The new eco barons

By JONATHAN FRANKLIN
October 4, 2007
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 (see them at http://www.patagonialandtrust.org). 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.”

Tompkins described Swiss art magnate and philanthropist Ernst Beyeler as a key ally in these land purchases.

“Ernst helped my wife buy Chacabuco (part of the next Chilean national park) in Patagonia,” says Tompkins. “He organised fund-raisers in Switzerland and I consider him one of the best Swiss conservation philanthropists that I know.”

At the centre of the Tompkins’ conservation efforts is Parque Pumalin (www.parquepumalin.cl), a pristine wooded ecosystem that includes volcanoes, old-growth forests and hot springs. The park’s 300,000 hectares are off limits to all development, except small-scale enterprises such as Pillan, a line of organic honey. “I fundamentally believe in national parks,” says Tompkins. “I don’t believe in private parks. I believe that nations do best and have done best when they really value their parklands and areas that are off limits/out of bounds to development.”

Hansjorg Wyss, one of Switzerland’s richest men, agrees. After amassing a fortune estimated at $US8 billion ($9.29 billion) from his position as chief executive of Synthes – a company that produces artificial spinal discs and specialised nails for repairing broken bones – Wyss tackled a far larger reconstructive project: the wild areas of the American west. Through his foundation (wyssfoundation.org), Wyss has donated millions of dollars to preserve wild lands in Utah and Montana.

Even investment bank Goldman Sachs has caught the bug. In 2003, Goldman Sachs received 270,000 hectares of forests in Southern Chile and Argentina as a result of a bankruptcy settlement.

“It was part of a large package of distressed debt. Of course, we knew about it when we bought it. Then we started asking: what do we do with a million acres of forest at the end of the Earth? We had to get out an atlas,” laughs Lawrence Linden, an advisory director at the bank.

“Goldman Sachs is an investment bank, so we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem down in Tierra del Fuego? So we called in the Nature Conservancy to study the land and they came back with the conclusion that it was actually a very valuable piece of land from an environmental point of view.”

Today, the Goldman Sachs land is one of the last remaining pieces of alpine and coastal beech – the largest intact stands in South America and home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal that roams the forest. With winds that regularly gust to 100 kilometres an hour, the forest is particularly fragile.

Due to the low temperatures, the native lenga trees grow slowly, reaching 20 metres only after 200 years. Industrial forestry projects or clear felling would be like stripping away thousands of years of evolution.

Linden spoke passionately about the forests of Tasmania and New Zealand’s South Island, more like an inveterate backpacker than a suit-and-tie banker.

“If you look at it,” he says, “there are very few old-growth forests in the southern hemisphere.”

Goldman Sachs raised an $US18 million ($20.9 million) endowment for the park and the company works closely with the parks manager, the Wildlife Conservation Society.

“We didn’t want this to be a burden on the taxpayers,” says Pete Rose of Goldman Sachs. “This is not a question of preserving pristine wilderness; this is about using 21st-century science to maintain it.”

The Goldman Sachs decision was just the latest example of a long American tradition of land conservation, of which Tompkins considers himself the modern heir.

“Despite my great disappointment in American foreign policy, I am very proud of the American tradition of wild land conservation,” says Tompkins. “It is the best tradition and example of land conservation in the world. It goes back a long way. Every single national park had some component of private philanthropy.”

In Europe, eco barons are also spending millions. Dutch businessman Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who died in 2006, was a leading figure in the European eco baron movement. From his 33,000 hectare estate in Scotland – which he proudly advertised as perpetually open to the public – van Vlissingen managed supermarket chains, energy companies and investment trusts. However, his passion was Africa’s beleaguered national parks.

In barely two years, van Vlissingen poured millions of dollars into the then-incomplete Marakele National Park in South Africa, a job that would likely have taken more than a decade without his backing.

Today, Marakele is part of a far bigger park system and home to classic African wildlife, including the elephant, white and black rhinoceros, buffalo, hyena, cheetah, wild dog and giraffe.

To consolidate his philosophy, van Vlissingen helped create the African Parks Foundation.

Before his death from cancer last year, van Vlissingen was widely considered the richest man in Scotland, and with thousands of hectares, the nation’s largest land owner. But, he refused the latter title.

“You can’t own a place like this,” he said. “It belongs to the planet. I’m only the guardian.”

What price an ecosystem?

Prices are soaring in Patagonia. When conservationists bought 70,000 hectares several years ago, they paid about $US10 million ($11.6 million).

Current property listings there include 2000 hectares on the waterfront for $US1.7 million ($1.97 million) and 9000 hectares for $US12 million ($13.94 million).

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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