Text Anders Sjöstrand                  Illustration Isabel Fahlén

Patagonia, the expansive landmass at the southern end of South America shared by both Argentina and Chile, has long been revered for its spectacular scenery. Many authors and travel writers, most notably Herman Melville, liken it to the ‘end of the world’, using ‘Patagonian’ to denote some sort of unknown wilderness, void of civilization and home to untold utopian natural landscapes. Seldom has any place garnered such mystical repute.

In the past two decades, Kris and Doug Tompkins have used their considerable wealth to purchase massive plots of land throughout Chilean Patagonia, and in doing so have become some of the most eminent expatriate land owners in Chile. These land acquisitions, however, are not by any means conventional. The stated goal on Conservacion Patagonica’s (CP) website, one of several land-trusts funded by the Tompkins, is to earmark the land for conservation, hoping to develop ‘durable and inspiring public access infrastructure and spark a local economy based on conservation’. Most recently, CP has bought almost 650,000 acres of land around the Chacabuco Valley, which is set to open as Patagonia National Park (PNP) this year. Needless to say, their presence is strongly felt throughout the region.

Although having long been involved in environmentalism, Kris and Doug rose to prominence through Corporate America. Doug founded both The North Face and Espirit apparel companies, while Kris was the longtime CEO of the highly successful Patagonia Inc. These two, along with Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Inc., have brought their substantial financial resources and vast corporate networks to Patagonia’s hinterland, and are seeking to apply their vision of conservation to their land purchases. Somewhat paradoxically, the Tompkins have justified their conservation initiatives by citing the ills of capitalism and the increasing threat that it presents to biodiversity globally, but the means from which they, and the other contributors, were able to make such sizable financial contributions were themselves from capitalist expansion. Generally, Western media has portrayed the actions of CP as benevolent, an act of heroic environmentalism to rescue a fragile ecosystem under duress from ignorant land peasants. Perhaps the ignorance of the accused reflects ignorance of the accuser.

CP’s land acquisitions are by no means uncontroversial. They have been met with widespread criticism and fervent resistance by both local people and the Chilean government. Buying land for conservation should take into account a complex matrix of social, economic, and political conditions that precede conservation initiatives, and ignoring them can lead to ineffective conservation models as well as the marginalization of local people. CP’s justifications for conservation are largely based on apolitical narratives typical to conservation- saving biodiversity, preserving ‘pristine’ wilderness, and focusing on keynote species among them. These narratives lent justification to vacating the land of its traditional use, pastoralism, which had been practiced for time untold by a regional cultural icon, the gaucho. The removal of these people was vindicated by CP’s intention to introduce ecotourism to the region, which would allegedly provide the necessary employment opportunities to compensate for the eviction. This remains to be proven an effective solution. According to local newspapers, the gauchos have been outspoken in their reluctance to be integrated in CP’s integration plans.

When justifying conservation with exceedingly apolitical orientations, the existence of ‘pristine nature’ is seen to have an inherent existential right to exist. Thus, the people that occupy conservation lands are seen as threats to nature’s right to exist, and, through this process, can be more easily disregarded to meet the conservationists’ ambitions, which are often steeped in Western ideology. Instances such as these are not unfamiliar to conservation. Indeed, they are all too common. This case shares certain similarities with the growing worldwide trend of land grabbing; the relative powerlessness of local people, neocolonial relationships between the foreign purchaser and the land users exclusive control of natural resources- but they also demonstrate that land grabbing is not only facilitated by neoliberalism, but also contributes to the continuation of neoliberalism through conservation.

The board of directors of CP is fraught with successful capitalist barons with environmental inclinations. This obscures the distinction between business and conservation. Neoliberal globalization has not only allowed CP to purchase land throughout Patagonia, but also to push neoliberal processes into new spaces. The consumers of Patagonia Inc. are themselves active participants in the actions of CP. If you visit the Patagonia Inc. website, it is flush with images Patagonian landscapes void of people, with rousing captions encouraging the intrepid adventurer (consumer) to explore the awaiting wilderness. They also actively market themselves as an ecologically determined company, intent on saving the fragile ecosystems of Patagonia through conservation via CP. In a sense then, the company is a conduit between global consumers and CP, reflecting CP’s apolitical conservation ethic. It reinforces false imaginaries of ‘pristine’ wilderness. The consumers of products from Patagonia Inc. are marketed by the exoticism of Patagonia, and this, in turn, likely shapes their expectations of what Patagonia should be. These processes deserve more research attention, in that they seem to be divorcing the social context of Patagonia from the consumer/conservationists, which can lead to perpetuations of local people’s marginalization in CP’s conservation projects.

The interaction between business and conservation is clearly complex. It is not my intention here to imply that private conservation is a per se harmful practice. Indeed, many would argue that Patagonia’s biodiversity is of cardinal importance to conservation, and that if CP was not active in the region, extractive industry and hydroelectric companies would likely dominate the landscape. The archetypal Patagonia as a tabula rasa, however, is merely an illusion, and one that carries with it certain ideologies of conservation that can be of serious detriment to local people. Furthermore, the intensifying entanglement between business and conservation, especially within an increasingly neoliberal context, warrants our attention as academics. . In 1979, the American author and environmentalist Edward Abbey said “I am weary of the old and tiresome and banal question ‘Why save the wilderness?’ The important and difficult question is “How? How save the wilderness?” Maybe this answer is not as simple as merely vacating land and inviting wealthy consumers to explore it. But as neoliberalism proliferates and nation-states weaken, perhaps accountable and responsible private conservation initiatives can provide the necessary resources to introduce a progressive, equitable conservation ethic.