Patagonia National Park

Why Patagonia Could be a Model for Global Conservation

Kris and Douglas Tompkins, a philanthropic power-couple from the US and founders of the North Face and Patagonia Inc., created 13 national parks in Chile and Argentina to protect the unique environment and wildlife

The moment you turn off Chile’s iconic Southern Highway into the Chacabuco Valley, you sense a tide of gold-tinged greenness. The sky is wider, the landscape cleaner; you notice there are no fence posts, no wires, no other roads. Soon, you spot wild guanaco browsing up slopes, flamingos wading in lagoons and flightless rheas on the steppe. 

Patagonia National Park is the mothership of Kris Tompkins and her late husband, Douglas. During the Sixties, he had fallen in love with Patagonia, after visiting to climb and train as a ski-racer. Back in the US, he founded North Face and the Esprit brand. In 1990, he gave business up and turned to “deep ecology”— the belief that the world does not revolve solely around human needs. The sale of Esprit alone made him $150m. 

The Tompkins relocated to Chile in 1993, where they became the ultimate philanthropic power-couple. Kris, also a climber and competitive ski-racer, made millions over two decades as CEO of outdoor brand Patagonia Inc. She gave it all up for love and the wilderness. 

“It was a leap of faith,” she says. “I’d dreamed of living in Patagonia, but it was Doug’s idea to go. When I first moved down there, he was preparing to buy land for conservation.” 

We think it's important that the masterpieces of a country belong to everyone

They soon got busy, fighting against dam-builders, supporting organic agriculture and acquiring an area of pristine temperate rainforest that became Pumalín Park. Using their cash and clout to leverage funds from powerful friends, they went on to open 13 national parks, including Monte León on Patagonia’s Atlantic coast and Yendegaia in Tierra del Fuego. 

“Pumalín was the easiest,” says Tompkins. “The other parks were in need of work. That’s how we started rewilding species that should be there but weren’t, which became easily half of our work today. It was an organic process.”

In the subtropical Iberá wetlands in Argentina, they reintroduced giant anteaters, pampas deer, tapirs and green-winged macaws. Jaguars, brought from Brazil, bred for the first time in more than 70 years.

Torres del Paine national park

Photo by John Weinhardt

They had to overcome political obstacles. “At that time, Chile hadn’t had projects of this kind,” she recalls. “We were the foreigners who’d cut Chile in two. What we were doing was new and regarded with suspicion.”  

In 2005, they took over a 206,983 acres of former sheep farm that would become Patagonia National Park, the jewel in their crown. A swathe of snow-capped peaks, glacier-fed rivers and expansive plains, it’s home to puma and condor and threatened species like the South Andean deer and Pampas cat. By handing it over to the Chilean people, they won around the authorities and the public.

Kris Tompkins rationale is simple. “If you buy the same Picasso and you put it in a museum in New York City, millions of people will see that Picasso every year. National parks are the same thing. We think it's important that the masterpieces of a country belong to everyone.”

Blue-sky bucks

Philanthropy that targets causes, whether that’s the Notre-Dame fire or coronavirus emergency, appeals to the emotions.  But it often alleviates a specific crisis rather than solving deeper problems. 

“In reality not much philanthropy goes to genuinely high risk efforts,” says Beth Breeze, director of the Centre for Philanthropy at the University of Kent. 

“Recent trends focus philanthropic resources on projects with proven, predictable and short-term outcomes, which is incompatible with the long-term, blue skies, high risk efforts needed to tackle entrenched and intractable problems like the climate emergency.”

But philanthropy can set in train more significant action, vital with environmental issues that are global and long-term.

“Complicated projects are often funded initially by private philanthropy, before they are rolled out to institutional donors and private finance,” says Marta M. Lejkowski, director of philanthropy for Europe at The Nature Conservancy (TNC). 

Her organisation’s Blue Bonds for Conservation scheme uses philanthropic donations to provide expertise and planning to island and coastal nations, those most at risk from rising sea-levels due to global warming.

National governments are asked to commit to protect at least 30 percent of their near-shore ocean areas, including coral reefs, mangroves and other important habitats, in return for support in refinancing the national debt. 

“Private philanthropy plays a critical and unique role in conservation,” says Lejkowski. “Private donors are often real insiders in the sector. Their insight gives them the enlightenment to fund new ideas that have not yet been tested, or to offer unrestricted support to an organisation that they trust to deliver meaningful environmental change.”  

Some big-money philanthropists support conservation by matching gifts from new donors. Long-term TNC-supporters Jack Long and his wife Carolyn raised approximately $1,000,000 per year for ten years from US supporters through matching funds.

Alert to the dearth of environmental philanthropic support in other countries, their latest scheme matches new non-US donations one-to-one. 

“To achieve sustainable funding for a global organization, we know we must include donors from around the world,” says Long. “We cannot rely solely on Americans to fund this work.

“I see matching funds as the sincerest way of saying ‘Will you join me in supporting this important work?’ TNC is very new to most international philanthropists. Matching funds can create a sense of urgency for fundraising teams.”

Will Covid be a catalyst for conservation?

Less than 7 percent of all philanthropic gifts in the world go to conservation or environmental issues, though these are among the most pressing issues of our times. In the UK, the percentage is around half of that. 

Will Covid be a distraction? Not necessarily, says Florence Miller, of the UK-based Environmental Funders Network: “If we can get the Covid response right, we can solve a lot of other problems. Governments can put pressure on banks to invest in environmental causes in return for bailouts. A ‘green new deal’ now becomes more urgent.” 

In 2018, Kris Tompkins signed her own green deal with the then Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, agreeing to donate 1 million acres of land if the government would match it nine times over. The deal created a Route of Parks, which was officially opened last year.

“It’s the biggest deal of its kind in history, and an unbelievable opportunity for conservation,” says Tompkins. “This unprecedented public-private collaboration creates five new national parks, expands three others and permanently conserves more than 10 million acres of national parkland.”

Conservation on this scale is a powerful weapon to combat climate change. Protecting forests, restoring waterways, permitting only the most “ecological”  agriculture and rewilding species that naturally manage the environment combine to reduce, and absorb, the emissions that produce global warming. A 2017 study by the US National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that ‘natural climate solutions’ “can provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2 °C.”

“Science shows that national parks are a vital tool in addressing climate change,” says Tompkins. “Pumalín alone sequesters an estimated 228 million metric tons of carbon in its soil and vegetation.”

She describes her and Doug’s work as “paying our rent to earth”. But her model of philanthropy will always be political in that it has activism—which both discovered during the Vietnam War protests—at its heart. 

“Unlike a lot of conservation groups, we take activism very, very seriously. We believe if you see something that is trending in the wrong direction to your values you have to stand up and shake the tree.”

Lead image by Chris Moss