The Ugly American Environmentalist

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Leo Beca / Reuters

Millionaire American conservationist Douglas Tompkins stands on his land in the region of Palena, some 1,800 kilometers south of Santiago, Chile.

The Ibera wetlands region is a vast labyrinth of marshes, lakes and floating islands totaling nearly two million acres in northeastern Argentina. And so American businessman Douglas Tompkins started buying it up in 1999; he owns 442,000 acres of it so far. Together, directly or through foundations they control, Tompkins and his wife have acquired properties encompassing Pacific coastal fjords, Patagonian virgin forest and tropical wetlands, a total area of some 3,437 square miles (2.1 million acres) in both Argentina and neighboring Chile. That is the approximate area of Cyprus. He is not trying to create his own country, however. He is trying to save the planet.

Tompkins, 63, was the founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing lines during the 1970s and 80s, which annually sold hundreds of millions of dollars of clothes worldwide ("Consumer items nobody needed," Tompkins ruefully says now). All that changed when he became involved in radical environmental projects — what he calls his "restoration work," returning native animal and plant species to the nation-sized swaths of property he owns. He and his wife Kristine McDivitt, a former CEO of the Patagonia clothing retail chain and wealthy in her own right, believe in deep ecology, a severe branch of the movement that believes in restoring the original ecological balance of the earth. Tompkins is fond of reminding listeners that unless runaway consumerism is halted "we humans will be building ourselves a beautiful coffin in space called Planet Earth." He sees danger signs in everyday objects. "Laptops, I use them, but they are very damaging to the environment. If we don't change our ways, you'll be left with a laptop and a dead planet."

Such concerned thinking for the planet's future does not carry much weight with Argentine nationalists, who see Tompkins as a meddlesome foreigner. The heaviest fire has come from the more extreme elements within the ruling Peronist Party. Left-wing legislator Araceli Mendez introduced draft legislation in Congress a few months ago to confiscate the American's vast holdings. The Argentine press has suggested he might be a covert CIA operative securing American access to the aquifer as fears increase of a worldwide fresh water shortage over the coming decades. "He says he's worried about the birds and the wildlife," said Mendez. "But his land is above the Guarani aquifer, one of the most important fresh water reserves in the world, only 700 kilometers [434 miles] from an airbase the United States plans to build in neighboring Paraguay."

All those anti-Gringo fears have been fanned by the Argentine military's own public concern about the Guarani aquifer. Military planners are convinced that Argentina's oil and fresh water deposits could become vulnerable targets for major world powers in an ecologically dark future, and are acting accordingly, putting together "Plan 2025," parceling the country into regions based on their resource potential. "Each division will be based in the geographical areas where the natural resources that we hypothetically must defend are located," Argentine Army Commander-in-Chief Roberto Bendini said when the plan was unveiled late last year.

Tompkins and his wife can't fail to see the irony in the accusation they are old-fashioned imperialists in a new guise. "All the fears created by the fact that I am American buying land are ridiculous," says Tompkins. "My intention has always been to eventually turn over the land to the Argentine government for a national park." He has done so once here already, donating another estate he owned in the Argentine southern region of Patagonia to the National Parks administration. Tompkins had originally bought the gigantic Monte Leon 163,000-acre sheep farm in the late 1990s, including a 25-mile stretch of South Atlantic coast, home to one of the largest Magellan penguin rookeries in the world and abundant as well in sea lions, pumas and some 50 bird species. He handed it over in 2004. "We were able to turn Monte Leon into a national park in record time," he says proudly.

Despite this generosity, pressure to pass an anti-Tompkins bill in Congress could be strong. The presence of other high-profile foreigners fuels passions here. The Italian clothing giant Benetton holds 2.2 million acres in sheep farms in Patagonia and has clashed with the indigenous Mapuche people over land ownership. Another high-profile foreigner is American media magnate Ted Turner, who indulges a taste for trout fishing on his Patagonian estate.

Tompkins is, nevertheless, optimistic about turning opponents to his way of thinking. "I see an unstoppable wave of environmentalism," he says. "Environmental problems arise from the mistaken notion that humans come first. They have to come second; this has not sunk in to the political and social leadership." At Ibera, Tompkins has put the accent on restoring the original wildlife. "These are swamps, so you can't immediately see the 80 fish species or the amphibians. Also, the land has been environmentally degraded and many of the indigenous animals, such as jaguars, have disappeared." Tompkins is slowly reintroducing this native fauna. "We've started with the marsh deer. Eventually we'll be able to reintroduce the jaguar, the top of the food chain." For the moment, though, Tompkins will have to watch out for politcal predators in Buenos Aires.