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South American Park Life

Pillan_Farm_in_Pumalin_Park_ChileIn a quest to learn how to live in balance with nature, founder of North Face clothing Douglas Tompkins recounts leaving the international business world for a life of national park conservation in South America.


Over the past 22 years, my wife Kris and I have been fully engaged in expanding existing and creating new national parks in South America through our environmental foundations, Conservación Patagónica and the Conservation Land Trust in Argentina and Chile. Our belief is that these national parks serve as the best way of guaranteeing long-term conservation.

Our projects began in 1988 when I was asked to help buy a small private property in the Chilean Lake District and put it under a high level of conservation, protecting it from future exploitation. We agreed to the proposal and the property was bought with the help of two other donors.

Since then we have expanded land under conservation to create a number of national parks and reserves in South America, including: 70,000 hectares on the South Atlantic coast in Argentina; 300,000 hectares on the Chilean coast; 300,000 hectares at Pumalín Park in Chile which we will be ready to donate to the Chilean National Park system in the next few years and has become one of the biggest ecotourism attractions in Chile; nearly 200,000 hectares in the Esteros del Iberá, Argentina, which we hope will become part of the largest park in Argentina at 800,000 hectares in the future; and Conservación Patagónica, the foundation run by Kris, which in 2004 created the Monte León National Park on the Atlantic coast of Argentina and is now working on the Patagonia National Park in Chile, one of the future jewels of the Chilean National Park system. These public access parks with hiking trails, campgrounds and information centres serve thousands of visitors annually.

Looking back at the past 22 years, this work has not only become our passion but is also incredibly meaningful for us: purchasing land through our foundations – land rich in flora and fauna, largely untouched by human hands, where one can experience nature and wilderness at its most vibrant – and creating national parks through donations to the state.

We do this in the hope of inspiring the many thousands of visitors each year to protect the natural world, as well as preserving pristine landscapes, restoring damaged ones and protecting threatened species for generations to come. These projects are a place where private generosity is supporting public values, and we hope they will provide a model for other private conservation initiatives, large and small. And work it certainly is – in fact we’ve never worked harder in our lives!

Kris and I left the business world some 20 years ago and took our skills and applied them to making these projects work, which extend beyond parklands to agro-ecological projects. Our group of family farms are managed with wildlife values in mind and we call this ‘conservation as a consequence of production’, meaning that good production practices lead to conservation.  The sustainable, organic farms are positioned around the parks and contribute to the stewardship of the land. They also incorporate activities such as animal husbandry of sheep and cattle, ecotourism, wool handicrafts and honey production. The farms involve local communities, giving them an appreciation for wilderness and biodiversity conservation, and demonstrating how an agrarian economy carefully matched to local conditions can sustain biodiversity, while providing for communities and supporting the regional economy.

The farm side of our projects meets with the least amount of conflict as people clearly associate it with human development. The bio-diversity conservation, however, courts more controversy, a tangled web of polemics, political infighting and every imaginable conflict in-between. We’ve had to deal with developers of every kind, from industrialists and road builders, to governments, foresters, ranchers, farmers and energy interests. The list goes on and on – and everyone has their own agenda and plans that come into direct conflict with our struggle to conserve the natural habitat and reverse an extinction crisis.

To create a national park, you need to have a passion for conservation. You need to have the financial resources, either your own or the ability to raise money (we do both). You have to have time to be able to give it your full attention and be there to organise it. You need to get to know the local people, politicians, authorities and other landowners. You need to immerse yourself in the communities and understand their cultural and social realities: their needs, interests and passions. This is a cultural problem as much as it is a conservation issue, which needs to be overcome. Meeting people and understanding their needs is one of many elements that make these projects so interesting and fulfilling.

There is no doubt that coming from a business operating in 60 countries to moving to South America and diving into farms, large parkland conservation and activism (essential if one wants to see policy develop that will eventually protect parks and bio-diversity) is a major life-shift.

But I was lucky enough to change my life priorities, due to a number of factors. My focus switched from the business world to conservation and environmentalism – and I fell under their spell immediately. After many years of working in business I realised I was not doing what my heart wanted and I needed to focus my attention and daily work on what brought me the most satisfaction. So I sold my business interests and relocated to South America where I could see that the capital I had managed to accumulate from the sale of the businesses would go much further than in the US or Europe. The potential for conservation in South America was much greater and on a vaster scale than other continents I was familiar with, giving my wife and I the opportunity to protect biodiversity on an unprecedented scale.

All I can say is that the satisfaction of creating national parks and making it the second part of one’s life’s work is beyond description. Even at our most depressed states – when we learn of some other species on the brink of extinction, a new road planned through the Serengeti, Japan killing more whales under the false notion of research, 100,000 barrels of oil a day gushing out of a broken well or high power lines potentially cutting through one of our parklands – no matter what it may be, the thought of doing anything else is out of the question. Business life is a distant memory and neither Kris nor I could imagine returning to that world as fun as it was at the time; it does not come close to the satisfaction of working to reverse the bio-diversity crisis.

I believe we must stop the further destruction of natural habitats and ecosystems, which are on the brink of a catastrophic collapse, and restore those that have been over appropriated by agriculture, industry and growth of urban areas. We need to learn to live in balance with nature. There is no doubt that we have badly overshot the planet’s ability to renew itself and we need a downsizing of populations, city sizes, consumption levels and a new economic model that takes our natural habitats and resources into consideration.

The writing is on the wall. The question is: can we read it, can we understand it once we read it and can we take it to heart and do something about it? The jury is out on these questions as I see it. It is going to be tough, but if we humans are clever enough we will figure it out. Besides, what else is there to do than try anyway? If the ship is indeed going down despite all we may do – and some analysts believe it’s already too late – what better and more dignified way is there than to work until our final day doing meaningful work. It’s such an exhilarating experience, and this alone is enough to make it all worth doing. As told to Emilia Hungerford


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