on the Rise
Civil society takes the lead on conserving biodiversity in Chile and Argentina, the governments to follow.
After convincing National Geographic Magazine to publish a story on the endangered alerce trees in Chile, Rick Klein wrote a letter to legendary photographer Galen Rowell asking him to be the photographer for the assignment. Rowell agreed, telling Klein that he was about to fly from California to Patagonia anyway in two Cessna T206 planes to go climbing with his friend Doug Tompkins.
That was December 1990. Klein himself had previously been in touch with Tompkins. The previous year, Klein, who founded the California- based organization Ancient Forests International, had convinced several American and Chilean conservationists, including Tompkins, Yvon Chouinard ( owner of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia), and Alan Weeden, to back his initiative to create Chile’s first- ever private park. Called El Cañi Sanctuary, the purchase secured a 500 hectare ( 1,200 acres) forest featuring the rare, araucaria “monkey puzzle” trees just outside the resort town Pucon.
So Tompkins joined Rowell and Klein on their trek to explore and document alerces over three days in mostly untracked backcountry of Alerce Andino National Park. Tompkins, having recently sold his huge financial stake in the international women’s clothing giant Esprit, was eager to put his wealth behind conservation efforts. He had been an environmentalist for a long time, and Chile was a country he had grown to appreciate ever since his first visit there in 1961 as a young 18- year- old to train for the United States Olympic ski trials. Tompkins was especially fascinated by farmland he had seen in overflights of Palena province in Chile’s Lakes region. Klein, meanwhile, told him during the trek about plans he had been hatching with the Chilean environmental group Codeff to create a “world park” in northern Patagonia, and particularly gushed about the beauty of Cahuelmo Fjord, an ancient sacred site for the indigenous Huilliche with natural hot springs and teeming with wildlife.
After the trek, Klein introduced Tompkins to a Chilean friend, Vicente Pinto, whose family was caretaking a farm at Reñihue Fjord in Palena. After flying there with Klein for an overnight visit to take a look on the ground, back in Puerto Montt, Tompkins faxed an offer for the 17,000 hectare ( 42,000 acre) farm to its owner in Lake Como, Italy. Sold. Some days later, after flying over Cahuelmo and other pristine wild country near his newly bought property, Tompkins called Klein at 5 a. m. on New Years Day, 1991, to give him even bigger news: he just put down US$ 7 million dollars to buy another 223,000 hectares ( 551,000 acres) adjacent to the Reñihue property, including Cahuelmo. Klein was overjoyed. “I was dancing on the rooftops. That’s exactly what this Alerce bioregion ecosystem needed,” said Klein. “I thought our dream for a public- private park was going to be a reality.”
It was the start of other land purchases for Tompkins over the following years. But Tompkins had his own vision: to personally create a model private park that would set a global standard on how to conserve ecosystems. Thus was born Parque Pumalin, the world’s largest private park.
A conservation boom
Tompkins and his Pumalin, though much criticized at the time by some Chilean politicians and others, were at the forefront of a major land conservation movement now underway in Patagonia and the Southern Cone. In the two decades since
Tompkins began his conservation purchases here, numerous other noteworthy large and small private parks have been created, especially in Chile.
The list of the larger initiatives in the region includes Chile’s outgoing president Sebastian Piñera, who in 2004 bought a 118,000- hectare ( 292,000 acres) property in Chiloe Island, and two years later opened it up for public visitors as Tantauco Park ( see Trekking: A Weekend at Piñera’s, page 58). In a interview I did with the president three years ago for Newsweek magazine, Piñera referred to the park as a “slice of heaven” and has said it will be his first stop once his government ends in March. Managed by his Fundacion Futuro, and advised closely by Tompkins and his staff at Fundacion Pumalin, the project’s main goal is to “protect and conserve vulnerable ecosystems and species, and those at risk of extinction.” The park is also reforesting with native species large swaths of the park devastated by a forest fire in the 1940s.
We have enormous gaps in our legislation, but our civil society is very advanced and is taking the lead.
In Chile’s Los Rios region, Chilean businessman Victor Petermann originally bought the 120,000- hectares ( 297,000 acres) that make up the Huilo Huilo nature preserve land in the mid- 1970s as a forestry investment. But by the mid- 1980s, Petermann and his partners converted their holdings instead into a massive eco- tourism project, in the process converting not just the land into a park but transitioning the entire 5,000- person towns of Neltume and Puerto Fuy from lumber- dependent jobs to tourism jobs and businesses.
Situated amid temperate rainforest, the project deftly combines successful tourism development with conservation initiatives led by the Huilo Huilo Foundation and Petermann’s ex- wife Ivonne Reifschneider. In 2005, they flew by helicopter and plane a pair of huemuls from southern Aysen to the park in order to eventually re- introduce this endangered deer species to the ecosystems inside the preserve, where they had long ago been completely wiped out. Today, there are an estimated 12 huemuls. Huilo Huilo is similarly re- introducing guanacos and monitoring Darwin frogs and pumas.
