The Expat: Doug Tompkins

CV: Doug Tompkins
Born: San Francisco
Age: 68
Profession: Environmentalist, founder of Foundation for Deep Ecology, co-founder of The North Face and ESPRIT clothing companies.
Education: High school
Last film seen: Love in the Time of Cholera

Why did you first visit Argentina?
I came here as a ski racer in 1961, and I was ski racing in Bariloche. After the season ended, I went on a trip down to Patagonia and went to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, and got to know a bit of the southern cone. I wasn’t there for very long and was only in Bariloche for 10 days or so, but I was here for close to a month in total that year.
In subsequent years, and by 1963, 1965, 1967, all those years, every two or three years at most, I came back for climbing expeditions, mountain kayaking or just visiting friends I had made.
Eventually we had a business in Argentina, producing clothes and Scottish-type sweaters.
Then in 1989, I bought some country in Chile and I came to live there in 1990. I continued to live there until about 10 years ago, and then I started to split my life, with my wife, with half the year in Argentina and half the year in Chile.
These were the areas I knew best, despite travelling around the world.

Where do you live in Argentina?
We bought some country in Iberá, which is in Corrientes, in 1997 and we started a conservation project there. That’s grown and become more complex over the years, and we’ve been working hard so that we can donate that to the nation as a national park, if and when the nation and the province see fit to do that.

There has been a lot of back and forth, it seems.
I’ve also been living in California for all those years, but was always coming back for climbing. In 1968, I did a new route on the Fitzroy, and I returned for other climbing expeditions to the Patagonian Andes and for white-water kayaking. I undertook the first ascents of some Chilean rivers and also Argentine rivers. I could do all those things in the US too but here was unchartered territory: rivers that hadn’t been kayaked, mountains that hadn’t been climbed, so that was interesting.
I also had friends here and liked to visit them, then they would visit me in the US. So when I finally wanted to move from California to some rural area, I bought a farm in Chile, which was a capricious decision that sealed my destiny, and I started work on conservation projects there, which led to conservation projects in Argentina.
My wife and I have worked on a national park in Santa Cruz. We both had conservation foundations, husband-and-wife efforts, and we donated the entire park which became a national park about six years ago. We are just dedicated to making national parks and that’s what we put our efforts into and what we like to do!

What does that involve?
There’s plenty of work to be done everywhere, as conservationists. Humans have over-appropriated the landscape so it’s good to get some of it out of private hands and back into the national heritage of protected park lands. Argentina has park systems and has more than 100 — Chile is a little bit behind but not much — and they have created a lot of parks in both countries. But they could create a lot more and they need a lot more if there is any hope to get the national territory into some kind of ecological balance and harmony.
Everybody knows that we are all immersed in an enormous environmental crisis worldwide, and Argentina and Chile don’t escape that! So that’s what the effort is, made by millions of environmentalists around the world. It’s a growing, and what I consider, an unstoppable movement.
Environmental laws have been getting stricter over the past 50 years. And I know predicting the future is dangerous but you can usually tell from the past what it is coming up in the future. We all proceed with the thought that it is a good idea to make environmental laws stricter and get more land into conservation to get the different ecosystems working with each other, which compose the ecosphere. So it would be prudent and wise to make stricter laws, and if it turns out if we are wrong, then it doesn’t matter! We had a good idea anyway! But if we don’t do it, the consequences could be terrible. But if we do, we could save the world from disaster. Or it could have just been a precautionary effort.

When did you move to Argentina?
We bought some property in 1997 but we didn’t come to start living here until 2011. From then we split our time. In the summer months we tend to be down in Chile and in winter in Corrientes.
We found the land by asking some conservation colleagues if they had some places the movement was looking at, which perhaps needed some projects to help foment park lands. And that’s how we found it.
It was easy to purchase. It was for sale. We bought it! We bought a small piece in an enormous reserve of 1.3 million hectares. There’s some provincial land and then private land, which is owned by nearly 1,800 owners. And one of them had a big ranch for sale, 50,000 hectares, and we bought that, with the clear intention of using it for conservation purposes, and provide more habitats for all those creatures which need a lot of space.

