Down A Slippery Slope?

Jose Miguel Puel is not your typical resort executive. As Argentina's Batea Mahuida ski center opens its second season, Puel frets that the tourists will disturb the area's serenity. If the dormant volcano the resort is named after gets angry, he says, "it will open its arms and destroy everything."

Then again, Batea Mahuida is no typical ski resort. Puel is the lonko, or chief, of the Mapuche Puel, a group of native Argentines who run the project, deep in the heart of an indigenous reserve. The Mapuche ("People of the Earth") revere the environment, asking the earth permission before crossing a river or mountain. Said Abel Carlos Balda, who helped designed Argentina's leading ski centers and the only outsider on the project, "I had to threaten to quit before they agreed to build a security road. They wouldn't cut down a single tree."

Despite the Mapuche's low-key approach, the number of visitors to Batea Mahuida has exceeded expectations, vindicating the community's decision to open its arms to the descendants of the Spanish invaders, or Huincas. Partly out of guilt for past abuses, the Huincas have provided valuable backing for the venture, including $100,000 in government grants. The resort has plenty of potential; past persecution drove the Mapuche into one of the few areas in the region with snow virtually all winter. And from the top of Batea Mahuida there are stunning views of the lakes, mountains and volcanoes stretching away into Chile.

Although the resort's 22 employees earn only about $250 a month, Samuel Puel, one of the lonko's nephews, is convinced his new job as driver of the resort's snowmobile is better than the occasional construction or forestry work he was doing before. "The way it's going now, things will be much better in the future... This is going to be unstoppable." To get this far, the Mapuche had to overcome their suspicions of the Huincas, founded in a history of abuse, including extermination campaigns during the 19th century (huinca literally means "thief"). Before tourism, the 300 or so Mapuche Puel made a precarious living raising goats and cows.

While they are largely happy to leave herding behind, some Mapuche are concerned that the changes may dilute their culture. "With integration the Mapuche and Huinca are now largely indistinguishable," says Mauro del Castillo, a Huinca official in the development commission. "We dress alike, we eat the same food and have the same cars. As they import business practices and investments, the mountain will be increasingly less Mapuche."

Puel insists he'll preserve his people's heritage. Mapuche pressure last month saw the first Mapuche-language teachers appointed at local schools. And Puel hopes tourist revenues will help fund education grants so the community can equip the next generation to face the future. "We need accountants and lawyers," he says. "This mountain could be a milk cow."

Major development will require the Mapuche to rethink their relationship to the land and their dislike of private property. Balda believes they can be won over: "It requires someone who wants to work with them rather than exploit them." Puel reckons it will be a decision for the next generation. In the meantime, barriers are falling on both sides. Despite limited facilities, visitors come from as far as Buenos Aires, partly seeking contact with another culture. Who knows, with environmental awareness increasingly fashionable among the global jet set, being a Mapuche may finally be in style.