An encounter with Douglas Tompkins, philanthropist and ecologist

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As he was coming back from the United Nations biodiversity Conference in Nagoya, Douglas Tompkins stopped over in Paris to go to the World Fencing Championships at the Grand Palais. This billionaire American philanthropic environmentalist now lives in Chile and took advantage of his stopover to pay Yann Arthus-Bertrand a visit and see his foundation, GoodPlanet. We were able to find out more about this “eco-baron”, a man who spends his fortune on environmental protection, over dinner.

“There can be no social justice on a dead planet!” For Douglas Tompkins, 67, protecting the environment and safeguarding biodiversity are priorities that need to be addressed before solving the world’s economic and social problems. This is why this billionaire, a former Olympic skiing champion who created the brands Esprit and The North Face, has been buying thousands of hectares in Chile and Argentina to create natural reserves and national parks so that nature can reclaim the land. He now owns more than 8 000 km2 of land; this is the equivalent of a country like Corsica.

It all began in 1989 when he and his wife Christine, who was then the head of Patagonia, decided to leave everything behind and sell their shares in their companies. “I was selling clothes that people didn’t really need. Society today is trapped in a model of mass consumption. It is a real problem and I realised that I was part of that problem”.

Three years later, they bought an abandoned ranch in the Palena province, in the south of Chile. They then acquired more land and created the Pumalin Park, a 3 250 km2 private natural reserve (bigger than the Yosemite National Park the United States). In January 2005, the Chilean government declared it a “Nature Sanctuary” and the billionaire has promised to bequeath it to Chile when he dies. Indeed, Douglas Tompkins does not want to keep anything for himself, or “for his children”. This is why in 2002, he gave the Chilean government 85 000 hectares to create the Corcovado National Park through his organisation, the Conservation Land Trust. The park now stretches over 2 940 km2. “It was a gift that the president could not refuse”, he added with a smile and a glimmer in his eye.

However, everything is not simple for the Tompkins’. The inhabitants have taken a dim view of this American buying their land and there are many people in Chile and Argentina who want them to leave. Indeed, anti-American feelings are deeply entrenched in Latin America. He told us that when he created the Pumalin Park, the army was worried because his park divided Chile in two: it was thus a threat to national security! “But, he explained, people were also opposed to the creation of big national American parks and now, no-one wants them to disappear. It is the same thing in Chile and the Chileans’ attitude is gradually changing.”

He is often portrayed as the father of environmental philanthropy, the movement to acquire natural spaces and ensure their conservation. However, he often reminds people that this phenomenon is not new. It has been part of American conscience for several generations. “In the United States, most national parks were created thanks to benefactors like John D. Rockefeller”. He even gave Yann a beautiful illustrated book on this “American tradition”.

So, is Douglas Tompkins an ordinary eco baron? Nothing could be less sure. For example, unlike others, he has left the country where he was born and now lives where he bought land. He therefore spends half the year in his ranch in the Pumalin Park, and the other half in the Corrientes province in the North of Argentina (he has bought part of the Iberà swamps). And, above all else, Douglas Tompkins believes in deep ecology. “Now, we believe that mankind can do what it likes, as though we all live in a bubble. In truth, human beings are simply one of many species within a global ecosystem. We might need to develop but we also have to share the planet with other species”, he explained after dinner. Moreover, in the 1990s, he created the Foundation for Deep Ecology to promote the ideas of Arne Naess, the Norwegian founder of the movement. Ness was against all mega technologies (from televisions to nuclear power stations) and called for industrial society to be dismantled. However, Tompkins does not take things to such extremes. After dinner, he showed us photographs of his ranch (tucked away in a Chilean fjord) and of his park on his MacBook, and told us about how you have to take a plane, a car and a boat to get there.

Doug as his friends call him, continued to explain the way he looks at the world. “The current system is destroying nature. It is unacceptable. Preserving biodiversity should be a major preoccupation”. He believes that all other efforts and other fights such as fighting disease and combating poverty are admirable but secondary. “You can use your money to improve access to education or health in Africa like Bill Gates but if there’s no longer a planet, it’s useless”.

Read more, visit the website of The Conservation Land Trust and the website of the Foundation For Deep Ecology.

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