Eco-millionaire's land grab prompts fury & suspicion

Mark mark at
Fri Jun 1 22:58:05 BST 2007

Washington diary: Nature v nation
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Billionaires buying up great swaths of one of the last wilderness areas

Eco-millionaire's land grab prompts fury

Argentinian critics say an American campaigner is buying up vast wetlands
for US strategic goals

Uki Goñi in Buenos Aires
Sunday February 4, 2007
The Observer

Douglas Tompkinscalls himself a 'deep ecologist'. He is a millionaire on a
quest to preserve some of Argentina's last frontier lands from human
encroachment by buying them and turning them into ecological reserves.

But Argentina may not permit him such philanthropy. Opponents are branding
him a new-age 'imperialist gringo' and claim he has a secret aim: to help
the US military gain control of the country's natural resources. Tompkins,
who sold his Esprit clothing firm in 1989 for a reported $150m to devote
his time and wealth to ecology, takes such attacks in his stride. 'Land
ownership is a political act; it arouses passions,' he says.

 Tompkins, 63, holds to a very severe brand of environmentalism and 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'.

Yet such statements do not carry much weight with Argentinian
nationalists. The heaviest fire has come from radicals in 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. At the centre of the storm is a 310,000-acre estate Tompkins
owns in the Ibera wetlands, a labyrinth of marshes, lakes and floating
islands of nearly 2 million acres. '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
700km from an airbase the United States plans to build in neighbouring

The aquifer is soon to become an issue of strategic defence policy.
Argentina's military planners are convinced the country's oil and fresh
water deposits could become targets for world powers in an ecologically
dark future, and are putting together 'Plan 2025', dividing the country
into regions based on their resource potential.

The Argentinian press has suggested Tompkins might be a covert CIA
operative securing US access to the aquifer. And even Argentinians who
don't share such conspiracy theories are uncomfortable with Tompkins
transforming his properties into environmentally pristine but unpopulated
and economically unproductive areas.

Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt, a former CEO of the Patagonia
clothing retail chain, first went to Ibera in the late 1990s. After being
initially unimpressed - 'it's as flat as a billiard table' - they
eventually succumbed to the challenge, putting the accent on restoring the
original wildlife.

'Wetlands are not up there in the collective human mind, they get very
poor conservation protection, but there is an enchantment in every
ecosystem,' said Tompkins. 'The land has been environmentally degraded and
many of the indigenous animals have disappeared,' he went on. 'We've
started with the marsh deer. Eventually we'll be able to reintroduce the
jaguar, the top of the food chain.'

Tompkins expects that in 15 to 20 years he could turn his Ibera estate
into a national park. 'It can take that long to generate a change in
attitude. Tourism has to become a national priority.'

Tompkins and his wife say they are not old-fashioned imperialists in a new
guise. 'All the fears created by the fact that I am American buying land
are ridiculous,' said Tompkins. 'My intention has always been to
eventually turn over the land to the Argentinian government for a national
park.' He has already done so, donating an estate in Patagonia to the
National Parks administration in 2004. In the late Nineties he had bought
the 155,000-acre Monte Leon sheep farm, including a 25-mile stretch of
South Atlantic coast, home to one of the largest Magellan penguin
rookeries in the world and also abundant in sea lions, pumas and birds.

But pressure to pass an anti-Tompkins bill in Congress could be strong.
The presence of other high-profile foreigners fuels passions. 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 claims. And US media magnate Ted Turner likes to go trout
fishing on his Patagonian estates.

For Tompkins, it has been a long road from fashion king to 'deep
ecologist'. As the founder of North Face and Esprit, he sold hundreds of
millions of dollars worth of clothes worldwide every year. 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 land he owns.

Tompkins and his wife have acquired properties encompassing Pacific
coastal fjords, Patagonian virgin forest and tropical wetlands, a total
area of some 2.2 million acres - about the size of Cyprus -in Argentina
and neighbouring Chile.

Despite all the difficulties, Tompkins is optimistic about converting
opponents to his way of thinking. 'I see an unstoppable wave of
environmentalism. Environmental problems arise from the mistaken notion
that humans come first. They have to come second. This has not sunk into
the political and social leadership.'

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