If you want to save the planet, better buy it – before the bad guys do.
In the latest example of moral status anxiety, millionaires are snapping up vast tracts of wilderness in underdeveloped countries to preserve it for posterity.
Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest men in Chile, has created Parque Tantauco on one of South America’s largest islands, Chiloé, off the coast of Patagonia.
Piñera bought the land in 2005 and set about protecting the offshore habitat of blue whales and the inland virgin forests.
‘We have been buying all the land around us. We started with 110,000 acres and now we have 150,000,’ he says. ‘I want my children and grandchildren to remember me for making one more million? No! So I now have many projects like this.’
While yachts and jets marked the status of last century’s super rich, today the stylish accessory for millionaires is their very own ecosystem.
From Pinera in Patagonia to Ted Turner in Montana, hundreds of thousands of acres are being bought by wealthy businessmen and placed in private charities, conservation trusts or handed over to governments as a gift.
Johan Eliasch, chairman of Head, the ski and sporting goods manufacturer, and the grandson of a Swedish property developer, has taken his business skills and invested them in a new industry – Amazon Forest conservation.
Eliasch, who has a personal fortune estimated at £360m, has bought 400,000 acres in the Brazilian Amazon, near the river town of Manicore.
Deforestation, argues Eliasch, causes more carbon emissions annually than transportation, yet is often overlooked.
In his parcel of land, Eliasch estimates that some 80m tons of carbon are trapped in the forest – about the same amount the entire Swedish population will produce over the next 15 years at current rates (53m tons per year).
‘The key to saving the Amazon and the rest of the world’s great rainforests is actually very simple: just put a fair price on the role they play in providing a quarter of the world’s oxygen, a fifth of fresh water and 60 per cent of its species,’ declares Eliasch.
‘I truly believe that with their values as a carbon store at last being recognised, we will see mass deforestation halted in five years.’
Eliasch’s interest in the Amazon came about from a concern that one of the effects of global warming was its destruction of the European ski season due to the lack of a critical component – snow.
‘The Swedish winters and summers hold the most enduring memories for me. Now when I am back in Stockholm in November, it is difficult to imagine being able to ski to school. I think that is a tragedy,’ he remarked.
The efforts by Eliasch to protect the rainforest have hit a nerve among some people in Brazil who are suspicious of foreigners coming in with plans to invest in the Amazon.
Eliasch, who admits that shutting down sawmills and putting hundreds of workers out of a job is controversial, insists that hacking down the rainforest is a wildly inefficient use of natural resources.
‘Once timber is cut, there is little that can be done with the land that is is sustainable,’ argues Eliasch. ‘Timber extraction provides big profits at the expense of local communities.’
‘Providing communities with unfettered access to harvest a forest that is protected in perpetuity provides better and more reliable incomes.’
Still, some people remain unconvinced, and it might be years before Eliasch is able to fully utilise his business acumen within the complex world of conservation.
‘There are pitfalls everywhere,’ says Evan Bowen-Jones of the conservation body Fauna & Flora International. ‘In some countries it is possible to buy large chunks of lands and preserve it, and in other areas it is impossible.’
Bowen-Jones cautions that entering the world of large-scale conservation requires patience, and he strongly suggests consulting experienced individuals who have already been through the process.
Working with local groups or, better yet, being invited by local environmental groups is another key to success, he says.
‘With the current pace of biodiversity loss posed by climate change, we are going to have to stretch the methods available to us and that is going to bring in the wealthy individuals,’ says Bowen-Jones.
‘If they [wealthy donors] bring the right attitude to the table, then there is a good chance for success.’
‘It is pretty hard for a country to turn down a gift of 300,000 hectares [740,000 acres],’ says Douglas Tompkins, 65, the American-born founder of Esprit and The North Face.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Tompkins amassed a multi-million dollar fortune. He lived in a huge estate in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighbourhood and had a world-renowned art collection.
Then he read a book on deep ecology, the philosophy pioneered by Norwegian Arne Naess, who calls for a radical re-evaluation of man’s relationship with the planet.
Tompkins was an instant convert. He sold his estate, the art and everything else, then moved to the remote wilds of Patagonia.
Since 1992, Tompkins has spent nearly £110m buying or organising the purchase of around 25 properties covering 2.2m acres in Chile and Argentina.
