South American Dispatch

By Hal Brill
This article first appeared in the March 2009 edition of the Natural Investing newsletter

Patagonia glacier

Greetings from Patagonia! Allison and I are exploring the southern tip of the Americas, learning about the many cultures and exploring beautiful but endangered natural wonders. This year marks my 20th as an investment advisor (and I’ve got the grey hair to prove it!), so it seemed like a good time to get back to my roots and reconnect with the inspiration that launched me on this path. I majored in Cultural Geography in college because of my curiosity about the world, which fed my passion for making a difference. Now, thanks to the Internet, I’m able to travel again and keep up with business. I’m carrying a little net book computer and you wouldn’t believe some of the places I’ve hooked up to wi-fi!

One reason to come all the way to southern Patagonia is to experience how global warming is affecting the planet—the impacts are more evident closer to the poles. On our first day we visited a penguin colony on an island in the Straights of Magellan. Very cute, and they seem to be thriving. Next, we went on a boat ride up a beautiful fjord to our first glacier. This is where you really see the changes. Our guides showed us old photos of the glacier – the loss of ice is staggering. Glaciers that used to extend to the sea now cling to the peaks. This week a new scientific report came out saying that sea levels will rise more than previously thought— about 5 feet—because of shrinking glaciers and melting ice fields. So any-one considering investing in ocean-front property might want to reconsider!

Patagonia is home to two huge ice sheets, remnants from the ice age. Melting has been occurring for thousands of years as a natural process, but the rate is accelerating, a fact that most scientists attribute to burning fossil fuels. On our trek to the northern Patagonian ice field, our guides took measurements of the ice thickness and we learned about extreme events such as a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood, or GLOF that endangers downstream residents. That is when a lake behind a glacial moraine burrows under and opens a drain. We walked along a lake that twice last year drained completely in just a few hours!

We also are learning about “ecotourism”. Does it support local economies and help protect the environment? Or does it merely ease our guilty consciences for flying in jets and bringing western- style development to exotic locales? Sure, we love to have adventures and see new places, but we also want to feel that we are part of the solution and not just making things worse.

During the first couple of weeks we traveled by bus to two of Patagonia’s most famous national parks, Torres del Paine (Chile) and Parque Nacional de los Glaciares (Argentina). Entire towns have sprung up to service the tourist trade, creating many jobs in areas that have little else going on. There is the usual sprawl that ac- companies this scene, but compared to the vast Patagonian landscape the impacts are contained. The revenue has enabled both countries to protect a vast network of national parks that is impressive in scale. Some parks are closed to visitors to protect habitat, part of a major effort to restore endangered species. We met many visitors from urban Santiago and Buenos Aires who are happy to experience nature and are proud of these parts of their country. And they should be – the water is so clean that we drank right out of streams all over Patagonia.

But it was on our 8-day trek to the northern Patagonia ice field that we really experienced ecotourism firsthand. We chose a conscious outfitter, Patagonia Adventure Expeditions (PAEX), who cares about the land and works with locals to enhance their appreciation of their own environment. They are active in the campaign to stop several proposed mega-dams that would vastly alter the region. On our journey we got to know the guides and helpers well and it was obvious that all of them were grateful for the opportunity to be working here. They spoke with genuine sadness about watching the declining glaciers. They are on a mission to educate people about this, as well as the looming dam issue. It felt really good to know that we were helping these young people create rewarding livelihoods. But what was most exciting was to explore the potential for transforming the region through a combination of ecotourism, education, and science. This is the vision of Jonathan Leidich, the energetic founder of PAEX. During these challenging economic times, it’s unclear how many people will be able to travel in the future, but an economic engine is needed to enable sustainable living in this remote region.

One small thing that we can do is to share what we learn, hopefully in an entertaining way. We are keeping a blog:, with lots of photos. In the coming weeks we’ll be taking a firsthand look at other Natural Investing topics such as renewable energy and micro finance, so please travel along with us!


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Hal Brill

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