Welcome to my world
Doug Tompkins made a fortune "selling people countless things they didn't need." Now he's spending it saving the planet. Dan McDougall enters his private Patagonian wilderness to hear how the tycoon turned environmentalist has declared war on industrialists, whalers -- and Greenpeace
A dark intertwine of deep green fjords stretches beneath us towards the horizon where the confluence of the glacial current merges with the black stillness of the open sea. Far to the south, where epic waves torment Cape Horn's cold granite cliffs, three great oceans -- the Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Antarctic -- meet in a cacophony of turbulent waves and deadly squalls. It is the stormy heart of the most unpredictable weather system on earth. "My Patagonia," in the words of the poet Mario Miranda Soussi, "is a landscape of infinite water, torn apart by a torrent of love, navigating a single river swollen by miracles."
The verdant terrain we are crossing at 500ft above the Patagonian rainforest canopy is no less violent: fern-covered Jurassic mountains crashing into each other, snarling vegetation suffocating the trees, roaring rivers tossing huge boulders and rocks kilometres downstream. Fleetingly, we fly over a few small corrugated tin houses, their red roofs glinting in the evening sun; remote dwellings only there, it seems, to show how vast the terrain is. Even the mighty Andean Condor, with its 3-meter wingspan, appears no bigger than a seagull in this landscape.
The shadow of the plane that carries us is lost on the side of an enormous massif as we begin to lose altitude. The single prop dips and weaves in the thermals as we approach the tree line, cutting the uppermost branches off a 200-year-old pine tree, and then hurtles towards the dusty runway. Our pilot is Doug Tompkins, 66, a multimillionaire philanthropist conservationist and the most controversial American in South America. He is an individual at the vanguard of a new aggressive environmentalism who has spent hundreds of millions of his own dollars buying up a slice of Patagonia the size of Northern Ireland, and has practically split a sovereign country in two -- all in the name of saving the world. Fifteen minutes earlier, Tompkins had flown us over the gaping crater of his own volcano, and taken an impossible 360-degree turn so close to the lip that we almost passed out from the sulphurous emissions.
We are among the first guests this year to stay at his remote farmhouse. Tompkins spent Christmas and New Year on the Antarctic high seas, the acting quartermaster on the controversial Sea Shepherd, a vessel he has supported through thick and thin through his friendship with the ship's captain, Paul Watson. Tompkins later tells me that he spent much of his time bombarding the Japanese whaling fleet with putric acid bombs. He was the oldest man on the ship, but he pulled his weight by doing night watch, and even scrubbed the deck.
The experience of ramming Japanese ships on the world's most treacherous oceans has clearly taken its toll on him, and he looks gaunt. But he is also agitated. It's been a difficult weekend. Over coffee, toast and his own homemade blueberry jam he spent our first breakfast together telling me it was time to "Take it up a notch" in his bid to save the planet. "Greenpeace," he told me, "were wimps. They've turned into a corporation. They hoover up donations from around the world and do nothing. As activists, they are dead in the water. It's time for a new activism to get the message across. We need to take the destruction of this earth and its animals to those responsible -- and face them down. We are out in the snow and the wind taking it to the Japanese. Greenpeace are in their warm London offices lobbying politicians. Direct action is the key now, and the public are behind us."
The story of how Doug and his wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins, arrived in Patagonia started out simply enough, but it has quickly become one of the most enduring controversies in modern South American history. Once fashion moguls behind three of the high street's most famous brands -- Esprit, The North Face and Patagonia -- the couple are now mounting the world's largest private conservation effort, buying vast stretches of wilderness in Chile and Argentina to protect it from development.
Tompkins founded The North Face, his outdoor gear company, in the 1960s and, with his first wife, the clothing company Esprit. Kris, who is a decade younger than Doug, was CEO of Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company that was the first US corporation to give 1% of its sales to an environmental fund.
Tompkins first dabbled in land conservation as far back as 1979, creating the redwood-studded Esprit Park on a San Francisco city block. In 1990, he helped Britain's Cat Survival Trust buy 10,000 acres of rainforest in Misiones, Argentina, now El Piñalito Provincial Park. In 1994, he married Kris and the couple moved to Chile. They sold their shares and said a not-so-fond goodbye to corporate America, deciding to focus full-time on conservation in Patagonia. Since then they have bought up an astonishing 2.2m acres of wilderness for parks and reserves.
As Bill Gates and Warren Buffet launched audacious philanthropic campaigns to wipe out HIV and malaria, the Tompkins have quietly poured almost $300m into reserves and ecological causes through their private San Francisco-registered charitable foundations.
