Los Canelos Ranch is the picture of paradise: Sheep and cattle graze over sunbaked plains as far as the eyes can see.
Some say that is precisely the problem - the eyes. John Gibbons, the ranch’s owner, detected the first difficulties a few years ago. Several cows and sheep had clouded irises. And one of the workers complained of vision problems.
Strange things happen in Punta Arenas at the end of the world. Folks complain of skin diseases. Fishermen tell of blind salmon. In the middle of it all is a scientist who blames excessive radiation caused by the hole in the ozone layer that covers Earth. He says the problem is getting worse, and soon people thousands of miles to the north also will be exposed to dangerous levels of Ultraviolet B (UV-B) rays.
But others say the only problem is his overactive imagination. They say there is no hard evidence of eye and skin damage from radiation.
Punta Arenas, home to 110,000 people, is the southernmost city in the world. Antarctica is a short plane ride to the south; Chile’s farm belt is a long, treacherous drive north.
Years ago, when Punta Arenas was a thriving port, talk of excess radiation might have been laughed off. But now politicians, the Chamber of Commerce and tourism executives are quick to downplay the “ozone scare.”
They worry that all this talk of UV-B could frighten off the fainthearted and the pale-skinned. That is no small matter for a town that depends on European and American tourists during the three-month summer, when the sun sets at 10 p.m.
“All these things about radiation - they’re lies,” said Andrea Lagunas, an official at the National Tourism Office branch in Punta Arenas. “But tourists are a sponge, they soak up things and they get scared.”
Most residents are inclined not to believe the talk about UV-B rays. At the 7,000-acre Los Canelos ranch, John Gibbons did not want to believe it, either. But then several of the animals had their eye problems, as did the worker, Waltero Ulloa.
Gibbons had the animals slaughtered. Ulloa quit and moved north; it turned out he had had vision problems for years before coming to Punta Arenas, Gibbons said.
“We have to treat this issue calmly and seriously, but the fact is we don’t know what, if anything, is going on,” Gibbons said. The remaining cattle and sheep do not have vision problems, and Gibbons said his workers and his family see fine, too.
That is how it goes when you look for firsthand evidence of the radiation problem. Many folks know someone who knows someone who had a disability that might or might not have been related to radiation, but the anecdotal evidence is difficult to verify.
One brisk day, a visitor tried to find farm animals that had been affected. That meant driving through bucolic land that looked like Scotland. There were plenty of cows and sheep, but if they had less than 20/20 vision, they were not talking about it. There was not a human being in sight.
Finally, in the hamlet of Rio Verde, at a roadside restaurant filled with antique country furniture, proprietor Rosa Shulthaess said her eyesight is terrible.
“But that’s because I have diabetes,” she said. “I don’t believe this ozone talk. The only thing I’ve noticed is that it’s getting warmer in Punta Arenas, and we have less snow than we used to. But blind sheep? No.”
Ozone is a layer of gas that filters ultraviolet rays. Use of chlorofluorocarbons and other pollutants has damaged the ozone and left a huge “hole” over the South Pole, according to reports by the United Nations Environmental Program. Other scientists have found that UV-B radiation can cause “snow blindness,” or actinic keratitis, an inflammation of the cornea - the tissue that focuses light entering the eye.
In Punta Arenas, the scientist at the center of the controversy is Yugoslavian-born Dr. Bedrich Magas, who rides a bicycle through town. He says the ozone hole could change life as we know it - or he would say it if he felt like talking.
He explained his theories in his cramped office at the University of Magallanes, where letters pour in from around the world. He demonstrated his answering machine, which gives callers a radiation report and wishes them good luck.
But he spoke on the condition that his words not be used for publication. Last month, he stopped handling reporters’ inquiries, cold turkey.
“I’m tired of talking,” he said.
Instead, Magas handed over an essay he wrote in Spanish for laymen.
“The Earth’s ozone layer is in an absolutely critical situation, posing the worst threat to the continuity of life,” it said. “Believe me when I tell you that the thing I’d like most in this world is to be wrong about this.”
Up a hill from the university, past Yugoslavia Street, a group of men laughed when the subject of UV-B exposure came up. “Ridiculous,” said one, who was not wearing sunglasses or a hat, despite the bright light of late fall.
But inside an optician’s shop, Estela Poblete, 31, flipped through a stack of prescription cards for dozens of customers with eye problems.
“There’s a problem here, but no one wants to believe it,” she said.