One of our partners, EcoCamp Patagonia, has the remarkable distinction of opening the world’s first Geodesic ecotourism accommodation. Since EcoCamp’s opening in 2000, the environmentally-conscious design concept has sprung up throughout Chile, Argentina, and Switzerland. I had the pleasure of posing some questions to Yerko Ivelic, co-founder of EcoCamp Patagonia about the catalyst for developing this innovative green building design.
Describe the environmental circumstances that led to the development of EcoCamp Patagonia 12 years ago.
We had been operating small, sustainable tours in Chile since 1991 with our company Cascada Expediciones and co-founders Nani Astorga, Javier Lopez and I were preoccupied with how we could provide low-impact, quality accommodation in Torres del Paine for our trekking groups. We wanted to provide a unique choice of lodging which would not involve building any damaging infrastructure or leaving an irreversible footprint in the park.
Javier had just returned from Africa, enthused by the safari tents used over there which were big, comfortable and even had bathrooms. We knew these tents wouldn’t last ten seconds in the Patagonian wind, but we kept thinking about how we could adapt the idea. One day, a book of old photography fell into our hands including photos of the ancient Kaweskar inhabitants of Torres del Paine putting up semi-spherical tents insulated with animal skins. Soon after we came across a book about Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic domes and the two ideas united – we would build Geodesic dome accommodation based on the Kaweskar’s low-impact nomadic lifestyle. As engineers, Javier and I set about developing the green technology we would need to make EcoCamp 100% sustainable.
We succeeded. However, after our first season came to its official close, we were in a meeting with the guides reviewing the season’s highs and lows when all of a sudden an immense gust of wind swept across EcoCamp. The result was what you see below! Rest assured our sturdy domes are now resistant to winds of up to 200 km/h! The wildness of Patagonia has never failed to surprise us, whether the ferocious winds or roaming horses or the devastating forest fires in 2005 and 2012. Respecting Patagonia’s wildness is a must!
Of course, foundationally, you are an impressive sustainable tour operator that has endeavored to be carbon neutral since 2008. What new and specific green technologies have been introduced to Eco Camp Patagonia in the last 3 years and what have been the results?
In 2008, the year we became carbon neutral, we introduced new Suite Domes, confident that our sustainable design could be upheld at a higher level of comfort. Our Suite Domes are all equipped with state-of-the-art composting devices in bathrooms and possessed of all the same eco-friendly attributes as Standard Domes – portable design, raised platforms, insulated walls, and decoration made from renewable materials.
2008 was also the first year we renewed our ISO14001 EMS certification (continually renewed to date) which we were awarded in 2007 upon proving our commitment to environmental protection through a solid environmental management framework. Our ISO 14001 EMS highlights our unwavering commitment to sustainability and our constant testing, installation and use of green technology and innovative eco-friendly practices.
With the initial installation of our micro-hydro turbine and solar panels, we were able to ensure EcoCamp’s use of renewable energy from the very outset. Since 2008 we have added 1700 watts to our photovoltaic array of panels and have increased our electricity capacity by 20-25%. We are currently running a pilot scheme to heat water with thermo-solar panels, which we hope to use extensively in the future.
Describe the most misunderstood facet of eco-travel by your customers.
Most of our guests understand our sustainable policies and take delight in doing our mini Eco Tour, learning about both the green technology and the simple methods we use to minimize our footprint in the Patagonian wilderness. However, there are always a few travelers who misunderstand our policies. Perhaps they think that the fact we play music means we are not conserving all the energy we should be (in fact we have a complex green energy system which generates electricity from solar & hydropower and music uses up very little of this generated energy) or perhaps they do not understand why travelling with responsible guides in a group is necessary to minimize ecological damage in such a fragile environment.
What message would you give to consumers that don’t have an impression about eco-travel in Patagonia?
I would say that eco-travel in Patagonia is an essential component of all tourism in the region and that, happily, it appears to be a trend on the increase. However, green-washing is certainly something to be wary of and given the fragility of a region like Patagonia, it is absolutely necessary to verify the eco credentials of any company. A company must be able to show they have strategies to conserve the environment through carefully-planned sustainable methods.