Parque Pumalin, where we are now standing, is owned by one of these foundations -- almost 800,000 acres of temperate rainforest stretching from the Chilean coast to the Andes. It holds 25% of the world's remaining Alerce trees, related to the giant Sequoias of California, as well as pristine waterfalls, lakes, campgrounds, cabins and trails. It doesn't stop there. To the southeast of Pumalin, in Valle Chacabuco, a former sheep ranch is being restored to grasslands and 300 miles of fences have been removed. The locals have become guides, restoration specialists and wildlife managers, just as small farmers around Pumalin have become park employees and organic farmers.
In the Argentine province of Santa Cruz, McDivitt Tompkins used $1.7 million from her Patagonian Land Trust to buy the 155,000-acre Estancia Monte Leon. Endangered deer, sea lions and elephant seals take refuge here, along with Magellanic penguins. Her foundation gave the land, as well as a management plan, to Argentina as the Monte Leon National Park in 2004. The newest project is to rescue an area in subtropical Argentina where giant anteaters, tapirs and jaguar will be reintroduced.
Today, the couple are the ecological equivalent of rock stars, such is their standing in environmental circles that they both get top billing wherever they go to talk in the world. Prince Charles recently received them at Clarence House to discuss organic farming. Yet they are far from self-publicists. Securing an interview with the intensely private couple took eight months of perseverance.
But not everyone is a fan. Accused by right-wing Chilean politicians of effectively splitting the country in two in a conspiratorial land grab, the Tompkins have faced a barrage of criticism over the past few years. The Catholic church and Chile's former president, Eduardo Frei Montalva, have both attacked the Parque Pumalin project repeatedly, claiming the couple have evicted peasants and blocked traffic along the region's only road-and-ferry lifeline, the Carretera Austral.
The campaign against them has, at times, attracted popular appeal in a region where US involvement has often meant CIA-backed coups and support for right-wing dictators, such as Augusto Pinochet. In newspaper headlines and on websites, the Tompkins have been accused of dark motives and sinister schemes, some of them ridiculous, some downright entertaining -- they are here to replace local cattle with American buffalo, to corner the world granite market, to establish a new Zionist state, to steal Chile's water and sell it to Africa.
"The country is divided into two and the guilty party is a North American who doesn't even live in this country," warned the conservative weekly Que Pasa recently. "His objective is, to say the least, dark, covering a vast territory from mountains to sea."
The superintendent of Region 10 (one of 13 provinces in Chile), of which Tompkins owns 20%, keeps a thick file on the American on his desk. The Chileans have even placed a bizarre police station in the centre of Parque Pumalin to keep an eye on him. It's a dream posting for the officers who sunbathe and play football all day with only sheep for company. The army keeps an active base near him, too: since his land shares a 44-mile border with Argentina, the army sees him as a potential threat to national security. So much for saving the planet.
"Imagine if a super-rich millionaire bought a quarter of Northern Scotland," one Chilean friend and Santiago-based journalist told me, "and then informed the local populace that he was keeping it for their own good because their government couldn't be trusted to look after it. Even if true, it's a hard truth to swallow for us all. We are a country with growing energy needs, and water and wind energy in Patagonia could be the key to keeping our economy afloat when fossil fuels go the way of the dodo."
"We knew from the start that the biggest challenge for us would be overcoming not just political opposition but mistrust over our motives as outsiders. We have thrown the obstacles in our own path, this is what we do," Tompkins tells me at his Pumalin farmhouse. We are perched, awkwardly, on one huge sofa surrounded by an expensive mixture of crafted blond woods and organic white paint. Outside is a beautiful Japanese garden and a series of organic greenhouses -- not to mention the couple's private runway and hangar for their four planes. Every detail of the 100-year-old farmhouse's renovation was designed by Tompkins himself.
"I've never ever tried to make life easy for myself," Tompkins continues. "Land use is highly political here, more than most places: if we wanted to retire in peace we wouldn't be here. These parks are our life's work, not the clothing chains we created, selling people clothes they don't need. We are the ones who keep putting obstacles in our own way by buying more land. I'm a troublemaker and I'm proud of it. We know what to expect - more confrontation, more outrage, more mistrust. When we began working on Parque Pumalin, rumours flew that we were establishing a nuclear waste site for the United States or, oddly for Episcopalians which we both are, setting up a Jewish state. It would be funny if these theories weren't being taken very seriously. If we weren't getting the hate mail or the graffiti outside our mainland offices."
Tompkins claims that things are finally improving, with the government at least. Last August, Pumalin was designated a nature sanctuary, a special status conferred by the Chilean government in order to provide additional environmental protection. As a result of the announcement, the Chilean Pumalin Foundation will supervise the park's administration and development as a national park for the Chilean people with full public access, yet one that remains privately owned. With its new designation, Parque Pumalin has become the world's largest private reserve.
