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Activists outraged that sacred Chilean island is listed for sale for $20m

Dan Collyns
·3 mins read

The island of Guafo sits on the route taken by blue whales heading into the fjords of Chilean Patagonia. It is a hotspot for marine biodiversity, home to rare flora and sacred to the indigenous Mapuche people.

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And now it is up for sale.

The 50,000-acre island has been offered on the jet-set property market for a cool $20m – prompting outrage among activists and reigniting a debate in Chile over private ownership versus national patrimony.

The online advert at Private Islands Inc says the island “boasts more than 44 miles of coastline and provides a home to a diverse array of flora and fauna”.

That flora includes a rare congonilla tree species and the fauna, particularly the marine variety, is nothing short of spectacular, including blue, humpback, sei and southern right whales, as well as orcas and dolphins.

Environmentalists and local indigenous people are exasperated that the island’s 83 sq mile (217 sq km) expanse and its waters – save for a lighthouse manned by the Chilean navy – are being offered the highest bidder.

“The island is the entry point to the Gulf of Corcovado which is the most important feeding ground for blue and humpback whales on the Chilean coast,” says Yacqueline Montecinos, head of marine biodiversity conservation at the WWF.

Lying 23 miles (37km) south-west of the larger island of Chiloé, Guafo is also home to the world’s largest colony of sooty shearwaters, the northern-most colony of southern fur seals, a breeding population of endangered marine otters, as well as southern sea lions and nesting magellanic penguins.

In 2017, WWF Chile began a campaign for the island’s waters to be declared a marine protected area, supported by a request from Chile’s senate, but it now backs a bid by indigenous Mapuche Huilliche communities from Chiloé to supervise Guafo’s coastline.

“We are asking the government to consider returning [the island],” said Cristian Chiguay, lonko, or leader, of eleven Lafkenche de Quellón communities which are part of a scheme to conserve ancestral fishing grounds off the island where they collect sea urchins and red carrageenan seaweed used in skin conditioning cosmetics.

“We see [the island] as a source of life and spiritual power. For us it’s not a business, it doesn’t have commercial value,” added Chihuay.

The island is currently jointly owned by businessmen Paul Fontaine and Rodrigo Danús, the latter of whom is the nephew of General Luis Danús Covian, who served as an economy minister in the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Under their ownership there was concern the island’s coal deposits could be exploited but that is now unlikely due to a government block on coal mining.

Guafo is one of six Chilean islands currently for sale on Private Islands Inc. but its listing was withdrawn from Sotheby’s Realty this week apparently amid media interest.

Chile’s environment ministry said the island and its waters were a “hotspot for biodiversity conservation” but as “private property, the current legislation does not allow … it to be declared a national park, natural monument or national reserve”.

The future owner could turn it into a conservation area, the statement added, but would not be obliged to.

Historical records show that Guafo has been in private hands for around a century. The island, dubbed the “Galápagos of Chile” was reportedly visited by Charles Darwin in 1834 on HMS Beagle’s second voyage.