Douglas Tompkins: can billionaires really save nature with cold, hard cash?

Tompkins: protecting nature, one dollar at a time. Reuters

Douglas Tompkins, the pioneering entrepreneur who created the outdoor company The North Face and fashion chain Esprit, and who spent his riches creating the world’s largest network of privately owned nature reserves, died at the age of 72 following a kayaking accident.

His conservation philanthropy made him a polarising figure in Chile and Argentina, where he spent the last three decades purchasing more than a million hectares to create a series of privately-owned parks and reserves. Lauded by some as a conservation hero, criticised by others as an abrasive imperialist, it became clear during my two years studying private reserves in Chile and speaking to the key actors, that his remarkable story shows both the potential and limitations of wealthy philanthropists in saving nature.

A life less ordinary

Tompkins’ youth was spent skiing, mountaineering, surfing and climbing, including a six-month expedition in 1968 to Chilean Patagonia with his friend Yvon Choinard, founder of outdoor brand Patagonia Inc. Kris McDivitt, CEO of Patagonia Inc for several decades, would become Topmkins’ second wife.

Early business success came when he established The North Face, which he sold after a few years, and much greater success came when he created Esprit with his first wife and saw the company become a massive global brand. Tensions within the company, and within his marriage, saw him retire from business in 1990 and move to southern Chile.

Inspired by the long US tradition of wildland philanthropy, he began purchasing parcels of land for conservation in Chaiten province, Patagonia, using intermediaries to evade attention and avoid price inflation. In 1994, he publicly announced the creation of Parque Pumalín (Puma Park), covering 275,000 hectares. By comparison, Lake District National Park, England’s largest, covers 220,000 hectares.

Greeting former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos. Reuters/Carlos Barria

The announcement was immediately controversial. Parliament debated whether Tompkins was undermining national sovereignty. Chile had just emerged from a long military dictatorship, during which it nearly went to war with Argentina over the location of the frontier in Patagonia. A “gringo” buying land on this scale was not well received.

Into the great wide open

Crucially, Pumalín stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Argentine border, effectively cutting the country in two. The military and Patagonian senators raised objections over whether this challenged national territorial integrity and whether it would prevent the construction of crucial infrastructure, such as roads and powerlines, that would link Patagonia with the rest of Chile.

Big country: Volcán Chaitén. Sam Beebe/flickr, CC BY

Tompkins was accused of ignoring the rights of smallholder farmers who had lived on his newly purchased properties for generations, but who lacked proper land titles. His aim of conserving forests was seen as undermining Chilean economic development, which was (and remains) heavily dependent on natural resource extraction.

Wildland philanthropy was unknown in Chile, and some suspected ulterior motives. Conspiracy theories circulated that Pumalín was a front for CIA operations or Zionist plots, or an attempt to seize control of the region’s water supplies – this is reminiscent of the 2008 James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, in which the villain uses private reserves as a front for seizing control of Bolivia’s water supply. The “Bolivian” scenes were filmed in Chile.

The resulting political tensions led to Tompkins signing an agreement in 1996 with president Frei promising to desist from purchasing further properties and agreeing to infrastructure crossing his land. Foreign forestry and utilities companies have similar properties bisecting Chile, but have not attracted similar criticism, and no infrastructure has been built because of the challenges of the vertiginous and landslide-prone terrain.

Pumalin park. Bas Wallet/flickr, CC BY

This agreement was later mutually annulled, and Tompkins subsequently more than doubled his Chilean land holdings, and purchased even more in Argentina. Although he promised to later donate all his land to the state, lingering mutual distrust limited donations greatly. Tompkins became less politically toxic with time, although he remained uncompromisingly and vocally critical of what he saw as the environmental damage of salmon farming, forestry and hydroelectricity.

The green landlord

While Tompkins remains Chile’s best-known owner of private reserves, hundreds of others have been established since 1994. They now cover over 2% of Chile, ranging in size from a dozen to 300,000 hectares. Owners include middle-class families, luxury eco-resorts companies, forestry companies, and national and international NGOs.

The best vindication of Tompkins’ approach came in 2005, when Chilean airline and credit card billionaire Sebastián Piñera, who served as Chile’s president from 2010-14, established the 112,000 hectare Tantauco private reserve. Yet the wider private reserve movement in Chile hesitated from close engagement with Tompkins, wary of his political toxicity. It was Tompkins’ wife, not him, attended Tantauco’s opening.

A way to save the world?

Tompkins in Chile. Reuters

Tompkins’ activities raise bigger questions about conservation philanthropy. First, Tompkins’ purchases have been seen as eco-colonialist land grabs, and there are legitimate concerns over powerful foreigners controlling large swathes of land.

Others within the Chilean conservation movement feel that the controversy over sovereignty has hampered their own efforts to get legal recognition for private reserves, and there are similar controversies in other countries. One international organisation specialising in private reserves always works through local partner NGOs and never owns land itself, to avoid accusations of colonialism and to ensure local support for its work.

Second, are private actors better than the state at conservation? Proponents argue that they are more motivated, flexible and innovative than governments, although there are few studies that explore this in detail. We do know that private reserves in Chile are more likely to be located in places with high levels of endangered species than government reserves, although Tompkins’ properties are not in this category. His purchases were largely driven by landscape aesthetics, not the density of biodiversity within them.

Benign neglect

Tompkins purchased large wild areas which could be easily conserved through benign neglect, rather than the arguably more important challenge of conserving species in landscapes shared with humans. If private reserves are to be most effective, then they need to be planned carefully using assessments of what places are the greatest priority, rather than on the whims of wealthy philanthropists.

Can private reserves create a vibrant green economy in places such as Patagonia? Several companies have tried to make money from conservation, through tourism, carbon sequestration and other initiatives, but successes are rare. Tompkins never bothered making money from his reserves – entrance fees were minimal – but was more interested in exporting US conservation philanthropy to Patagonia. It has proven difficult to make money from saving nature, so it is perhaps best to view it as a public good, worth doing even if it costs money.

Either way, we are in a time where private actors, be it corporations, NGOs or philanthropists, are increasingly replacing governments’ role in saving nature. The successes and failures of Doug Tompkins contain lessons on how to do this fairly and effectively.