Conserving Chile and Argentina’s wild spaces
I first came across the phenomenon of Doug Tompkins 20 years ago, when I visited Pumalín Park in southern Chile. Since establishing his Foundation for Deep Ecology (FDE) in 1990 and The Conservation Land Trust (CLT) in 1992 – both under the wing of umbrella organisation Tompkins Conservation – the co-founder of North Face has done an enormous amount for the conservation of wildlife and wild spaces in Chile and Argentina.
Soon after FDE was launched, Doug bought a huge tract of land in southern Chile and turned it into Pumalín Park, a conservation area protecting, in particular, the Alerce tree that was so threatened by commercial loggers. In doing so, he crossed swords with both government and commercial interests – here was an outsider buying up land and making it into his own conservation fiefdom. From settling a new Zionist state to introducing the American bison to South America, the reasons for opposing Pumalín (and Tompkins) were varied and usually wildly inaccurate.
Doug was famously combative, but his fundamental belief was in the importance of national parks as a civil right for all to enjoy. That conviction was verbalised – with the help of his second wife Kristine’s softer, more diplomatic skills – into a ‘contract’ with the Chilean (and later Argentinian) governments, which paved the way to a visionary policy which is now bearing fruit. 2018 marked the formal handing over of both the Chilean Pumalín Park and his other major project, the Argentinian Iberá Wetlands, to their respective governments.
Pumalín is one of the wildest places on Earth. Fjords with frolicking dolphins, perfect for sea kayaks, feed into untouched, temperate rainforest and a network of trails crisscross the 4 million hectares of wilderness under conservation management. There are comfortable cabins in which to stay (and campsites for the more intrepid, which ties in with Tompkins’ dream of access for all), but it lacks the luxury lodges of the more famous Torres del Paine National Park further south.
Accessed by the Carretera Austral, it is quite difficult to reach, so appeals to the more adventurous. Its annual rainfall of 6000mm per year also makes is challenging, but that is why its habitat is so special and its biodiversity so important. Combined with a stay on the mysterious island of Chiloé, with its extraordinary culture and legend, this is southern Chile at its most extraordinary. It makes for a trip much less well trodden than the Atacama in the country’s north and Torres del Paine in the far south.
I found Pumalín’s landscape – and that of the whole of southern Chile – to be the Andes at its most dramatic, but Argentina’s Iberá Wetlands, which I visited in 2018, was a more vivid demonstration of the rewilding policy. Hunting and ranching have made way for the restoration of habitat and the successful reintroduction of mammal species, such as giant anteaters, pampas deer, tapir and collared peccary. Birdsong is a cacophony and many rare species have returned, including the spectacular green-winged macaw. The area and its wildlife coexist with sustainable tourism programmes in line with the Tompkins’ vision of admittance for everyone.
From Rincón del Socorro, an estancia in the heart of the region, your guides will take you on walking and horseback trails into a landscape that feels African in both its scale and its habitat. The sunsets, and reflections of reeds on water, are similar to those of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. In this wetland area, second in size only to Brazil’s Pantanal, the birdlife is remarkably diverse, and there are abundant pampas deer, capybara, caiman and even the rare tapir and giant anteater.
For those interested in hands-on conservation, from 2020, jaguars will be reintroduced from a pioneering project on neighbouring Estancia San Alonso. To have access to guides and researchers who are involved in such groundbreaking work is a rare privilege and an extra hop by light aircraft to see the programme in action is well worth the extra time and expense. The eyes of the world are on the Iberá Wetlands.
To date, Tompkins Conservation has established five new national parks and donated 2 million acres to public access. Despite Doug’s death in a kayaking accident in 2015, the foundation still embodies his original notion of a social justice that everyone should be able to appreciate the masterpieces of their environment. It has become a fight for a human society that is in balance with the natural world. The team has six more parks in mind and plans to add at least 13 million acres to the Chilean and Argentinian national park systems. I, for one, look forward to enjoying every one of them.
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