At the heart of the reserve is a mist-shrouded, old-growth rainforest, which receives an astonishing 6 meters of rain a year and is home to the towering Alerce trees, some more than a 1,000 years old. Once common, the Alerce has been logged to the brink of extinction. To Tompkins, the struggle to preserve biodiversity is his primary concern, it is "the point upon which everything turns," he says. In the early 1990s, he started the non-profit Foundation for Deep Ecology to promote the ideas of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who died last month, aged 96.
Naess's philosophy opposes all "mega-technology" -- from nuclear power plants to television sets and even wind turbines, and calls for a dismantling of the "techno-industrial society." Although Tompkins uses computers and pilots small planes to and from his projects in Chile and Argentina, he is unapologetic in his support for Naess. "I use satellite phones and a Mac. I use a camera like everyone else, but for me this is a strategic embrace to try and communicate the messages I believe in. Mega technologies present the biggest threat to the world today, more so than fossil fuels. We have distanced ourselves from nature," he says.
As we speak, Tompkins's wife, who calls him Lolo (young man in Spanish), calls us to the table for lunch. "We have a saying here," says Kris, "that if we wait long enough, the whole world will turn up on our doorstep. We host environmentalists from the four corners. People who come here to see the work we are doing." Close friends of the couple understand that she is, in fact, the dynamo behind the pair's success. We are joined by an American environmental campaigner and his son who are visiting Tompkins to raise funds for a project in their home state of Oregon. Within moments the youngster finds himself chastised by Tompkins for tacitly admitting it would be hard to give up his laptop. "You are weak," shouts Tompkins at the startled young man. "This is a fight to the end. You need to step away from technology's hold on you." The young environmentalist, who rides a skateboard to work for fear of polluting the planet, looks crestfallen.
Doug Tompkins grew up in Greenwich Village and the resort town of Millbrook, upstate New York; his father owned a Manhattan antiques store. He was kicked out of the prestigious Pomfret School in Connecticut and then, like many Americans in the 1960s, he drifted west, moving to California to climb and ski. While he was working as a tree surgeon near Lake Tahoe in 1963, he met Susie Russell. He'd been hitchhiking, she picked him up. They were both 20. Married a year later, they moved to San Francisco, where he borrowed $5,000 to start The North Face, selling it a few years later for $50,000. Esprit started out, literally, on Susie's kitchen table in 1968. By 1986, its worldwide sales topped $1 billion.
Known as Little Utopia and Camp Esprit, the San Francisco-based company was a leader in developing neo-hippie perks, offering employees free foreign language lessons, and sending them rafting in the foothills of the Himalayas. Happy employees at Esprit ultimately made for serious profits: along the way Tompkins acquired a $1 million collection of art, including work by Bacon, Picasso, Balthus and Hopper.
In the 1980s, with Esprit flying high, Tompkins read George Sessions's and Bill Devall's primer, Deep Ecology: Living As If Nature Mattered, and decided to make a change. As he states on his Deep Ecology website: "Within the few hours that it took to read the book, I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense." As the company grew, Tompkins perfected what was later dubbed "MBA" (Management by Being Absent), going off for months on climbing and kayaking adventures. His mind was seemingly elsewhere. In 1990, after several years of wrangling and a divorce from his first wife Susie, she and three partners bought him out. The deal gave him $125 million plus 25% of Esprit Far East.
In Pumalin, Tompkins keeps a tight grip on the park, micro-managing his conservation effort in the same way he did with Esprit. No decision is made without his express permission, be it the style of stone used on a pathway to the lettering on a signpost in one of the parks. "Doug Tompkins is such a control freak that he has to pick the toilet-paper holders for all these places," jokes his close friend Yvon Chouinard, chairman of clothing manufacturer Patagonia, Inc.
What is undeniable is that Tompkins's methods, good or bad, have put him on the frontline between development and conservation. The idyll of the Patagonia he lives in is deceptive. Timber companies and cattle breeders are busily harvesting the forests, and the lakes of the region are steadily becoming polluted by salmon farmers exporting to Japan and Europe. South America's last non-tropical rainforests are being chopped down, the wood ground into chips for the cellulose industry, and Chile's environmental laws are not strong enough to protect the trees.
Tompkins is blunt, because he has his work cut out. "Sure, I offend people," he says. "I do it all the time, but we only have one shot at this. I can't buy every wilderness in the world. There are wealthy men out there who if they stood up and did the same we would have a fighting chance of saving our ecosystems. Why would a retired billionaire want to keep his money anyway? What good is it to him when he is dead?"
To this end, Tompkins considers other charitable efforts, such as the fight against poverty, illiteracy, or disease, secondary to preserving biodiversity, a fact that many charities find impossible to digest. "Look, you can plough money into Africa, you can be like Bill Gates and take on malaria, these are all admirable pursuits, but it's really quite simple. There's not going to be any social justice on a dead planet. We need to pay our dues to live on this earth; we need to pay the rent and I'm doing that with the work we are carrying out here in Patagonia."