In the far south, former U. S. treasury secretary Henry Paulson, while president of the New York- based investment bank Goldman Sachs, helped create the 283,000- hectare ( 699,000 acres) Karukinka Park on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. The bank purchased the land when the U. S.- based Trillium timber company defaulted on some debts, and with the help of the international non- profit Wildlife Conservation Society, the park formally launched in 2004. A true environmental success story, the fragile temperate forest ecosystem escaped controversial logging plans and is now protecting the largest guanaco population in Chile and abundant marine wildlife, among diverse other flora and fauna species. It’s also an effective pole of environmental research in the region, often collaborating with the government.
Yet, while Tompkins recently gifted 38,780 hectares ( 94,000 acres) on Tierra del Fuego Island to the Chilean government to form part
of the newly created Yendegaia National Park, Karukinka park director Barbara Saavedra says they are opting for the exact opposite approach. “We know the limits of the Chilean state,” said Saavedra, a Chilean biologist. “The government protection areas system does not work. Its underfinanced, does not have enough trained people, and it does not have the vision and understanding needed to value the conservation of biodiversity. Under such conditions, to join such a system, it is not necessarily positive in the short- term but maybe in the long- term.”
According to an August 2013 United Nations study, an impressive 308 private parks now exist throughout Chile, covering more than 1.65 million hectares ( 4 million acres), with more than half in the southern regions of Los Lagos, Magallanes and Los Rios. More striking, over 200 of the parks are led by individual owners and some 60 percent are small private parks of less than 200 hectares ( 50 acres).
Argentina ( and Chile) has no national legislation to aid private conservation yet, but 11 of 23 Argentine provinces have made advances in developing varied legal tools to support private parks. Altogether, according to Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina, there are 156 private parks in the country, extending over 701, 897 hectares ( 1.73 million acres).
“In most other countries, governments are out front on land conservation, in Chile it’s the reverse,” said Elisa Corcuera, a director of Asi Conserva Chile, a new organization that formed two years ago to catalyze better private park management. “We have enormous gaps in our legislation compared to other countries, but our civil society is very advanced and is taking the lead.”
“The state can’t do it by itself,” adds Argentine lawyer Carlos Fernandez, who is the Southern Andes conservation strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy, an international conservation organization with programs in more than 35 countries. “Just take a look at a map of Argentine Patagonia, for example. About 70 to 80 percent of the land there is in private hands. We need a mosaic
We need a land trust model here that gives legal guarantees for these areas in perpetuity. Necesitamos un modelo de land trust aquí que de garantías legales para estas áreas en perpetuidad.
of strategies that includes both national parks and private conservation.”
Both Chile and Argentina have most of their land under private ownership, and both with much work to do to achieve adequate biodiversity protection within their borders.
While Chile has nearly 20 percent of its territory in its national protection areas system ( SNASPE) as parks and reserves, 84 percent is concentrated in just two administrative regions ( Aysen and Magallanes), and 24 percent is completely ice and rock and void of vegetation. Geographically, Chile is a long and thin country with a high diversity of ecosystem types, but scientists say most are underrepresented among protection areas. One telling indicator of the nation’s conservation deficit: nearly half of vertebrate species ( reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, mammals) in Chile are classified as threatened or endangered.
Half of Argentina’s 18 ecoregions, defined as a " large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental
conditions" are at serious risk, say experts, particularly from deforestation ( mainly due to clearing for soybean crops and livestock grazing). One- third of the Patagonian steppe is suffering severe soil erosion from overgrazing by sheep. Although 8 percent of the country’s land is officially under some form of national or local government protection, a 2011 World Bank report found that only about one- fifth of these areas are “adequately managed.” The report concludes that, in effect, “just over 1 percent of Argentina’s natural landscapes were being adequately protected while the national goal is 5 percent, and the international conservation target for conserving terrestrial ecosystems is 10 percent.”
Worldwide, private conservation has taken varied forms, with diverse owners, involving individuals, universities, environmental groups, communities, or businesses. Many private conservation initiatives are motivated by genuine ecological concern; since the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992, environmentalism has seen an exponential rise in societies everywhere. Others, however, see growing tourism revenue. Ecotourism is the fastest growing segment of global tourism, by some estimates increasing by as much as 20 percent a year. In some countries, governments provide economic incentives to conserve private land through tax relief or subsidies for ecosystem services, such as clean water or carbon sequestration. In Costa Rica, for example, more than 7,000 landowners receive payments for environmental services to conserve land totaling over 400,000 hectares ( 988,000 acres).
In the United States, the first private protection area was formed in 1891. But in the past decade alone the amount of land in private protection areas has more than doubled to over 116 million hectares ( 47 million acres) -- twice the size of the U. S. national parks. There are more than 1,700 “land trusts,” non- profit organizations dedicated to conserving private land into perpetuity. One important reason for the conservation boom in the U. S. are conservation easements: voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust or government agency that permanently restricts development on
Nearly half of vertebrate species in Chile are classified as threatened or endangered. Cerca de la mitad de las especies vertebradas en Chile están en peligro de extinción o amenazadas.
the land in order to protect its conservation values even if the owner sells or dies. Further still, there may be tax benefits for the landowner.
