Like many before him, Warren Adams, a former director of product development for Amazon.com, was seduced by the beauty of the rugged landscape of Patagonia when he visited the region in 2000.
Out of that connection, however, grew something uncommon. In 2006, Adams led the formation of Patagonia Sur, a for-profit organization that buys ecologically important land in the region with the goal of establishing enterprises that put the properties to profitable use while ensuring their conservation.
So far, Patagonia Sur has purchased 27,000 hectares (67,000 acres) on six properties in Chilean Patagonia, and begun developing plans for business activities including ecotourism, carbon sequestration and some sales of conserved land. Says Adams: “Our goal is to have billions of dollars of capital in Chile and hopefully in other places of the world to buy huge plots of land, hire the locals, employ the locals… [and convert the areas] into a sustainable economy.”
Though unique in Chile, Patagonia Sur’s for-profit park model forms part of a broader private-conservation movement now gaining traction in the country.
In May, owners of private conservation lands announced the formation of a new organization, Así Conserva Chile, to press for stronger private land conservation policies and catalyze better private park management across the country. Meanwhile, new legislation is under discussion in the Chilean Congress that could put Chile at the forefront of land preservation in Latin America by laying legal groundwork for conservation easements and other means of saving open space.
And several noteworthy parks, large and small, are being added to the list of private parks that already exist in the country.
“It is totally an historic time for conservation and private parks in this country,” says Francisco Solís, the representative in Chile for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which is supporting private-conservation efforts in the country.
The best-known private park in the country is the largest. Pumalín, a 300,000-hectare (741,000-acre) nature reserve in southern Chile’s Palena province, was assembled in the 1990s by Douglas Tompkins, the American founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing companies.
Since then, other large parks have come into being:
• Tantauco, a 118,000-hectare (292,000-acre) expanse on Chiloe Island formed by former Lan Chile Airlines owner and current Chilean President Sebastián Piñera;
• Huilo Huilo, a 120,000-hectare (297,000-acre) reserve in Chile’s Lakes District created by Chilean businessman Víctor Petermann;
• Karukinka, a 283,000-hectare (699,000-acre) nature reserve formed on the Chilean portion of Tierra del Fuego in 2004 in a project involving the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs and the U.S.-based Wildlife Conservation Society.
At the same time, hundreds of small private parks have been sprouting up throughout Chile.
An example is the family-run, 28-hectare (70-acre) Parque Katalapi, just outside of Puerto Montt in Chile’s Lake District. Despite its small size, Katalapi has high levels of biodiversity ranging from fern to moth species. While large private parks target ecotourism, Parque Katalapi focuses on environmental education and research, generating revenue by charging visiting groups.
Elisa Corcuera, who co-runs Katalapi with her parents, is president of Así Conserva Chile, the association of private conservation-land owners formed in May. The move to private parks, Corcuera says, has come in response to growing frustration with the government’s conservation record.
“In the 1990s it became visually obvious that our native forests were disappearing, species were going extinct and the government was not doing anything about it,” said Corcuera. “So people started taking care of the land themselves.”
The new association was spearheaded by private-park owners in Chile’s Lake District, where Corcuera says well over half of Chile’s privately owned conservation areas are located. The association’s five principal objectives are to share information; provide park-management training for owners; develop financial sustainability methods for private parks; find ways to protect parks’ conservation status through changes in ownership; and weigh in on political issues that affect private parks.
“Most parks in Chile are very small, run by one person or a single family,” Corcuera says. “People feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done and by what they don’t know that needs to be done. So this is a way to learn from each other and give some help to people.”
The organization currently has 50 members, 22 of whom own parks, and they are actively trying to recruit more land owners. Among the current members are Patagonia Sur and Petermann of Huilo Huilo.
Though there is no official count of private conservation areas here, experts estimate these reserves number about 400 and cover 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres).
Private parks stand to benefit from legal changes under discussion in the capital of Santiago. One piece of legislation, proposed by the executive branch last year, would create a Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service.
The new agency would replace the current National Forestry Corporation (Conaf), which manages forestry and national parks. It would oversee biodiversity issues in addition to parks, while a separate agency would be created to oversee forestry issues.
Experts say the new Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service would boost private-parkland initiatives by actively assisting private parks, something Conaf was not set up to do. However, the bill has proved controversial, with environmental groups calling it technically flawed and complaining it was drafted without their consultation.
For example, the Biodiversity and Protected Areas Service as proposed by the Piñera administration must get final approval for its protected-area management plans from a government council of ministers representing several different ministries, a body similar to the former Chilean National Environmental Commission (Conama).
Green advocates complain that this governance model exposes the new agency’s decision-making to too much politicking, severely weakening its ability to carry out its mission. They also object that the bill ought to do more to incorporate private parks into a national system of government-recognized protected areas.
And environmental organizations want government incentives and means of technical assistance put in place to encourage individuals to preserve ecosystems. They also call for legal provisions that enable long-term protection of private natural areas.
