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The controversial hunt for a multibillion-dollar treasure in a Chilean park

  • The treasure is thought to consist of 800 barrels of gold coins, jewels and precious stones, and is estimated to be worth $10 billion.
  • In 2020, crews searching for the treasure began to use backhoes, causing erosion in Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park in the Pacific Ocean west of Chile.
  • The crews began using heavy machinery without an environmental impact evaluation because SEA, the government’s Environmental Evaluation Service, dismissed the need for one.

A two-and-a-half hour flight separates the Chilean capital of Santiago and the Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park. The archipelago is rich in marine and terrestrial biodiversity and comprises three islands: Santa Clara, Alejandro Selkirk, and Robinson Crusoe, which is home to San Juan Bautista, the islands’ only permanently inhabited settlement.

According to legend, a treasure lies in the sea around the island.

For two decades, treasure hunters used shovels and picks in their search. But in November 2019, methods changed radically with the introduction of a backhoe with a mechanized hammer. The advent of this shift sparked controversy around the potential destruction of the environment in the national park, which was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1977.

The History of the Treasure

In 1994, historian and businessman Bernard Keiser, a naturalized U.S. citizen of Dutch descent, arrived for the first time on Robinson Crusoe Island. More than just a tourist, he had evidence that pirates had lost treasure in the area.

The local community knows Keiser by the nickname “El Gringo.” Keiser had found “significant writings” dating from the 18th century in Selkirk’s Cave on the small bay of Puerto Inglés, according to Victorio Bertullo, a historian and close friend of Keiser.

Buoyed by his discovery, Keiser went to Seville, Spain, to examine historical naval records from that period in the General Archive of the Indies, which houses documents related to the Spanish Empire’s activities in North and South America as well as the Philippines. His research confirmed his suspicions and allowed him to reconstruct parts of the story.

Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park. Image courtesy of Paola González.

In 1714, Juan Esteban Ubilla y Echeverría, a Spanish general stationed in Veracruz, Mexico, traveled to the Juan Fernández Islands with treasure in tow, Bertullo said. During the far-reaching War of the Spanish Succession, which took place from 1701 to 1714, Ubilla uncovered a conspiracy against the Bourbons, a dynastic family that ruled the Spanish Empire at the time. Members of the nobility were reportedly stealing the Bourbons’ wealth to the benefit of the Hapsburgs. In response, Ubilla decided to hide some of their treasure on Robinson Crusoe Island, intending to recover it later with covert assistance from the English

The treasure was never retrieved. But in 1950, coded letters were found in northern England that seem to point to its location. These letters made their way into the hands of a Chilean man named Luis Cousiño, who unsuccessfully hunted for the treasure around San Juan Bautista.

Bertullo said Keiser joined the adventure after he saw a TV program about the Juan Fernández Islands that featured María Eugenia Beéche, the daughter-in-law of Luis Cousiño who lived on the island. He learned that she had the letters and an inventory of the treasure. Keiser soon traveled to the Juan Fernández Islands and obtained the coded letters from Beéche.

The Juan Fernández Islands. Image courtesy of Manu San Félix/Oceana.

In November 1998, Keiser landed on Robinson Crusoe Island aiming to find the lost trove. The 800 barrels filled with gold coins, jewels and precious stones are thought to be worth $10 billion. According to the National Monuments Act, if treasure were found, 75% of it would go to Chile’s National Monuments Council and the remaining 25% to the treasure hunter.

Keiser, who built his own fortune from the development of impermeable fabrics that don’t catch fire and have been used in the hotel industry and NASA, has invested “more than $5 million” in the search, Bertullo said.

A controversial project

Since Keiser began his search more than two decades ago, he has had to have his activities approved by the SEA, the government agency responsible for evaluating and authorizing the environmental management of different projects and activities in Chile.

Chile has two evaluation mechanisms: an environmental impact assessment, or EIA, and a declaration of environmental impact, or DIA. Lawyers consulted by Mongabay Latam said the DIA is a less thorough evaluation than the EIA, in part because it does not mandate community participation.

For 20 years, all of Keiser’s projects were evaluated with DIAs. But Keiser’s latest project involves the use of heavy machinery, riling public and private organizations and the local community. They have demanded that it undergo an EIA because of the potential damage to the environment and Chile’s national heritage that the excavation could cause.

Robinson Crusoe Island. Image courtesy of Paola González.

In 2012, Keiser submitted a DIA titled “Exploratory drilling of historical remains at Puerto Inglés, Robinson Crusoe Island” to the SEA. After evaluation, the SEA described the project as “favorable.” And with that positive assessment, Keiser’s environmental permit was approved.

However, problems began in 2018 when he submitted a project modification to the SEA to switch from small-scale tools to heavy machinery.

According to SEA documents obtained by Mongabay Latam, this modification did not constitute a significant change. The agency said the project was “not required to undergo” a more rigorous EIA. The SEA also said an EIA was not necessary because the project covered a relatively small area of approximately 30 meters by 70 meters (about 100 feet by 230 feet), and “there is no evidence that animal, plant, or flower species of importance or holding conservation status are present.”

The SEA justified its decision by saying that once the search was complete, the machinery could be used to “return the material for compaction and leveling to restore the excavated surface.”

Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park. Image courtesy of Paola González.

At this point, Keiser had authorization to continue his work. But he also needed a permit to enter the national park from CONAF, Chile’s national forest agency, which administers the park.

But the regional CONAF office in Valparaíso denied him an entry permit. The office also asked that the SMA, the agency responsible for overseeing environmental permit compliance, rule on the SEA’s decision to authorize the work without an EIA.

