yagan community. He tells me he wants progress but is not sure that Puerto Williams and its environment are prepared for such an influx of people.
And he is also worried that his people may not be included in the progress that may come.
“For example, we want to be able to sell our handicrafts, not just for economic reasons but because we were almost annihilated,” Gomez says. “So, when someone buys a small handmade canoe or basket, it’s not just a souvenir but a part of our history and culture. It is important for us.”
For its part, CHIC is promoting another type of tourism: bird watching in the island’s Omora Park. Why bird watching?
“The love of nature is in our DNA. It’s hard-wired, even though our society pushes it out of us,” says Greg Miller with the Audubon Society, a US-based conservation organization. “There are more bird watchers than golfers – 70 million of them – and they want to protect the flora and fauna that allows people to watch these animals from afar with binoculars in their natural habitat.”
Miller is working with CHIC to promote sustainable tourism. While we spoke, we looked up to see several woodpeckers pecking away at trees at lightning speed. The reserve is home to the second largest of their species, and they are everywhere, as are owls, hawks and other birds.
Ornithologists also work in the reserve, studying and marking birds, observing their migratory and breeding patterns.
“Birds are like sentinels of climate change,” Audubon Society scientist Chad Wilzie says. “They are an important kind of indicator of the impacts of climate change on our environment because they are very sensitive to it. I mean, we can go back to the 1800s or before when canaries were brought to coal mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide.”
The premise is that Cape Horn will become an important natural laboratory for identifying climate change factors as well as modifying our relationship with nature, or at least attempting to.
“Changes in sub-Antarctica are precursors to Antarctica and provide key information to what is or will happen on that increasingly less frozen continent.” geophysicist Matias Troncoso says. “And it could give us clues on how to mitigate and reverse possible effects of climate change through public policies.”