Eco-philanthropists to the rescue of wildlife?
Former CEOs lead a pack of eco-philanthropists who are bankrolling parks to conserve pristine land and wildlife.
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"First, conservation is not considered a top priority here," says Pamela Fernandez, an official at the Ministry of National Goods in Santiago. "Plus, many feel 'here comes a gringo to take our land.' "Skip to next paragraph
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Such suspicions exist across the Andes, too. Argentine journalist Gonzalo Sanchez, author of "Patagonia Sold," says he started the project with resentment for what he saw as a land grab among foreign billionaires like the Benettons or Ted Turner, who all boast Patagonian addresses. His views have warmed, especially toward those like the Tompkinses who are clearly dedicated to conservation. But he still says that land purchases can't continue unabated: "There is no law that regulates or limits the accumulation of massive territories."
At the height of the controversy, Ms. Tompkins says, she took solace in the stories of those who purchased land before her. From Acadia National Park in Maine to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, few protected areas were set aside without a fight. John D. Rockefeller Jr. set off a decades-long political battle over Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park when he created a company to purchase more than 35,000 acres in the 1920s and '30s to protect the land from ranchers.
"This has always been very controversial," says John Terborgh, director of the Center for Tropical Conservation at Duke University, in Durham, N.C. "All of these parks would not exist if it had not been for private philanthropy."
Remembering those battles of the past, Ms. Tompkins says, "helped [me] feel that we are part of something bigger." She says that while large-tract conservation is essential, it's not the only way. For one thing, many areas of the world are already too populated, and land rights can be tricky. Friends of the couple attempting similar work in Africa have been set back by national land laws. Legislation, education, and traditional advocacy are all essential, she says.
But the Tompkinses see large-scale conservation as the best way to protect this part of the world, and feel fortunate they have the means to do so. For now, they're not necessarily eyeing new land, but not dismissing that more could be set aside in the future.
In the meantime, while some might scoff at the label eco-baron, Ms. Tompkins says she does not bristle: "I would feel blessed to be part of that."