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Castaway Islands –

The Juan Fernández Dilemma Most people have heard of Robinson Crusoe, almost certainly the most famous castaway of all times. Not many know, however, that writer Daniel Defoe based his novel on a real story; the one of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish sailor that at the young age fifteen went to sea to escape a formal charge of “undecent beaiviar”. Eight years later, in 1703, he would join an English government-sponsored privateering venture to prey on the Spanish treasure fleet in the Pacific Ocean. On board of The Cinque Ports, a heavily armed one hundred thirty ton vessel of billowing sails and swelling planks, commanded by inexperienced twenty-year-old Captain Thomas Stradling, Selkirk, expert mariner, would soon become sailing master. After surviving several unfruitful intents by Captain Stradling to rounding Cape Horn, under severe storms, with an original crew of ninety withered to forty-two -due to diminished rations and diseaseand a reduced hull to near the pulp, result of a worm infestation, Selkirk realized the ship was no longer seaworthy and refused to sail with such incompetent captain. His violent personality also conflicted with Stradling’s despotism, so it was in September of 1704, when the tiny island of Juan Fernández appeared on the horizon and after Captain Stradling ordered the crew to anchor in the island’s bay, that Alexander Selkirk felt his odds of survival safer on the island than aboard the leaking and rotting oak hull of the Cinque Ports and asked to be put ashore. Initially Selkirk felt certain his shipmates would join him, thinking it would not be more than three or four months before being rescued, yet none of them joined him. He was sent ashore by Stradling, with only his sea chest, bedding, and clothing. Frightened of his voluntary marooning fate, he pleaded the captain to let him return to the ship, but his pleas were ignored while, in anguish, he watched the ship and the crew set sail from the lonely shore of the island. He shouted for them to return, begging for forgiveness– but the ship continued. Selkirk would stay on the island of Juan Fernández for four and a half lonely years, living off goats that had been introduced by earlier Spanish visitors. It would have been little consolation to him, even if he could have known, that the Cinque Ports indeed succumbed to its riddled timbers and sank, with the loss of most hands, a few weeks after its masts vanished from his horizon. He was discovered and rescued by Captain Woodes Rogers on February 1709. Despite his long castaway, Selkirk was appointed mate by Rogers and later given command of a captured prize ship. Selkirk finally returned home to Scotland where he lived the life of a recluse. Once he was back, Selkirk wrote: “Oh my beloved island! I wish I never left thee! I never before was the man I was on thee, I have not been such since I left thee, and I fear never can be again.” […] “I am now worth eight hundred pounds; but shall never be so happy as when I was not worth a farthing”. He later returned to sea once more, where he died in 1721 at the age of forty-five.

by Cristián Pérez-Navarro, MN ’09 Architect, Associate AIA

However, not only history and romance surround the Juan Fernández Archipelago; located 700km off the central coast of Chile, these globally significant and highly imperiled islands have been recognized as the temperate counterpart of the Galápagos Islands and have been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve (1977). With over 60% of botanical endemism (species that are unique to this portion of the planet) and 15 native bird species, of which eight are endemic; thirtyfive of the 46 mollusks and more than 440 of the 660+ species of invertebrates are also endemic. Conversely, the plight of the archipelago’s endangered natural systems has also been recognized; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified the Juan Fernández Islands as one of the world's 12 most threatened National Parks and in 1984 the International Council for Bird Preservation (ICBP) designated the islands as one of the 10 highest priority regions for seabird research globally. In 1998, BirdLife International listed the islands as a Priority 1 (critical) Endemic Bird Area of the World. The Alliance for Zero Extinction (AZE) targeted the archipelago as a priority site in 2002, an area in most urgent need of conservation investment to prevent imminent species extinctions. As an architect, I am one of the principals in a Seattle-based multidisciplinary group of individuals called The Islands Project Group. Together, and for the past ten years, we have focused our work on developing and supporting field work and community development on the Juan Fernández Archipelago; including directing ecological and conservation research on the threatened bird communities, featuring two critically endangered endemic songbirds and building capacity, awareness and engagement in the local community and carrying out urban ecology surveys towards establishing the basis for a sustainable development model on the archipelago, to ensure the perpetuity of this insular ecosystem for future generations. One of the main current endeavors of our group is finding ways to create a world-class community-based scientific station in the Juan Fernandez Islands, similar to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos. Such a station would have as its mission serving as a resource to all of the communities of the islands (scientific, conservation, local community, and tourist) to protect the unique natural systems and cultural traditions of the Juan Fernández Archipelago.


Castaway Islands: The Juan Fernandez Dilemma