What species are endangered in Corrientes?
First, they have some species that aren’t endangered but simply aren’t there any more. We’re working on bringing them back. Recently we captured one Pampas deer outside of the conservation areas, which are being squeezed out by these monstrous industrial tree plantations which are upsetting the ecosystems, something terrible. That deer will go back to its natural habitat. There are very few Pampas deer, some in San Luis and in the centre of Buenos Aires province. We’re attempting to rescue this population and put them in a place where they can thrive and prosper.
We’ve transferred a few groups so far and hope that over the next five years they will be able to expand their own numbers themselves. We do it one by one, and it’s a big job. We have a team of veterinarians and biologists who try to get the animals used to the tractor, which would normally scare them, so that they realize they won’t come to any harm.
Someone goes out on that tractor with anesthetic darts to put them to sleep, they treat the animal and then carry it to a small airplane and fly it to a pre-release pen until there are enough animals to be released in little groups and have self-confidence in numbers.
In 2010 we had five new-borns from the group which was released first — they were all healthy. And if you work out the numbers on the back of an envelope, you can work out that you’ll get 1,000 of them.

What do you do on a daily basis in Corrientes?
I work a lot, unfortunately, in my office, but I also get out and around to see all our different places as I have a little plane. We’re down to just one now, but we have one cattle ranch as we have been selling them piece by piece. Also I deal with park infrastructure and building public access to park lands, and build up conservation consciousness by getting young people out there. People can’t protect what they don’t appreciate, so we have lots of eco-tourists, which is a boost for the local economy, which until now, has been based on extraction. That means pines or rice or meat which aren’t thought of as extractive industries but they are, extracting minerals from the system. And these things need to be thought about more carefully as the wildlife doesn’t thrive.
We have three productive farms that have both animals, grains and orchards so we work on the productive side as well as the conservation side.
We’re just trying to sow a little grain of sand into the field of knowledge of good management practices, such as pastoral agriculture.

Tell me about your farms.
They are very interesting and I don’t think there are any others like it in Argentina, or indeed, in the rest of the world. It’s a high-diversity farm and in Argentina you hear a million times that the agriculture has become a massive soy monoculture and this is the opposite pole.
It has many species — we have 15 different crops in the orchards, high-diversity pasture grasses and will soon have horticulture of aromatic and medicinal plants. The farm is layered on top of itself on these crops, providing a big agricultural diversity, which, mixed with the wildlife diversity means we are attempting to demonstrate that the health of the farm depends on its soils.
Argentina is blanketing its good soils by having a huge chemicals fiesta and its real wealth is being degraded by the massive industrial agriculture.

How easy it is to give land to provincial governments?
They want to make parks and we can only be an accessory to that. But we can suggest making a park, they have to propose it. They may or may not take up your suggestion. They then have to seek jurisdiction of the prescribed through the nation so the national parks administration can go and set up a park. They’ve done it 36 times and have a whole string of parks.

What would you do as president?
Well, there should be a rethinking to agricultural policy. We are farmers and I see that policy could be a lot better, here and in the US. How can a nation discourage industrial chemical agriculture and move toward a holistic, organic, ecological model of agriculture and preserve its soils. Because Argentina is no better than its soils.
Its living of its inherited past of beautiful soils and is potentially the agricultural powerhouse of Latin America. But it’s ruining it soils and it’s worrisome if you understand the importance of soils. I worry about that, and about the future, and I’m a foreigner worrying about Argentine soils as I don’t like seeing them degraded!
It’s one of the most important issues that faces Argentina’s future and there, government policies comes into play. How can government be from the industries to pursue a path of soil health is for me, one of the great challenges.
If I could be the king of the country, I would put in rigorous policies on how farming is being conducted, and allow the country to become a 100-percent organically managed agricultural sector in 20 years. There would be laws and transitions, and build up a generation of farmers with good minds. I would set up a goal to look after Argentina’s number-one asset, from which its wealth is derived and its future prosperity depends on.
Erosion, for example, is out of control in Entre Ríos province. It’s a hilly place which is prone to erosion and the top soils are flowing down into rivers.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on April 22, 2012
Photo courtesy of Doug Tompkins

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