A reclusive millionaire is facing calls to down tools on his 20-year hunt for billions of dollars worth of buried gold on Robinson Crusoe Island over fears the search will devastate the Unesco protected site.
Bernard Keiser, a Dutch American millionaire based in Chicago, has since 1998 been digging on the remote Chilean island for mythical lost treasure, worth an estimated $10 billion.
The protected nature of the island means his team have only been allowed to use simple, manual tools such as shovels, brushes, and knives so far. Blasting and more traditional mining techniques have been severely limited – until now.
On September 2 the Chilean authorities approved Mr Keiser’s request to use diggers on the island, a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve.
But this week, a Chilean politician filed an emergency petition to block the dig.
Diego Ibanez, a member of Chile’s far-Left Convergencia Social, wrote to his country’s inspector general last week to demand a halt to the exploration.
“The management plan for the island prohibits the removal of extraction of ground, leaves, humus, peat, sand, rubble, rocks or earth,” he wrote.
“Therefore I am asking the inspector general to rule that the agreement signed by the national director of CONAF (Chile’s forestry commission) and the minister of natural resources is illegal.”
Mr Ibanez said that the dig will seriously damage the island’s ecosystem.
“What they are doing is illegal,” he told The Telegraph. “We need an environmental impact study, and this has not been done. It’s outrageous that this has been approved without any questions asked.”
Robinson Crusoe Island, 400 miles off the coast of Chile, is named after the real-life Robinson Crusoe, Scottish explorer Alexander Selkirk, who was marooned there in the 18th century. Daniel Defoe later documented Selkirk’s tale in his novel of that name.
Legend has it that, 300 years ago, treasure taken from the Incas during the Spanish conquest of Peru was buried on the island around 1715.
Before the Spanish navigator of the ship could return to unearth the booty, an English pirate named Cornelius Webb uncovered the Incan treasure and reburied it elsewhere on the island.
The legendary stash is reported to contain 800 barrels of gold and items of jewellery valued at up to $10 billion.
Since 1998 Mr Keiser has dedicated his life to finding the stash.
A history and political science graduate from the University of Jacksonville who now lives in Chicago, he made his fortune supplying Nasa with material for their space suits.
“Finding this treasure is an almost religious obsession for him,” said Mr Ibanez. “But we absolutely need to respect the law.”
Mr Keiser, who did not respond to The Sunday Telegraph’s request for comment, certainly has a strong incentive for finding the treasure: Chilean law will provide him 25 per cent of any booty he discovers. He has never spoken about his plans for the haul, if he finds it.
Mr Ibanez said that Chile’s official logs of meetings with lobbyists – a requirement by law – showed that lobbyists for Mr Keiser met with regional representatives of the country’s environmental agency CONAF.
When the CONAF representative said Mr Keiser could not use heavy machinery on the island, he was fired. Mr Ibanez suspects skulduggery.
“It’s so important for Chile that this island be protected,” he said.
But the government is against him. The inspector general has no obligation to respond to Mr Ibanez’s letter, and so as far as Mr Keiser is concerned, he has got the green light.
“This is a national park,” said Mr Ibanez. “It simply shouldn’t be happening.”
Chile’s CONAF forestry commission said in a statement released this week that Mr Keiser’s latest request to excavate an area of 65 feet by 65 feet was in keeping with Chilean environmental law.
"CONAF’s main concern is the conservation and protection of the valuable natural and cultural resources in the state’s protected wild areas," it said. "Any type of intervention in this area will be duly supervised with the utmost rigor."
Chile’s heritage minister, Felipe Ward, said in an interview with CNN Chile this week that he backed CONAF’s decision.
"It makes sense to be able to rebut or confirm the existence of these historical remains," he said. "This authorisation has existed for 20 years, so the criticism is a bit surprising."
But Mr Ibanez disagreed.
“Bringing in heavy diggers is a dramatic change in the original plan,” he said. “It must be stopped.”