IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Eco-millionaire buys slices of South America

The American multimillionaire who founded the North Face and Esprit clothing lines says he is trying to save the planet by buying bits of it. First Douglas Tompkins purchased a huge swath of southern Chile, and now he's hoping to save the northeast wetlands of neighboring Argentina.
Buying Argentina
U.S. millionaire Douglas Tompkins owns what's known as Pumalin Park in the south of Chile.Carlos Quezada / La Tercera via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The American multimillionaire who founded the North Face and Esprit clothing lines says he is trying to save the planet by buying bits of it. First Douglas Tompkins purchased a huge swath of southern Chile, and now he's hoping to save the northeast wetlands of neighboring Argentina.

He has snapped up more than half a million acres of the Esteros del Ibera, a vast Argentine marshland teeming with wildlife.

Tompkins, 64, is a hero to some for his environmental stewardship. Others resent his land purchases as a foreign challenge to their national patrimony.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Tompkins said industrialized agriculture is chewing up big chunks of Argentina's fragile marshland and savanna, and that essential topsoil is disappearing as a result.

"Everywhere I look here in Argentina I see massive abuse of the soil ... just like what happened in the U.S. 20 or 30 years ago," he said.

Tompkins hopes to do in Argentina what he did in Chile — create broad stretches of land protected from agribusiness or industrial development, and one day turn them over to the government as nature reserves.

Wealthy foreigners have bought an estimated 4.5 million acres in Argentina and Chile in the past 15 years for private Patagonian playgrounds. Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner and Italian fashion designer Luciano Benetton all have large holdings set amid pristine mountains and lakes.

Tompkins was among the early ones, buying a 35-mile-wide strip of Chile from a Pacific coastal bay to the country's Andean mountain border with Argentina. He said his purchases were intended specifically to protect the environment.

Argentine officials took notice and eagerly courted Tompkins' philanthropy, flying him to several areas of ecological significance in the late 1990s — when the government was strapped for cash because of the economic crisis.

"The land conservation budget was burning a hole in our pocket," Tompkins said.

1 million acres in Argentina, Chile
He bought a 120,000-acre ranch in 1998 and has increased his Argentine holdings to nearly 600,000 acres since then. He now owns well over 1 million acres in Chile and Argentina, a combined area about the size of Rhode Island.

The financial details of the transactions were not disclosed because they were private deals between Tompkins and landowners. There was no major opposition to the deals initially because Tompkins bought the land parcels gradually, keeping a low profile.

Critics now weave many conspiracy theories, accusing Tompkins of seeking control of one of South America's biggest fresh water reserves, and worrying that he might never cede the lands to the state.

"These lands should not belong to an individual, much less a foreigner," said Luis D'Elia, who argues the American could gain "control of resources that are going to be scarce in the future, like water."

Tompkins' Argentine holdings sit atop the huge Guarani Aquifer, which extends north into Paraguay.

Last year, D'Elia, then a minister in Argentina's left-leaning cabinet, accused Tompkins of blocking access to public roads and cut through some locked gates to the land trust's property.

"He blundered in cutting the provincial road, the only access for the people living in the area," D'Elia argued.

This month lawmakers in Corrientes province, where the wetlands are located, modified the local constitution to block foreigners from buying land considered a strategic resource. The law appeared to target any new attempts by Tompkins to increase his holdings.

Tompkins responded in an e-mailed statement from his publicist that such changes would be unconstitutional and likely trigger legal challenges.

Jose Luis Niella, a Catholic priest and social activist, said many poor people no longer have access to lands where ancestors lived freely for generations. "It's not fair for him to be concerned only with protecting the environment," Niella said.

In Chile, independent Sen. Antonio Horvath said the Chilean government must have final say on land usage, complaining that Tompkins' purchases were "effectively splitting the country in two."

Opposition lawmakers in both countries have sought unsuccessfully to expropriate Tompkins' purchases or put limits on extremely large landholdings.

The Argentine wetlands remain wild for now, with marsh deer feeding on tall grasses, families of capybaras splashing through the muddy water and caymans sunning themselves on the banks of small islands. An ostrich-like nandu tries to peck its way in through a screen door at one of the eco-tourism lodges opened for visitors in three renovated ranch houses.

Tompkins' Conservation Land Trust recently released its first anteater into the wild and wants to reintroduce otters and even jaguars.

Tompkins shrugs off the protests.

"If you had to go to bed every night thinking about every accusation that would come up the next day, you'd be consumed," he said. "Some of that stuff is laughable. ... You've just got to live with that and focus on the things you're doing."

Tompkins insists he'll eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks, but will hold onto it for now "as a very good example of what private conservation can do."