In 1995 it was publicly announced that a North American millionaire, Douglas Tompkins, had used intermediaries to buy a 3000-square-kilometre chunk of southern Chile – marking the beginning of a five-year national soap opera that transformed Tompkins into one of the most controversial public figures in the country. In 1991, the 49-year-old Californian, increasingly committed to environmental issues, sold his fifty percent share in the Esprit clothing empire, bought an abandoned ranch on the edge of the Reñihué fjord, 130km south of Puerto Montt, and moved there with his wife and kids. Inspired by the “deep ecology” movement pioneered by the Norwegian environmentalist Arne Naess, Tompkins set out to acquire more of the surrounding wilderness, with the aim of protecting it from the threat of commercial exploitation. As he did so, he was seized with the idea of creating a massive, privately funded national park, which would ensure permanent protection of the ancient forest while providing low-impact facilities for visitors.

The media backlash

Over the next four years Tompkins spent more than US$14 million buying up adjoining tracts of land, in most cases hiding his identity to prevent prices from shooting up. His initial secrecy was to have damaging repercussions, however, for once his land acquisitions became public knowledge, he was engulfed by a wave of suspicion and hostility, fuelled by several right-wing politicians and the press, with his motives questioned by everyone. The biggest cause for alarm, it seemed, was the fact that Tompkins’ land stretched from the Argentine border to the Pacific Ocean, effectively “cutting Chile in two”. Tompkins appeared on national television, explaining his intentions to create Parque Pumalín, a nature sanctuary with free access, slowly winning over some of the public.

Success with strings

Eventually, the government agreed to support Tompkins’ aims to establish the park – on the condition that for one year he would not buy more than 7000 contiguous hectares (17,250 acres) of land in the south of Chile. Tompkins was also prevented from purchasing Huinay, a 740,000-acre property owned by the Catholic University of Valparaíso, separating the two separate chunks of his land, which was instead sold to ENDESA, Chile’s largest energy corporation.

Tompkins, determined to save a little more unspoiled terrain from development, purchased another chunk of land in 2001 near the Termas del Amarillo, south of Chaitén, while in 2005, Parque Pumalín, by this point managed by Chilean Fundación Pumalín (whose board includes Tompkins and his wife), was finally declared a santuario de la naturaleza (nature sanctuary), which gave it additional protection. Tompkins’ wife Kristine is currently working on the conservation project of Estancia Valle Chacabuco near Cochrane.

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