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Northern Patagonia

History

This is the youngest area of the Chilean nation. Not until the early 20th century did Chile actively promote colonization of the region, and many of the towns are barely 50 years old.

While Northern Patagonia is a youthful part of Chile, it has a much longer and older history. For thousands of years, the Chonos and Alacalufes people inhabited the intricate canals and islands, while their Tehuelche brethren lived on the mainland steppes. The rugged geography of Aisén deterred European settlement for centuries - even after Francisco de Ulloa first set foot on the Península de Taitao in 1553. Fortune seekers believed the legendary 'City of the Caesars' to be in Trapananda, as Aisén was first known, but Jesuit missionaries from Chiloé were the first Europeans to explore the region intensively. In the late 17th century, Bartolomé Díaz Gallardo and Antonio de Vea came upon Laguna San Rafael and the Campo de Hielo Norte, the northern continental ice sheet. A great many expeditions (including Captain Robert Fitzroy's British expedition, for which Darwin served as a naturalist) visited the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, some in search of a protected passage to the Atlantic.

In the early 1900s, the government grant- ed nearly a million hectares in and around Coyhaique to the Valparaíso-based Sociedad Industrial Aisén as a long-term lease for exploitation of livestock and lumber. The company dominated the regional economy. Encouraged by a Chilean law that rewarded clearance with land titles, the Sociedad and colonists burned nearly 3 million hectares of lenga forest and destroyed much of Aisén's native southern beech forest in a series of fires that raged for nearly a decade in the 1940s. Some of the planned fires raged out of control and the scorched trunks of downed trees still litter hillsides from Villa Mañihuales to Puerto Ibáñez.

Since the agrarian reform of the 1960s, the influence of the Sociedad and other large landowners has declined. The region is sparsely populated, most notably south of Coyhaique, an area that was devastated by the 1991 eruption of Volcán Hudson, which dumped tons of ash over thousands of square kilometers in both Chile and Argentina, ruining cropland and killing livestock by burying pasture grasses. Salmon farming is a major industry and continues to grow at an exponential rate. The cold waters are optimal farming conditions, but waste from the farms is causing ecological disruption in some coastal areas. There's also a number of controversial hydroelectric projects and other industrial plans that are involved in the continual push and pull between development and conservation in this region of Patagonia.