Once purchased, the land is placed under strict environmental protection by its new owner. Tompkins has even coined a phrase for this movement – wildlands philanthropy.
When Tompkins met someone with the same philosophy and her own pile of money – Kristi McDivitt, the former CEO of the Patagonia Clothing company – they began to focus their business acumen on building coalitions of funders, environmentalists and governments to create national parks.
‘Spend your money on land conservation,’ says McDivitt. ‘To restore a creek is patriotic in my mind. Restoring the land in any form is a patriotic act.’
This eco-power couple have now created two national parks – Parque Nacional Corcovado in Chile and Parque Nacional Monte León in Argentina.
Another two are being finalised, with a total area of close to two million acres. At the centre of Tompkins’ conservation efforts is Chile’s Parque Pumalin, a pristine wooded ecosystem that includes volcanoes, old growth forests and hidden hot springs. The park’s 740,000 acres are off limits to all development except small-scale enterprises.
‘I fundamentally believe in national parks,’ Tompkins said. ‘I don’t believe in private parks. I believe that nations do best and have done best when they really value their parklands and areas that are off limits to development.’
Hansjörg Wyss, one of Europe’s richest men, agrees. After amassing a fortune estimated at £4,200m from his position of CEO of Synthes – a company that produces artificial spinal discs and nails for repairing broken bones – Wyss has tackled a far larger reconstruction project: the wild areas of the American West.
Through The Wyss Foundation, he has donated millions of dollars to preserve wild lands in Utah and Montana.
As chairman of the board at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, a grassroots conservation group in the American southwest, Wyss has instituted a corporate structure that includes a £3.5m cash surplus, investments in stocks and mutual funds and an £800,000 office building in Salt Lake City.
In order to save thousands of acres in the Rocky Mountains of Montana from development, Wyss bankrolled a simple solution; he offered to buy up the mineral rights from the mining companies.
Thanks to Wyss’s understanding of corporate America, the Foundation had discovered a strategy for effectively paying the oil and gas companies to leave the area.
In that Montana battle, The Wyss Foundation was an early funder and longtime proponent of the ‘buy ’em out’ strategy.
Even investment bankers Goldman Sachs have caught the bug. In 2003, Goldman Sachs received 670,000 acres of forests in southern Chile and Argentina as the result of a bankruptcy settlement.
‘It was part of a large package of distressed debt. We started asking, what do we do with a million acres of forest at the end of the earth? We had to get out an atlas,’ laughs Lawrence Linden, an advisory director to Goldman Sachs.
He continues: ‘As an investment bank, we know what to do with shopping malls and apartment complexes. But an ecosystem in Tierra del Fuego? So we called in The Nature Conservancy to study the land and they came back with the conclusion that it was actually a very valuable piece of land from an environmental point of view.’
Today the Goldman Sachs land is a vast tract of wilderness and is home to the guanaco, a llama-like animal that roams the forests. It also has an endowment of around £9m.
“We didn’t want to be a burden for taxpayers. This is not just a question of preserving a pristine wilderness,’ says Pete Rose, a Goldman Sachs spokesman. ‘This is about using 21st-century science to preserve a pristine wilderness.’
Across Europe, eco-barons have also invested heavily in land conservation.
Dutch businessman Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who died in 2006, was a leading figure in the movement. From his 82,000-acre estate in Scotland – which he proudly advertised as public lands – van Vlissingen managed supermarket chains, energy companies and investment trusts. His passion was Africa’s beleaguered national parks.
In barely two years, Vlissingen poured millions of dollars into the then incomplete Marakele National Park in South Africa, a job that would have taken at least 10 years without his funding. Today Marakele is part of a far bigger park system and is a healthy home to African wildlife, including elephant, white and black rhinoceros, buffalo, hyena, cheetah, wild dog, giraffe and eland.
To consolidate his philosophy, Vlissingen helped create the African Parks Foundation, an NGO that continues to reinforce the infrastructure and funding for national parks in Africa.
Before his death, van Vlissingen was widely considered the richest man in Scotland, and with tens of thousands of acres, the country’s biggest landowner.
But van Vlissingen refused that title, ‘You can’t own a place like this. It belongs to the planet,’ he once said. ‘I’m only the guardian.’