In the dark dense rain forest of Chilean Patagonia, I am retracing the steps of Charles Darwin, in a search for the freak of a frog that bears his name.
The charming quirk of Darwin's Frog is the male's proclivity for carrying tadpole eggs in his vocal sac before disgorging the tykes into the world. The frogs come in hues of brown to green, making the tiny creatures almost impossible to see in their swampy habitat.
But Diego Stock, my exuberant Chilean guide, insists that he has spotted one hopping around this squishy bog a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean. It looks like a fluttering brown leaf, but as I bend closer, I catch the outline of one of the world's most endangered species.
Darwin, the 19th-century father of evolutionary theory, encountered the frog in his voyages around South America in the 1830s. Now, 180 years later, I have come to Patagonia to witness another evolution – not just in this embattled frog, but in the new concept of capitalist conservation.
We are tramping through the forests around Melimoyu, a remote speck on the map 1,200 kilometres south of Santiago, Chile's capital. It is a living laboratory of frogs, birds, trees, flowers, blue whales, penguins and a sea lion that plays hide and seek with our rafts and kayaks as we glide down the Marchant River.
Just as Darwin's voyage expanded the understanding of life, Patagonia, one of the last vast empty places, is a test site for grafting protection of natural lands on to profit-driven ecotourism and real estate.
Melimoyu lies about halfway down the narrow ribbon of Chilean Patagonia, a region 1,800 kilometres long and fewer than 200 kilometres wide – from the Pacific to the Argentine border. Much of the land around Melimoyu is owned by Patagonia Sur, a company founded by U.S. social-media millionaire Warren Adams.
It is one of his six Patagonian properties, comprising 25,000 hectares, spanning ocean rain forest, gaucho grasslands in deep Andean valleys, and majestic glaciers on the ragged edge of South America. So far, two of these properties, coastal Melimoyu and inland Valle California, contain small luxury resorts, and a third, Lago Espolon, has more Spartan hostel accommodation.
“We are buying ecosystems under threat by development,” explains Adams, a Harvard MBA who sold his tech company to Amazon in 1998 for $100-million in shares. He was mesmerized by a trip to Patagonia with his wife, Megan, but he also observed a region that was in danger of a development landslide more transformative than any earthquake. It was poised to be overwhelmed by new roads, airstrips and potential transmission lines transporting power from planned hydro dams in the south.
He set out to save space for creatures like Darwin's Frog, whose numbers have been devastated by viruses. And on this day in early April, Stock, who oversees guiding at Melimoyu's eco-resort, is encouraged by the discovery of even a single specimen. He records the sighting on a clipboard – grist for a research foundation set up by Adams to study the region's flora and fauna.
But make no mistake: Patagonia Sur (sur means south in Spanish) is a hard-nosed start-up in the tradition of the high-tech world where Adams earned his entrepreneurial stripes. It comprises a real-estate brokerage (catering to green-minded clientele), sustainable property development, carbon-offset trading and reforestation, as well as ecotourism targeted at affluent consumers who will spend $6,000 (U.S.) or more on a week that melds fly-fishing, sumptuous dining and a clear conscience.
Adams's idea is that ecologically based tourism and real estate are not just beneficiaries of conservation – they can be drivers of preservation. He aims to attract investors by the potential for healthy rates of return earned on Patagonia's still relatively inexpensive land. The funds will underwrite the acquisition of more and more property, to be protected by tough land-use covenants in perpetuity.