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Walking in Patagonia

26 Dec, 2022

My wife and I are spending the end of the year in the deep south of both Argentina and Chile. Argentina is going through an economic crisis, as it seems to be doing every few years, while Chile feels it's slowly, but continuously, improving both politically and economically.
You might know of the very positive development, earlier this year, in Chile, when a left wing, and very young, politician, Gabriel Boric, was elected to the presidency. Their expected constitutional change appeared to have been a bit too radical, but solidified political change tends to be a slow moving process.

We're walking a lot. Near Ushuaia, which, through general consensus, is considered the southern most city in the world, near Puerto Arenas, close to the Torres del Paine National Park, and near El Calafate, in Los Glaciares National Park. All provide unbelievable views of incredibly stunning landscapes.

In a way, we were walking in the footsteps of Thomas Holdich, geographer and president of the Royal Geographic Society, who walked the region a good 100 years ago.

The border between Chile and Argentina, in principle, was decided as being the watershed between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Rain falling on land draining into the Pacific meant the land was Chilean, land draining into the Atlantic belonged to Argentina.
Except, by the end of the 19th century, it became clear that the natural border between the two countries, the Andes, not quite divided the countries in exactly this way as the mountain range approaches the far side of the continent. So, as a consequence, Chile, at the end of the 19th century, staked a claim to the Straight of Magellan, and, with a slow buildup in the following years, there was a real risk of the two countries going to war over this territorial dispute in the far south.

But, public opinion rose against this conflict, incidentally mostly led by women and women's organisations, and a considered neutral third party was called in to decide. First, the British embassy, then King Edward VII, and, finally, Thomas Holdich, by then known for having settled somewhat comparable border disputes in Asia.

Holdich walked the entire length of the border between the two countries, passing through many places where no man, it was thought, had gone before; an expedition of exploration.
As he traveled, Holdich studied the cultures of the two countries, and concluded that "Love of nature's beauty seems to be inherent in the Chilean. Trees and flowers, clouds and sunsets, these things appeal to him just as imposing buildings, magnificent streets, miles of wharfage, and acres of whool-sheds appeal to the Argentine imagination." At the time, Argentina was one of the richest countries in the world, with, at some point, perhaps even the highest GDP per capita.
So, Holdich adopted this as his criteria. When there was a choice, scenic landscapes went to the Chileans, more fertile land went to the Argentines.

Edward VII announced the results, the countries accepted the decision, both stated they had been fairly treated, and reason had triumphed. War was averted, peace had prevailed.

To commemorate the process, a statue was commissioned and erected in 1904, on the border between the two countries, on the road between Mendoza and Santiago, Christ the Redeemer of the Andes.
Except, the workers had, by accident, turned the orientation of the statue by 90 degrees and, instead of pointing south, Christ was pointing to Argentina, having his back to Chile.

Passions briefly flared, but a Chilean newspaperman calmed passions when writing that "The statue is placed as it should be. The people of Argentina need more watching over than the Chileans."
Amazingly, placated, both countries buried their arms, reduced the size of their armies, turned barracks into schools, and converted battleships for commercial purposes, signing an agreement that a permanent arbitrator, the British government, would settle all disputes between the two countries in the future.

Praised as a victory for peace, Peru and Bolivia, a few years later, settled a similar border dispute by also bringing in the Royal Geographic Society, and settling their conflict amicably.

The long walk of Holdich had made a real, tangible, and meaningful difference in the world.
And then World War I happened.

Now, the continental deep south sees no conflict. Though talk of some kind of reparations for the small indigenous community that once lived here would not be out of order.

This is our last mailing for 2022.
On Wednesday we've got the last background article coming up, on the pieces nominated for this year's Sound Walk September Award. Early next year, we'll follow up with our announcement on winners and runners up. It's a nail biter.

Thanks for being with us. Happy new year!

Co-founder of walk · listen · create

Uncovering the complex layers of the port of Edinburgh.
Touching the liminal space between geographical marvel and the subtle signs of a tragic history, hidden within the landscape.

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