180° south

The film follows adventurer Jeff Johnson as he retraces the epic 1968 journey of his heroes Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins to Patagonia.

September 10, 2006|By Robert Collier

In a wind-ripped Patagonian canyon, underneath the jagged peaks of the Andes, two Bay Area multimillionaires are fighting their umpteenth battle to save a last frontier. What's different this time is that Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, finally are making more friends than enemies.

Over the past decade and a half, the Tompkinses have spent about $150 million to buy two dozen properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina, in what collectively amounts to the world's largest privately run land conservation project. The Tompkinses make no secret of their radical environmental beliefs, and their tree-hugging ways have sparked fierce opposition in both countries, with nationalists on the political right and left accusing the couple of being gringo imperialists with a hidden agenda.

This clash between U.S.-style environmentalism and Latin America's rising nationalism is turning out to be long and messy.

At stake throughout the region is a historic opportunity much like the North American West in the 19th century -- an underpopulated vastness of prairie, glacier-capped mountains and majestic forests that can still be grabbed by anyone with money and ambition.

Yet the controversy over the Tompkinses' land grabs may reach further yet, influencing whether the continent's rising leftist movements try to protect or exploit their natural wonders.

In Chile, the Tompkinses have gradually won over public sentiment. After years of painstaking debate, many Chileans grudgingly admit that the Tompkinses are protecting Chile's natural resources better than the Chileans themselves.

The Tompkinses' latest major acquisition is the 173,000-acre Valle Chacabuco ranch, which the couple purchased in 2004 for $10 million, intending to convert it into a national park. At about the same time, two giant utility firms, Spanish-owned Endesa and Hydro-Quebec of Canada, announced a $4 billion plan, known as the Aysen project, to build four dams nearby.

At first, the dams seemed inevitable. Chile was experiencing perpetual power crises and needed the 2,400 megawatts expected to be generated, and the impoverished region needed jobs. But the Tompkinses began a campaign against the project. Hesitantly and almost apologetically, many local business leaders and politicians agreed with them, calling the dams gargantuan, destructive and a threat to the local lifestyle.

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