Perched on a wide bay along the southern coast of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world. At one end of the city, a steep, unpaved road through the trees marks the entrance to the district known as Dos Banderas. The road takes a sharp turn, and suddenly, the chaotic town, known for its tourism, mountain gear shops, and expensive cruises, is left behind. If Ushuaia is at the end of the world, these woods make one feel as if the world has been left behind. If a visitor didn’t know where to look, they might think this was just another path in the woods; however, a careful eye reveals there’s much more than wilderness here.
Ushuaia, founded in 1884, is bordered on the north by the foot of Andes mountain range, and on the south by the Beagle Channel, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The earliest-known inhabitants of the area were the Selk’nam, an indigenous group who lived here for thousands of years. When colonizers from Europe and America arrived in the region, the natives were systematically deported and exterminated – bounties were even paid to the most ruthless hunters. By the mid-20th century, their population was reduced to less than few hundred.
After existing as a penal colony for re-offenders from 1896 to 1947, Ushuaia now has about 60,000 permanent residents and attracts thousands of domestic and international tourists every year, all looking to experience the virtually untouched landscapes, and dreaming of Antarctica’s ice caps, as the town’s harbor serves as a launching place for Antarctic tour expeditions.
Unknown to many of the tourists who have come and gone in search of adventure over the last 20 years, life for the residents of Ushuaia has been anything but stable. While Ushuaia has flourished into a proper urban center and tourist destination, there has been a growing problem with the uneven distribution of resources. Most of the money generated by tourism has ended up in the pockets of private companies, and many residents complain that there has been little re-allocation to services and infrastructure that would benefit them. In 1996, the local government shut down a public housing program, as well as the public registry for land, which had allowed families to purchase places to live.
“All of a sudden, hundreds of pending families in that registry found themselves without the possibility of having a home. That was when people started looking for a place to live in this forest,” says Pao Minolfi, a local resident and young mother of three children. Previously, “People could sign up in the land registry, where points were assigned according to the amount of years a person lived in Ushuaia, if he or she was a Tierra del Fuego native, and many other factors. Then a waiting list was made, and top people could get a plot of land to build their own house.”
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Many local families, unable to afford rent in town, began to peacefully occupy plots of land outside of Ushuaia’s city center. Today, about 350 families live in these districts, on land they don’t officially own. Minolfi was one of the first people to build her own house in what is now known as Dos Banderas. “When I first got here, my house was one of the most isolated [homes in] the neighborhood,” she says. “Today, I have a lot of neighbors, and the community is much stronger.” Dos Banderas is now full of hand-built houses, playgrounds, and public squares, all of which were crafted with the aim of interfering with nature as little as possible.
Not all of the land near these districts is public; some of it is owned by wealthy private citizens, who use the properties as vacation homes. The local government has used this as leverage to charge many of the occupiers with trespassing, and trying to evict them from the area. “Since the beginning, it has been all about fighting for our right to have a place to live,” says Minolfi.
Then, in the early 2000s, the entire Dos Banderas area was designated as a site for a luxury hotel and golf courses. However, thanks to the activism and protests from district residents, construction was never completed. “During those years we all lived in a constant fear of losing everything we were trying to create here,” says Minolfi. “There were regular police raids, and it was very hard to bring inside the district all the material needed for construction. I had to cut all the wood I used [to build my house] in small little pieces so that I could easily hide it in my car. It was a constant drive back and forth from my sister’s house in town.
“That’s why I’m so proud of what we achieved. What we have today is the result of a 20-year battle against the municipality and private investors, who would have been more than happy to use these lands as source of profits. These woods are beautiful, and [the] tourism industry has always been tempted to take advantage of it.
“After all,” she adds, smiling proudly, “from here you have the perfect overlook of the Beagle’s Channel and the entire town, so it’s understandable.”
“I feel lucky to be in this place, to live in harmony with the environment, to have all these natural beauties just in my backyard,” says Calos Villamonte, a good friend of Minolfi and a former employee of the Ushuaia municipality. Villamonte moved here from Buenos Aires 23 years ago and now lives in “Las Raices,” an occupied district adjacent to Dos Banderas. “It makes me so angry to think that Ushuaia’s tourism industry always tries to take advantage of these incredible landscapes we have.” Because of the monopoly granted to tour companies, many natural sites in and around Ushuaia are off-limits without paying a fee. Villamonte and several other local activists have taken it upon themselves to mark paths and trails through the woods, allowing hikers to discover the beauty the land has to offer, free of charge.
The land is a little rougher in Las Raices: the road is only accessible by car to a certain point; past that it is only possible to travel on foot. The path is often extremely muddy due to the weather, which is so unstable in Ushuaia that locals say it’s possible to experience the four seasons in as little as half an hour.
“In wintertime, it becomes a real problem to move around, especially when snow arrives,” says Villamonte, indicating the woods behind his house. “Everything freezes, and when you have so little daylight, torchlights and caution become fundamental. But it’s worth it – we live in a place which is only 300 meters as the crow flies from the city center, and still we are in the middle of the nature.”
“When I started building my house, I didn’t know anything about construction,” says Villamonte, laughing. “I had no clue how to build a drainage system, nor a solid foundation. It’s something you learn by experience, and by a regular exchange with people in your same situation. When they say that you learn by mistakes, it’s true.”
Given the unstable relationship with the local municipality, the families living in these districts know they must rely on each other. Such cooperation is apparent in the collective administration boards: there is one for every district, and they are in charge of the many different aspects of everyday life, such as carrying on a dialogue with Ushuaia’s municipality, mediating any controversies that arise between local residents, and carrying out improvements to be made within the districts.
Serving on such boards is almost a full-time job, as is apparent by Minolfi’s mobile phone. She is constantly receiving phone calls and Whatsapp notifications from people inquiring about land, neighbors complaining about the behavior of the nearby family, and so on. It’s a duty she performs with pride.
“Ushuaia is a city that is constantly growing, year after year,” says Minolfi. “With immigration from the north of Argentina and bordering countries, as well as high birth rates, the demand for land is increasing, and it’s something that needs some sort of regulation by the local administration. People have the right to have a place to live.”
Ten years ago, the municipality began a process of urbanization and deforestation, clearing about 62 acres in the Andorra district, in an attempt to regulate the occupation phenomenon, and to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood.
“Andorra began to be urbanized in 2007, but still today many areas do not have water, sewer or gas. If, after ten years, there’s still a lack of basic services like these, it means that deforestation and urbanization aren’t the right way to solve the question.” says Minolfi “It’s becoming a real problem, and we don’t quite know what the municipality would like to do for districts like Dos Banderas or Las Raìces.”
The residents in Ushuaia’s occupied districts have built a resolute community, and the ongoing conflict they have been struggling with for decades has led to a fragile agreement with the local administration. There are no more evictions like there were in the first years, and in 2016, mayor Walter Vuoto voted to re-open the public land registry; however, the authorities still work to avoid new settlers in the area, and residents feel they can’t let down their guard.
Despite the precariousness of the situation in which they live, a strong sense of purpose is tangible among the residents of these forests at the end of the world. While they are cautiously optimistic about the future, they are determined to keep up their fight for as long as they have to, even if that means passing it on to future generations.