YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


He Saves the Rain Forest by Buying It

March 16, 1997|Victor Perera | Victor Perera, the author of "The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey" (University of California), is writing a book on the whales of Patagonia for Alfred A. Knopf

PUERTO MONTT, CHILE — If Thoreau were to come back to life, he might do with his book royalties something that Douglas Tompkins is doing with his private fortune: invest it in a swath of pristine woodlands in a remote South American country and convert it into a vast Walden Pond. But the eccentric tycoon who made his money from the sale of stock in his Esprit clothing chain has gone one step farther. After spending more than $10 million on 700,000 acres of spectacular temperate rain forest, mountain lakes and coastline in southern Chile, he offered to turn it over to his host country as a national park, with the sole proviso that it be declared a nature sanctuary. The Chilean government turned down the offer, denouncing Tompkins as a dangerous radical and his gift as a Trojan horse.

The Chilean government's seemingly perverse response is not altogether surprising. Truth is, it has good reason to be alarmed by Tompkins.

A self-professed "deep ecologist," Tompkins contributes millions of his foundation money to environmental groups that regard Homo sapiens, at best, as a single thread in the fabric of Earth's biodiversity and, at worst, as a willful destroyer of nature's grand design. No one is more detestable in Tompkin's radical cosmology than the industrial forester and land developer.

In an afterword in his book "Clearcut," Tompkins confides that flying his plane over devastated forests of British Columbia--hidden from public view--aroused a "green rage" that converted him into an environmental radical. He is an advocate of Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who calls for a global council of sentient beings to feel our planet's cries of distress in our own bodies before taking remedial action.

Close inspection of the proposed Pumalin Park reveals why Tompkins has raised such a ruckus. His nearly 714,000 acres resemble an upended boot aimed at the heart of southern Chile. If he acquires the strip of land separating his two main holdings, Tompkins could effectively split the country in two, since his property straddles Chile at its narrowest point, a corridor running about 50 miles between the Pacific coast's Gulf of Ancud and the Argentine border.

Pumalin Park would thus become an effective buffer against the northward advance of loggers and land developers, which may be precisely what Tompkins has in mind.

Tompkins evidently enjoys being in the eye of an environmental storm. "They are getting so paranoid that when Santiago college students marched to oust foreign loggers from Tierra del Fuego, President Eduardo Frei accused me of paying for it," he says, sipping tea in his Education, Science and Ecology Foundation headquarters, constructed from fallen alercetrees, the native giant sequoias that grow on his property. While his lawyer claimed the foundation's telephones were tapped, Tompkins accused Sen. Claudio Alvarado of lying to the Chilean Supreme Court about his driving homesteaders out of lands adjacent to his property.

"I'm offering them hard cash for agriculturally unproductive land," he says. What's wrong with that?"

Since then, Tompkins has offered to help settlers relocate to more productive land. He has also set up a model farm at the park entrance to showcase sustainable agronomy.

At times, Tompkins' disingenuousness comes across as real naivete. He is a brilliant businessman and articulate spokesman for his ecological ideas--and hopelessly heavy-footed in dealing with political opponents. But he backs his objectives with real clout. He recently transferred $85 million worth of Esprit stock to his foundations, in addition to his initial $50-million investment, to demonstrate his commitment to biodiversity.

Tompkins has managed to polarize not only the political far right but the traditional left, which is suspicious of his money and his connections to corporate America. He professes surprise at the alarm he set off when he sued a salmon farmer for poisoning the bays with chemicals and killing sea lions on his coastline. He has taken on Chile's three most powerful lobbies--the loggers and land developers, the copper miners and the sacrosanct salmon farms--that are pouring billions of dollars into the resurgent Chilean economy.

Still, Tompkins is a true believer in the paradigm shift that will turn every thinking person into a deep ecologist in the next millennium. He insists we accept individual accountability for the harm we inflict on the planet, and become infected with his "green rage." And he may be right that time is on his side. He finances all the progressive environmental NGO's in Chile and many more abroad. Young environmental radicals have started calling him a hero. As his popularity spreads, so does his controversy, and he appears to like it that way, for all his insistence that he and his work have been "overdimensionalized."

Los Angeles Times Articles