An historic bill currently in Chile’s Congress, the Derecho Real de Conservacion ( DRC), overwhelmingly passed the lower house in July 2012 and its making its way through the senate approval process. The proposed law would establish a mechanism similar to the conservation easements used in the U. S. However, the present version of the bill allows conservation easements for 40 years, not in perpetuity, and does not include any tax incentives. Separately, Chile’s congress is considering make changes to its donations law to allow for tax deductions for giving to environmental causes. Additionally, the incoming Michelle Bachelet government ( the 4- year term begins in March) has stated it intends to revive legislation to create a “Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service,” which in theory could improve management at both public and private parks.
Francisco Solis, the Chile representative for The Nature Conservancy, says they are pushing for changes to the derecho real legislation to make it closer in style to the U. S. approach. “Many of the 308 private conservation initiatives in Chile are far from being truly private protection areas,” said Solis. “Why? Because their owners, when they die - or as well they may they change their opinion - there is no guarantee that these parks will continue long- term. We need a land trust model here that gives governance, resources and legal guarantees for these areas in perpetuity.”
Patagonia Sur, a real estate and carbon sequestration business based in Santiago, has moved forward in the meantime without the derecho real law, through an already legal mechanism in Chile called the servidumbre voluntaria ( literally, a “voluntary encumbrance”). A sort of loophole with the similar effect of a conservation easement, this is a permanent, enforceable contract between two adjacent landowners in which a landowner promises in a legally binding way not to develop his or her property. The servidumbre voluntaria agreements are made with Fundación Tierra Austral,
one of Chile’s first land trusts, which was expressly created for Patagonia Sur’s seven properties ( about 22,800 hectares) in Chilean Patagonia. These properties are being subdivided and sold to individual landowners, with 85 percent of the overall land set aside for conservation.
Warren Adams, founder of the Patagonia Sur venture, says in addition to conservation areas there are rules on development, such as how and what can be built. “It’s all very balanced with nature,” he said. “Our Valle California property is the first property in Tierra Austral. But we are also in conversation with several other organizations and private individuals in Chile that are interested in having their properties looked over by Tierra Austral.”
In Argentina, proposals for a law sanctioning conservation easements has yet to gain traction in Buenos Aires, but on the regional level some provincial governments recognize conservation easements. The Misiones province, in Argentina’s far north, even has a law recognizing private reserves and offers an 80 percent reduction in property tax if native forests are not exploited. There is only one conservation easement in Argentina so far, at Laguna Epulfquen in the Nequen province, but two other properties have given letters of intent to The Nature Conservancy for doing conservation easement deeds with the organization acting as guarantor.
Role of governments
Pumalin Park was to be the first of several private conservation initiatives for Doug Tompkins. He got the conservation bug, and spent altogether more than US$ 20 million to buy more than 300,000 hectares ( 742,000 acres) of Pumalín land, draft plans, hire rangers, build trails and otherwise organize the park. Located at the northern end of Chilean Patagonia, it embraces a treasure trove of lakes, rivers, hot springs, mountains, volcanoes and coastal fjords. There is lush temperate rainforest that includes an estimated 35 percent of the world’s last remaining alerce trees.
Early on, environmental groups lined up solidly behind the project. But there were far more — and vocal— opponents. Tompkins endured relentless at- tacks by opponents ranging from extremist Nazi groups to nationalist politicians, who called him a threat to Chile’s sovereignty, to salmon farmers, who claimed the park would straitjacket the local economy. The attacks spiraled into false, dirty rumor mongering, sometimes death threats. The outrageous tales included that Tompkins was planning to build a nuclear base, or developing a secret gold mine.
Today, Tompkins is mostly viewed as a conservation hero. Together with his wife, Kris, the former CEO of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, they have widened their net to include numerous other private donors to aid them in a sweeping private conservation strategy that has led to the purchase of about 1.1 million hectares ( or almost 2.5 million acres) in the intervening years since Tompkins first purchased the sleepy Reñihue farm in Palena. The land purchases have led to the creation of three new national parks in Chile ( Corcovado, Yendegaia) and Argentina ( Monte León), and the goal is to transfer all of the land to the national park systems of these countries. “Private parks are an initial stage for us,” said Hernan Mladinic, executive director of Fundación Pumalin. “Private conservation areas can play a complementary role, but ultimately conservation is the duty of the state.”
Still, though national parks perhaps offer the best route for conservation over the long- term, its not always the most viable option. In Patagonia, where so much land is in private hands, conservation necessarily requires a major role for private conservation initiatives. For instance, The Nature Conservancy Argentina recently teamed up with the Patagonia company and Ovis XXI, a group of Argentine ranchers, to build a market for wool from producers that are certifiably conserving and restoring the Patagonian grasslands. “I am a big fan of Tompkins. He is doing a fantastic job,” said Carlos Fernandez of The Nature Conservancy. “But national parks ought to be considered among several tools to protect biodiversity.”
Indeed, the power of private conservation has been unleashed and civil society can not – and will not - wait for governments.