"There are too many of us," he adds. "Say what you like about the Chinese, but they got it right with their one-child policy. We must accept our place in nature. The earth's population must shrink if we want to survive."
Subtlety, Tompkins is the first to admit, is not his strong point. Getting results is. Everything here, in majestic Pumalin at least, depends on his success and much of the water that runs through the land he owns is scheduled for damming by energy companies. He vows to stand in their way. Energy is a hot topic in Chile, where natural resources are few. Ten Patagonian rivers are targeted for dams planned by Spanish-Italian multinational Endesa and Chile-based conglomerate HidroAysén, with the backing of the government. At stake are pristine ecosystems and rural farms, but an even greater issue involves building the world's longest transmission lines. Thousands of high-voltage towers would run 1,500 miles to bring power to Santiago and the country's energy-hungry mining operations in the north. "Water," says Tompkins, "is absolutely everything."
And currently it is salmon farming that is his particular bête noir. As we arrive in Pumalin, 500,000 Atlantic salmon have escaped from farms into the Pacific fjord, causing devastation. To show the extent of the catastrophe, we take to the skies. A few miles north of his farmhouse, he banks steeply so we can look at the tethered cages of the salmon farms that line one of the fjords which dissect his estate. The seafloor beneath salmon cages quickly becomes a dead zone, carpeted in a deep slime of faeces and unconsumed protein from feed pellets, resulting in toxic algae blooms and red tides.
The profligate use of antibiotics to ward off disease in the overcrowded pens has, in the past six months, led to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria -- many of the salmon are sick. "Look at this shit," says Tompkins. "This whole enterprise is fed by the depletion of the marine food chain. It takes 3-5 lbs. of fishmeal to produce 1 lb. of salmon. Madness. It's damned madness, I tell you."
Yet salmon farming is one of the crown jewels of Chile's economic boom, worth around £2 billion, and its competitive advantage on the world market is based largely on the claim that the fish are raised in "the world's purest cold waters." Chile has a 35% share of the world market: half the salmon consumed in the US began life in a cage in a Chilean fjord.
"It's just another battle I have to take on," says Tompkins, banking left and heading back to the fjord.
As I prepare to leave his home I wonder if guilt is driving Tompkins. He knows I investigated his former company Esprit while I was working as a foreign correspondent based in India, where I found eight-year-old children making garments for the US chain without its knowledge, now owned by a Hong Kong-based consortium. Tompkins denies that exploitation, in particular of children, contributed to his enormous profits.
"Look, I'm not proud of how I made my money; the carbon footprint aside, fashion is one of the most intellectually vacuous industries. We had to manufacture desires to get people to buy our products. We were selling people countless things that they didn't need. It set the agenda for the other multinationals that shift disposable items in unfathomable bulk. The retail industry is a monster hoovering up the planet's vital resources."
Tenacious and obsessive, passionate and compulsive, arrogant and caustic are the words most often used to describe him. No one suggests Tompkins is modest. "I want to raise the consciousness of the world," he recently told a Chilean news magazine. In the mid-1980s, at the height of Esprit's success, he told another interviewer that he was obsessed with two things: "Moving in places where the ordinary human doesn't go" and achieving "world-class status."
Soaring above Doug Tompkins's forest canopy are Pumalin's prized Alerce trees. Cashing in on its light weight, its straight grain and its resistance to rot, loggers have decimated the tree population. The Alerces growing in Pumalin are some of the species' last survivors, and the near destruction of the tree is a sort of Chilean morality tale, for this is a country whose economy is based, to an extreme degree, on the extraction of raw materials and the exploitation of natural resources.
Tompkins feels an affinity with the trees: "I'm a survivor like them. They keep threatening to throw me out, but I'm still here, fighting the good fight. I hope I've got 20 years' fight left in me yet."
As we pack our bags, a helicopter hovers above the farmhouse and drops on to the airfield. At the helm is Sebástian Piñera, Chile's former ambassador to the UN and now a billionaire businessman. Piñera, a charismatic Harvard graduate, is the majority owner of Chile's largest airline, Lan, and also a major television station. He is here, he claims, for fuel on his way to the mainland, but a camera crew is in tow. They film me speaking to Piñera.
Although nowhere near as vociferous as Tompkins on the issue, I know Piñera is dabbling in conservation himself. He recently bought 120,000 hectares of Chiloé Island, one of the country's most remote wildernesses. Will he buy more, I ask him -- as much as Tompkins?
"More land? No. I don't think so -- 120,000 hectares is a lot of land. More than any man needs. Nobody should have too much land, it belongs to the people. This is an issue I feel very strongly about."