Jesus Carrasco’s goats are acting up again. On a precarious mountain ridge on the banks of a once-raging river, more than a hundred goats graze among the few remaining patches of leafy green vegetation.
“We’re going riding,” he said, saddling up his horse and brushing off the dust blending in with the brown suede of his brimmed hat. Here, in the foothills of the Andes, just 40 miles from Chile’s capital city of Santiago, the color brown stretches for miles.
Whooping for his herd to return, Jesus steers his horse down into the valley and across the river towards the goats. They scatter, like misbehaving school children, then regroup in bursts, urged on by the scolding yips of Jesus’s five farm dogs. The terrain is impossibly steep, but Jesus is unafraid—his horse has done this before. The goats clump into a bleating cloud, slowly rolling across the landscape, back toward the Carrasco family farmstead.
Jesus is an arriero: a cultural group of Chileans who practice free-range ranching and horseback trekking in the Andes. Rounding up his herd can take Jesus up to an hour, even when it doesn’t stray. But Jesus doesn’t mind. “I like the freedom,” he said. “The freedom of living in the mountains and being with the animals.” In the distance, the setting sun silhouettes a single icy peak—a reminder of when the barren mountains were once blanketed in snow, even in summer.
Such landscape transformation is a familiar story for many Chileans. In the last 14 years, a historic megadrought has swept through Chile, threatening national food security and drying rivers until they fight to reach the sea. The watershed where Jesus Carrasco lives, known as the Cajón del Maipo, provides 70% of all drinkable water in Santiago, home to 40% of Chile’s population. The glaciers that feed the watershed, like most across the world, are withering from a warming climate. But the ones here face a second threat: mining.
In Chile, mining is an economic powerhouse. The industry, which employs over 250,000 Chileans, provides almost 30% of the world’s copper supply and over 50% of the world’s lithium reserves. These are essential metals in the clean energy transition—as countries respond to climate threats with decarbonization efforts, the global appetite for Chilean metals is only increasing.
The mining process creates a residue known as black carbon, which can be carried by the wind and land on glaciers dozens of miles away. The sooty coating traps the heat of the sun and intensifies melting. A recent study found that the Olivares Alpha Glacier, just north of the Carrasco family farmstead, is the fastest melting glacier in the region due to the nearby Los Bronces copper mine.
In the crippling absence of rain and snow, the melting ice provides relief to a thirsty watershed. But local communities won’t be able to rely on it much longer. The peak of glacial melt was over 50 years ago and since then, the glaciers of the Cajón del Maipo have lost a fifth of their ice. Scientists estimate in about a century, they may vanish entirely.
Chilean conservationists want to protect both the glaciers and ecosystems that depend on them. In 2019, the nonprofit Queremos Parque, “We Want a Park,” launched a campaign to create a 142,000-hectare nature reserve in the Cajón del Maipo—one that would prevent mining companies from moving into the area. To Queremos Parque, it’s a race for control over the land.
The arrieros find themselves at a precarious moment. Vanishing glaciers and drought threaten their traditional herding practices, while mining and extractive industries provide employment opportunities but only harm the landscape more. As Queremos Parque hurriedly markets their plans for land conservation to the Chilean government, arrieros fear that the designation of protected land would restrict their access to it. Either way, for arrieros, the future means change.
Arrieros were historically known for their namesake portage services, carrying goods and people across the Andes on horseback. Today, they practice seasonal ranching, bringing their herds into the mountains to graze in the summer and guiding them back down to enclosures in the winter. While Jesus retrieves his goat herd daily, families that own cattle let them roam for months and check on them up to five times per season.
The drought has now dried the once-green pastures. At times, the cattle die from starvation before the arrieros find them. Some, like Jesus, have turned to goats as a hardier, less costly animal. But despite mounting financial losses, the arriero tradition of cattle ranching persists.
For arrieros, the future means change.
Jesus and a dozen other arriero families are from El Alfalfal, a small locality on the edges of the settled Cajón del Maipo. The main hamlet, built along the Rio Maipo, is home to around 200 residents, whose dozen-or-so homes neatly line the single street that runs through town. Here, doors are propped open and children’s bikes are strewn across lawns. A handful of convenience stores and restaurants, often the front room of a home, serve pan amasado sandwiches and fruity sodas to workers from the nearby hydroelectric plant. While the town is contained to a rectangular area roughly the size of a city block, the locality stretches up into the mountains, where dusty dirt roads follow the once-raging river up to scattered homesteads.
For all its tranquility, in 2007, El Alfalfal and the nearby locality of Los Maitenes became marred by an ugly conservation battle over “Alto Maipo,” an expansive hydroelectric energy system that left the rivers muddied and the lands carved with construction. In 2007, AES Andes S.A., a subsidiary of the American Company AES Corporation, began constructing the project known as “Alto Maipo” directly adjacent to El Alfalfal’s main town. During the process, they encircled the town in a wall to protect residents from construction debris and sound.
Steep opposition came from No Alto Maipo activists, whose large protests drew international attention to the environmental and public health risks the project posed to the drought-stricken region. While the El Alfalfal residents say they appreciated the employment opportunities, the project also failed them in one major way.