“This bill is going to be a great challenge,” says Solís of The Nature Conservancy. “Chile right now does not even have a law that regulates publicly owned protection areas.”
Solís points to other countries more advanced than Chile when it comes to private land conservation, such as Costa Rica, which devotes a portion of gas-tax revenues to financing conservation, and the United States, where a property owner who places a conservation easement on the land can receive tax relief.
“First, we need legal recognition for private parks, with different categories,” he says. “Second, if we are to meet our conservation goals as a country, the state must provide some level of financial and technical assistance to private owners.”
National park rangers support the bill, but have called for improvements. Through their trade association, they issued a statement in May asserting that more scientists, politicians, regular citizens and other stakeholders ought to take part in shaping the biodiversity legislation.
They also argued the new law should have constitutional status and come accompanied by a clear and adequate implementation budget.
A bill with better chances for speedy passage is the Derecho Real de Conservación (DRC), which would establish a mechanism in Chile similar to the conservation easement private landowners use in the United States. The lead author of the bill is Henry Tepper, chief conservation officer of Patagonia Sur, the for-profit venture headed by Warren Adams.
Tepper says the closest thing to a conservation easement in Chile currently is a servidumbre voluntaria (literally, a “voluntary encumbrance”). This, he explains, is an enforceable contract between two adjacent landowners in which one of the landowners promises in a legally binding way not to develop his or her property.
While conservation groups have used this mechanism to preserve Chilean land over the years, Tepper says, the servidumbre voluntaria essentially is a loophole rather than a law designed to be used as the basis for land-conservation transactions.
Tepper says the Derecho Real de Conservación mechanism, which he developed with Chilean lawyer José Manuel Cruz, would create a powerful conservation land ownership mechanism unique not only to Chile, but to all of Latin America. Under the bill, stipulations such as making a property’s conservation status irreversible could be enshrined in deeds.
“It will give all the power of private land ownership in Chile, but for conservation purposes,” Tepper says. “This law could be the tool that, finally, really unleashes the power of private land conservation in Latin America in a way that hasn’t happened before.”
Meanwhile, Patagonia Sur is positioning itself to harness that power. Adams says that he expects Patagonia Sur to double its 25,000 hectares in holdings in Chilean Patagonia by the middle of 2012.
“For every $1 that comes in (in the form of investment in the fund), 70 cents gets spent on acquired land,” Adams says. “Of the other 30 cents… 25 cents is spent on infrastructure.”
Patagonia Sur investors put up $350,000 for each full share in the fund. Separately, the company has developed a “Nature Reserve Membership Club” in which members—whether investors in the fund or not—pay $50,000 annually for the right to book stays at eco-lodges on the company’s properties.
But Adams has a grander vision: to create a series of environmentally responsible businesses that would help maintain the properties and achieve a 15% annual return for investors.
Among the businesses that Patagonia Sur is developing is the sale of carbon credits. To that end, the company is planting native trees at its Valle California property under a 15-year, $750,000 agreement with Colgate University to help offset the university’s carbon emissions.
The deal is the first of what Patagonia Sur hopes will be a dozen such agreements aimed at creating a 12-school University Conservation Circle. Carbon credits are being marketed to universities and others for $15 per ton.
Armed with his optimistic forecasts for returns, Adams says Patagonia Sur hopes eventually to attract capital from pension funds and investment firms. He says the fund already is attracting capital from individual investors whose prime goal is financial returns rather than support for environmental projects.
Adams says Patagonia Sur itself does not take part in environmental advocacy. He describes Patagonia Sur’s ventures and Tepper’s work to build the legal groundwork for land conservation as steps aimed at creating a “sustainable, environmentally friendly economy.” By contrast, Adams says, Douglas Tompkins’ Pumalín Foundation is “actively mixing environmental advocacy and transactional land conservation.”
He suggests that once the economic potential of environmentally friendly ventures is shown, the climate for conservation in Patagonia will improve.
Says Adams: “Tourism is only 2% or so of GDP, and if ecotourism in Chile grows to 5 or 6 or 8%, Patagonia is going to be viewed economically very differently than it is [now]. There’s no [ecotourism] money coming out of it, so of course they’re going to destroy a few [areas]. That’s the calculus that the government does.”
While environmental advocates do not fault the environmental-protection dimension of Adams’s plans, some in the tourism industry worry that members-only Patagonia Sur properties will shut out local Chileans from some of the region’s most spectacular natural areas.
Meanwhile, Peter Hartmann, director of the Aysén office of the Chilean Committee for the Defense of Flora and Fauna (Codeff), argues it’s foolhardy for Patagonia Sur to avoid taking a stand on environmental threats to lands outside its preserves.
“Environmental problems know no borders,” Hartmann says. “And watching with neutrality the destruction of the region around them will ultimately bring down their own property and tourism investments.”
But Solís from TNC says there is room for a variety of styles in private land conservation. “If they [Patagonia Sur] advance with their eco-real estate venture, it will be a great addition for conservation in Chile because they are helping to raise conservation standards within the private sector over the long term.”
- James E. Langman