CONAF Valparaíso notes that it is impossible to know definitively what Bernard Keiser’s specific activities would be in the national park and what effects they would entail.

In response to CONAF’s denial of his entry permit, Keiser submitted a petition for legal protection against CONAF Valparaíso. Then, Pablo Mira, the regional director of CONAF was fired because he hadn’t signed the entry permit, said Pablo González, the president of the workers’ union at CONAF. Three months later, the permit was approved under an agreement protocol signed by José Manuel Rebolledo, the former executive director of CONAF.

Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park. Image courtesy of Paola González.

Rebolledo told Mongabay that the protocol was a way to avoid the risk of a ruling against CONAF, since Bernard Keiser already had the approval of the SEA and the SMA, the country’s highest-ranking environmental agencies.

This matter has also caused significant concern for Chile’s association of archaeologists, CAARCH, because of the potential impacts on archaeological sites near the excavation area.

Javiera Letelier, CAARCH’s director, said archaeological excavations should be carried out only by certified archaeologists, who must apply for a permit from CMN, the National Monuments Council. Letelier said the problem is that “the SEA circumvented the regular channel and instead of consulting the technical agency that regulates this types of operation, that is, the CMN and CONAF, it granted a permit outside its jurisdiction.”

Similarly, Alejandra Vidal, CAARCH’s representative on the CMN, said it’s important to note that “Mr. Keiser’s mission is commercial, not scientific,” and that the approval process for his project “contravenes Chilean legislation.”

Robinson Crusoe Island. Image courtesy of Paola González.

Mongabay Latam accessed the CMN statement confirming that it was not consulted by the SEA before heavy machinery was brought into the park. Given the council’s concerns, the CMN agreed to refer the case to the State Defense Council “in order to determine and pursue the appropriate legal consequences for violations of the National Monuments Act.”

The SEA told Mongabay Latam that it did not have “the authority for any oversight.” Rather, environmental permits were under the jurisdiction of the SMA, the SEA said. This response, however, sidesteps the concern that the SEA approved the permit for Keiser to operate heavy machinery without consulting the appropriate technical agencies.

Environmental Impacts

When Keiser spoke with Mongabay Latam, he said that, due to the size, volume and depth at which the treasure was likely to be found, he was forced to use heavy machinery.

According to reports from CONAF Valparaíso, Keiser had violated work agreements in 2017 and 2018. The documents reveal, for example, that garbage removal was taking place once per week and not every day as required by law. Monthly reports were not being submitted regarding activities and findings. And dogs, normally prohibited from the area, were entering with workers.

Work with a backhoe inside the national park. Image courtesy of CONAF.

The CONAF report authors also found that Keiser had violated an agreement that the area would show no signs of the work. Crews hadn’t filled in the excavated area entirely, and they left behind loose dirt on the slopes around the excavation site, the report’s authors wrote. Guillermo Araya, a CONAF employee and the national park’s administrator, said the use of a backhoe inside the park violates the park’s management plan. The excavation site is located in a “recovery area,” the objective of which is to halt land degradation so that restoration is feasible. Araya also said the Puerto Inglés area had already experienced a high degree of erosion prior to the excavations.

Luis Lara, a geologist with Chile’s national geology and mining service, said soil deterioration leads to the loss of fertility. Erosion in the area is due to the area’s steep slopes, past overgrazing, and the effects of winds and heavy rains amounting to 1.2 m (4 ft) a year.

Excavation with heavy machinery inside the national park. Image courtesy of CONAF.

Araya said CONAF’s most recent inspection again found that the authorized area had been poorly filled in, “meaning that rain will carry the sediment to the camping area and ocean.” He said the project has exacerbated the erosion issue because it altered the original slope.

These findings contradict the document that Keiser submitted in 2018. In it, he says “the use of support machinery will allow us to optimize the recovery operation in the excavation area, to be quicker and safer, to return the excavated material and proceed to compacting and leveling the ground, so that the site is restored as closely as possible to its original condition.”

The 2020 CONAF report offers additional details. For instance, it reveals that crews dug to more than 8 m (26 ft) deep and that Keiser stayed past the approved project term, which ended in April 2020. Araya said Keiser continued to work after CONAF requested that he halt work. This offense was reported to the SEA and to the Valparaíso SMA, which would be looking into the incident, Araya added.

Excavation with heavy machinery inside the national park. Image courtesy of CONAF.

CONAF contends that his project is “harmful to the environment without any evidence,” Keiser said, but “no plants or trees have ever been destroyed.” Keiser’s latest activity report shows that he stayed longer as a result of heavy rains and the COVID-19 pandemic. He also said he informed the SMA of these circumstances. He wrote in the report his crews restored the excavation site to “conditions similar to those found before his operation.”

Elizabeth Celedón, a member of the San Juan Bautista town council and resident of the Juan Fernández Islands, joined the CONAF Valparaíso workers’ union and its representative, Diego Ibañez, in lodging a petition for legal protection that was rejected by the Court of Appeals.

Celedón said it’s not acceptable that Keiser “do as he pleases with our land and that the authorities support him.” She said searching for treasure has never been the problem; the issue is how Keiser began searching in 2019.

“As residents, we are eager for the discovery,” she said. “But this aggressive method of searching for the treasure using heavy machinery is causing serious harm [by causing] erosion on the island.”

Banner image of work with a backhoe inside the Archipiélago de Juan Fernández National Park courtesy of CONAF.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on Nov. 23, 2020.