“Our biggest dream has always been our land titles,” said Victoria Ortega from the small storefront attached to her home, wiping flour onto the striped apron she’s rarely seen without. Victoria, born in the nearby mountains, has spent nearly 70 years in El Alfalfal and is president of the neighborhood development committee.
During Augusto Pinochet’s military takeover in the 1970s, land ownership was stripped from the community and never returned. Bienes Nacionales, a land ministry of the Chilean government, now manages the land, which it said is a high-risk zone. In 1983, Victoria’s mother was one of 29 people that died in a historic flash flood and landslide. She said that now, due to the legal risk of being held responsible for any deaths caused by future landslides, Bienes Nacionales refuses to return their land titles.
While negotiating with AES at the start of the Alto Maipo project, residents say they were promised support in recovering their land titles with fortifications that reduce landslide risk. But these never materialized. Today, the residents of El Alfalfal do not own the land they live on, leaving them wary of Queremos Parque, the latest conservation movement to come to the Cajón del Maipo.
Queremos Parque was launched in 2019 as an environmental campaign to convert 142,000 hectares of the Cajón del Maipo into protected land. Their vision includes transforming the Cajón del Maipo into an ecotourism destination while protecting the thousands of glaciers critical to Santiago’s water security. As of this spring, the nonprofit’s online petition has been signed by over 200,000 individuals, with over 200 organizations and companies as pledged partners.
“Democratizing access to nature is very important,” said Pilar Valenzuela Delpiano, Queremos Parque’s director. Pilar said that a national reserve would make mountain tourism more affordable and inspire care for the environment. But while she sees arrieros playing an important role in ecotourism operations, Queremos Parque still does not have local support. Without it, she fears the project may seem politically unfavorable to lawmakers.
“We told them that we could support them if they supported us with our land titles,” said Victoria. While Queremos Parque said they have asked government officials to support the transfer of official land titles to El Alfalfal residents, Pilar said that this decision is in the hands of Bienes Nacionales.
Victoria’s son, Miguel Aguirre Ortega is among the arrieros who oppose Queremos Parque and reject a future of working in ecotourism. “It might all sound like a beautiful idea, like a dream,” he said, “but it is not going to be that way for the people who live here.”
More than anything, he fears his community of arrieros will lose access to the land. It’s happened before. In the neighboring O’Higgins region of Chile, the designation of a national park resulted in strict protections for native plants that ultimately prevented local arrieros from ranching.
“Queremos Parque” directly translates to “We want a park.” While the nonprofit initially did hope to open a national park, Pilar said the name has become a misnomer. In an effort to accommodate the arrieros, they now hope to open a reserve, which may have a more flexible structure to allow continued ranching on the land. But Queremos Parque also said they can’t make guarantees. Details about management and policy, Pilar said, would come later, once the reserve is approved and supported by the government. For now, their priority is stopping further damage to the environment.
“If I had to choose between living here forever or leaving, I would choose to stay a thousand times over.”
Glaciologist Francisco Ferrando Acuña, former vice president of the Chilean Society of Geographical Sciences, said “the most obvious way to protect glaciers” is to keep industries away from them. In addition to black carbon contamination, Francisco said mining companies sometimes destroy pockets of ice hidden beneath the surface, known as rock glaciers, by directly digging into them. His research suggests that rock glaciers, which are buffered from warming, are important stores of future water.
“It’s an existential threat,” said Kate Altemus Cullen, a 28-year-old Ph.D. candidate in the University of California Energy and Resources Group studying water resources in Chile. Even as the country renegotiates water rights in favor of drinking water security, Kate said the government favors mines over scientific evidence of their harmful effects. “It’s pretty dire to think about. Where would the water come from?”
Pilar and her small team of Queremos Parque volunteers have kept a close eye on mining activity in the region. Mining companies already own the rights to the subsoil and have conducted explorations in the mountains directly north of El Alfalfal. But in a country “covered in mining concessions,” Pilar said this doesn’t prevent Queremos Parque from making their reserve. If a conservation area is established, Pilar said mining companies would face a steep barrier of public approval and environmental study requirements, effectively freezing the permitting process before actual extraction begins.
Jesus Carrasco weighs the possibilities: mining, or a reserve. “Just the same,” he said. But Miguel, who now spends half of the month working at a copper mine over 1,000 miles away, said mining would “change the landscape in such a way that there is no turning back.”
The arrieros are caught in a contradiction. As drought has made traditional herding costly and unprofitable, they turn to industries that, albeit well-paying, further damage the environment they depend on. Although Miguel and other arrieros fear these environmental impacts, without guaranteed protections for their right to bring their animals onto the land, he said they can’t support Queremos Parque.
On a warm summer night, Miguel’s family stops by the two-cabin home he built in El Alfalfal. Victoria shows him where, in their shared backyard, the wall that once encircled the town has begun to be removed. They pause to admire the replacement chain link fence while his youngest son runs laps around the lawn, a new puppy at his heels. In the morning, the boy and Miguel will join his grandfather on a multiday horseback trek to check on their cattle.
Miguel takes a breath, thinking of how the mountains looked in his own childhood. “This place is everything to me,” he sighs, his usual matter-of-fact baritone softening. “If I had to choose between living here forever or leaving, I would choose to stay a thousand times over.”