U.S. mogul preserving Latin wetlands

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LOS ESTEROS DEL IBERA, Argentina

The American multi- millionaire who founded the North Face and Esprit clothing lines says he is trying to save the planet by buying bits of it. First, Douglas Tompkins purchased a huge swath of southern Chile, and now he’s hoping to save the northeast wetlands of neighboring Argentina.

He has snapped up more than half a million acres of the Esteros del Ibera, a vast Argentine marshland teeming with wildlife.

Mr. Tompkins, 64, is a hero to some for his environmental stewardship. Others resent his land purchases as a foreign challenge to their national patrimony.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Tompkins said industrialized agriculture is chewing up big chunks of Argentina’s fragile marshland and savanna, and that essential topsoil is disappearing as a result.

“Everywhere I look here in Argentina I see massive abuse of the soil … just like what happened in the U.S. 20 or 30 years ago,” he said.

Mr. Tompkins hopes to do in Argentina what he did in Chile — create broad stretches of land protected from agribusiness or industrial development, and one day turn them over to the government as nature reserves.

Wealthy foreigners have bought an estimated 4.5 million acres in Argentina and Chile in the past 15 years for private Patagonian playgrounds. Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner and Italian fashion designer Luciano Benetton all have large holdings set amid pristine mountains and lakes.

Mr. Tompkins was among the early ones, buying a 35-mile-wide strip of Chile from a Pacific coastal bay to the country’s Andean mountain border with Argentina. He said his purchases were intended specifically to protect the environment.

Argentine officials took notice and eagerly courted Mr. Tompkins‘ philanthropy, flying him to several areas of ecological significance in the late 1990s — when the government was strapped for cash because of the economic crisis.

“The land-conservation budget was burning a hole in our pocket,” Mr. Tompkins said.

He bought a 120,000-acre ranch in 1998 and has increased his Argentine holdings to nearly 600,000 acres since then. He now owns well over 1 million acres in Chile and Argentina, a combined area about the size of Rhode Island.

The financial details of the transactions were not disclosed because they were private deals between Mr. Tompkins and landowners. There was no major opposition to the deals initially because Mr. Tompkins bought the land parcels gradually, keeping a low profile.

Critics now weave many conspiracy theories, accusing Mr. Tompkins of seeking control of one of South America’s biggest freshwater reserves, and worrying that he might never cede the lands to the state.

“These lands should not belong to an individual, much less a foreigner,” said Luis D’Elia, who argues the American could gain “control of resources that are going to be scarce in the future, like water.”

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