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September 28, 2005

"Pirates? Check. Buried Treasure? Check. Lawyers? Check. All we need now are ninjas."

From the Toronto Star:

"This story has everything you ever wanted in a newspaper article.

It has buried treasure. Lots of it. Or so they say.

It has pirates.

It has cutting-edge technology in the form of a gold-sniffing robot.

It has a real-life castaway, abandoned on a deserted sub-tropical island, where he lived for four years on wild goats and turnips.

It has a seminal work of English literature, inspired by the travails of that aforementioned castaway.

It has lust and greed and free-booting treasure-hunters.

It has myriad government agencies with their attendant panoply of red tape and regulations.

It has lawyers. Lots of them.

With all of this — and more — how could there not be gold, and lots of it?"

Read on...

"There has to be treasure," says Leopoldo Gonzalez, mayor of what must be among the remotest communities on earth.

The town he runs is called San Juan Batista — population: about 800 — the only human settlement on Robinson Crusoe Island and capital of the Juan Fernandez Islands, a minuscule archipelago located some 600 kilometres off the coast of Chile.

The mayor is not alone in believing there is gold buried beneath the verdant surface of Robinson Crusoe Island.

Many others in Chile, and beyond, are convinced that immense quantities of plunder have been hidden here for nearly three centuries, ever since English buccaneer Cornelius Webb unearthed some 600 barrels of bullion and coins — originally buried in 1715 or so by a Spanish pirate named Juan Esteban Ubilla y Echeverria — and interred them anew in a place of his own choosing, where they have mouldered in secret over the long, damp course of the years.

For decades, foreign adventurers have been trying to find the self-same treasure, notably an American millionaire by the name of Bernard Keiser, who has spent six years and a reported $1 million in search of the Robinson Crusoe gold, so far without success.

But, this past weekend, a team of Chilean entrepreneurs announced that they have succeeded where, until now, everyone else has failed.

Using a robotic device developed in Chile over the past 20 years, the treasure-hunters — all employees of a Santiago company called Wagner Tecnologia — say they took just two days last week to identify three sites on the island where the treasure is buried and where it will apparently remain while the firm lobbies for government approval to dig it up.

"The company is seeking the respective permits," Jose O'Ryan, a lawyer for the company, told the Toronto Star in a telephone interview yesterday. "There's a pretty lively argument over who will get the money."

That's no surprise. After all, company officials say the treasure comprises between 700 and 800 tonnes of gold and other precious metals. They estimate the value of the find at no less than $10 billion (U.S.), an amount that is swelling rapidly in people's minds as they ponder the implications of that much gold.

"Vienti-mil-millones de dolares," said Gonzalez, the island mayor, when asked to estimate the value of the treasure apparently buried beneath the speck of terra firma, where he and his ancestors have dwelled since 1880. "Twenty-billion dollars."

He believes the islanders should get a fair chunk of it.

For their part, the men who claim to have located the gold are also saying — if you can believe it — that they aren't interested in profiting personally from the discovery, or not directly.

Instead, them mean to donate their share of the lucre to several charities, including a Catholic welfare agency called Hogar del Cristo, a national fund-raising drive for disabled people called el Teleton, and the Baptist Church.

What they really want, according to company spokesman Fernando Uribe-Etxeverria, is to attract commercial interest in their machine, a locally developed device said to be capable of probing the earth to depths of up to 50 metres by means of gamma-ray impulses.

Dubbed "Arturito" — or "Little Arthur" — the machine was invented by a Chilean researcher named Manuel Salinas and has been gradually refined over the past 20 years. It has won some fame in Chile by helping police investigate a couple of tricky cases, including the disappearance last year of businessman Francisco Luis Yuraszeck. According to O'Ryan, the machine was used successfully to locate the bones of the dead man, where they were buried beneath the patio of a house previously searched by police.

Whether the device is as effective at locating buried gold is another question, and not everyone believes the treasure supposedly hidden on the island has indeed been found.

Perhaps foremost among the doubters is Keiser, the American adventurer who has been seeking the same cache of gold for nearly six years. He was expected to arrive on Robinson Crusoe Island yesterday to renew his search.

"I'm not an expert, but I know a lot about geophysical machines," he told the Santiago newspaper El Mercurio on Sunday. "And what (these people) say is very difficult to believe. If it were that easy, why have they not found all the gold and diamonds and petroleum in the world?"

Meanwhile, the folks at Wagner Tecnologia insist they know exactly where the treasure is hidden but are keeping the information secret until they obtain government permits to bring the gold to the surface and until they know for sure who owns the plunder.

According to Chile's civil code, such windfalls are supposed to be divided evenly between the finder and whoever owns the land where the find took place — in this case, the government of Chile.

But another law, this one relating to national monuments, appears to cede all of the gold to the government.

The Juan Fernandez Islands were declared a national park in 1935. In 1966, Chile changed the names of two of the three islands to Alejandro Selkirk Island and Robinson Crusoe Island in a bid to promote tourism. The names allude to the romantic and storied history of the volcanic archipelago.

In 1705, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk waded ashore onto an uninhabited crest of the earth then called Isla Mas a Tierra —what is now Robinson Crusoe Island — in order to avoid sailing any longer on a English galleon commanded by William Dampier, a leaking craft named Cinq Ports that subsequently sank with the loss of most on board.

For the ensuing four years, Selkirk lived alone on the island, taming feral cats to keep the rats under control and dining on wild goat, until he was finally rescued in February 1709 by an English privateer named the Duke.

The man's tribulations became the stuff of legend and inspired Daniel Dafoe to pen his best-known novel, Robinson Crusoe. Now that name is poised to become the stuff of legend once again, assuming the claims of treasure buried turn out to be true.

Mayor Gonzalez fervently hopes the rumours pan out in full and that his community shares in the profits.

It was raining lightly in San Juan Batista yesterday as Gonzalez, 50, spoke on the phone with the Star. He said his town is a quiet place with only the most basic services. It has no bank, no cinema, and no large stores. A small supply ship from the Chilean seaport of Valparaiso chugs over the horizon once a month bearing food and other goods.

"We have a good level of life," he said. "There are no big problems. We live happily." It will be interesting to learn whether happiness continues to prevail on Robinson Crusoe Island once all that buried gold finally comes to light.

Assuming, of course, that it ever does.

Posted by Jim at September 28, 2005 08:32 AM


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