Sunday, October 14, 2007

The New Eco-Barons

Public-spirited billionaires are buying up ecosystems and turning them into conservation areas. Jonathan Franklin reports.

Sebastian Pinera, one of the richest men in Chile, has a resume that includes introducing credit cards to his country, owning South America's most successful airline and large-scale real-estate developments. Now he has what every chic billionaire needs: a private ecosystem.

Parque Tantauco, which Pinera created last year, is 120,000 windswept, Chilean hectares on Chiloe Island, near Patagonia. Pinera has promised to make a top priority of the conservation of offshore blue whales and inland virgin forests.

In fact, millions of hectares worldwide are being bought by business leaders and placed in private charities, conservation trusts, or handed over to governments as a gift.

"It is pretty hard for a country to turn down a gift of 300,000 hectares," explains Douglas Tompkins, 64, the "dean" of the new eco barons, who has spent the past decade and $US200 million ($238 million) spearheading a new movement called Wildlands Philanthropy. Tompkins has bought or organised the purchase of about 25 properties, covering 891,000 hectares of Chile and Argentina.

He earned his fortune with clothing labels North Face and Esprit. He was cruising in the top levels of the jetset, with a huge estate in San Francisco's Pacific Heights and a world-renowned art collection. Then he came across the concept of "deep ecology", a philosophy pioneered by Norwegian Arne Naess that calls for a radical re-evaluation of man's relationship with the planet.

Tompkins was an instant convert: he sold the estate and the art collection and went to live in Southern Chile in a rough wooden cabin. For a year, he lived simply, with no electricity and no modern interference. Today, Tompkins combines these two worlds. He and his wife, Kristi McDivitt, the former CEO of Patagonia Clothing Company, have focused their business acumen on building coalitions of funders, environmentalists and governments to create national parks.

"There are more and more of these projects," says McDivitt. "People are very interested in leaving something more permanent than a wing on a museum. And, really, how many Citation jets can you own?"

The couple have created the Parque Nacional Corcovado in Chile and Parque Nacional Monte Leon in Argentina. Plans for two additional parks are nearing completion.

"In Argentina, we had a big blow-up over the purchase of conservation lands," explains Tompkins.

"Then we pointed out, to the ministries and to the President (Nestor Kirchner), saying, 'Hey, look guys. We are taking land from the private sector - sometimes buying it from foreigners - and giving it back to the state.' That has a tendency to quell a lot of waters."

Here is the full article.

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