Photo by Davidlohr Bueso.
Americas / Patagonia

Conservation in Patagonia

“The word ‘Patagonia’, like Mandalay or Timbuctoo, has lodged itself in our imagination as a metaphor for The Ultimate, the point beyond which one could not go”

~ Bruce Chatwin

The Story

In January of 2018, Kristine Tompkins and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet officially declared the creation of two new national parks in Chilean Patagonia. This major step in conservation has been an ongoing project for the past twenty years. In the early 1990s, Doug Tompkins, Kristine’s late husband, fell in love with the natural beauty of Chilean Patagonia and became inspired to protect and conserve this land. More than twenty years later, his vision has been officially recognized.

Over the course of the past two decades, the Tompkins have worked to acquire and restore parts of Patagonia to its natural state. Though a momentous step for environmentalists, this conservation effort has not been without controversy. Many locals resisted the Tompkins’ efforts at first, wary of foreigners seizing land and concerned that land the locals farmed and logged was being taken away from them. Even today there are those who resist the preservation of this land. Ultimately, though, many people view the creation of these new parks as beneficial—both ecologically and economically. Besides the obvious environmental benefit of preserving wilderness areas, the parks are also expected to increase ecotourism, generate more than $250 million in revenue, and create more than 40,000 jobs for locals.

Why Patagonia?

One of the farthest south points on the globe, Patagonia is a region shared by both Argentina and Chile. Much of Chilean Patagonia is remote, windswept, and sparsely populated, and is home to some of the world’s last untouched wilderness. Often the setting of adventure novels and exploration literature, Patagonia holds a mysterious draw to many outdoor enthusiasts and world travelers. Home to a unique combination of high peaks, snowy glaciers, ancient native forests, and wetlands, Patagonia is alluring both because of its natural beauty and its biodiversity. Biodiversity is crucial to maintaining stable and healthy ecosystems, and the loss of biodiversity has strong implications on global health. The potential increase in ecotourism inspired by the creation of the new national parks is important because it will allow people to appreciate Patagonia’s biodiversity without compromising it. Place-based education can also be a powerful way to educate people about the importance of conservation and inspire them to develop and practice a land ethic in their daily lives.

What’s next?

It is no doubt that the mysterious draw of Patagonia will bring people to the newly created parks, but these parks are important beyond mere tourism. Setting a precedent for public-private conservation, Kris Tompkins’ foundation, Conservacion Patagonica, could launch the world into a new and much-needed age of environmental philanthropy. President Trump’s decision to shrink Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in favor of oil and natural gas extraction and the United State’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement show that the environment is not a priority for the current United States administration. The Tompkins’ decision to conserve land in Chilean Patagonia has reinforced the notion that environmental issues transcend national borders—no one country can end climate change. Furthermore, the Tompkins have revolutionized the possibilities of environmental philanthropy by paving the way for individuals take action with large-scale effects. Problems should be addressed with solutions that are comparable in weight. While small actions do and will add up, in order to solve the pressing issue of climate change it is imperative that people do whatever is in their power to initiate effective change—for some, this means buying and conserving more than 10 million acres of wilderness.