Kenar Vyas

In the past few decades, there has been a global increase in the establishment of protected areas, areas with restricted human activity to safeguard biota, with the wave of conservation efforts responding to the growing threat of global warming. Protected areas are an essential component of conservation efforts as they provide a safe-haven for biota, especially large carnivores, that would otherwise go extinct in the presence of humans or community-based conservation systems. Along with ethical reasons, conserving these local ecosystems is important as they are beneficial for nearby agricultural communities, stabilize the Earth’s macro-ecosystem, and hold information useful for scientific and medical research. Protected areas manifest themselves in different ways, most commonly as national parks or natural reserves, but one of the latest trends has been private protected areas (PPA), defined as privately owned land tracts (individual, NGO, or corporate ownership) with the explicit goal of conservation. Private protected areas are most commonly found in developing countries where governments often do not have the financial or organizational resources to undertake all environmental responsibilities. While PPA’s are beneficial in conserving valuable ecosystems, they can also be contentious, especially with regards to the displacement of local peoples and cultural impingement.

Douglas Tompkins & Pumalin Park

One example of a recently developed PPA is Douglas Tompkins’ Pumalin Park, which covers over 738 thousand acres in Chilean Patagonia. Douglas Tompkins, founder of the North Face clothing brand, became upset with the environmentally harmful consumerism he was contributing to with North Face, so in 1989 he relinquished his CEO position and moved to a ranch in Patagonia with the goal of restoring the blighted rainforest. Tompkins had previously traveled to Patagonia on outdoor adventure trips, notably with Patagonia brand founder Yvon Chouinard, and recognized Patagonia’s immense beauty as well as Chile’s gaps in its conservation. With his fortune, Tompkins slowly bought up land deeds from surrounding private landowners and began developing park infrastructure for a natural park.

Tompkins, with the help of his wife and Patagonia brand CEO Kris McDivitt, created the Conservacion Patagonica (CP) charity organization and with this organization they bought more land, privately establishing Pumalin Park with the goal of eventually handing it over to the Chilean government. In 2005, after fifteen years of private ownership and development, CP donated Pumalin Park to the Chilean government, making it an official nature sanctuary under Chilean law. In all, CP currently has thirteen protected areas across Chile and Argentina (pictured right), collaborating with both the Argentine and Chilean governments to varying degrees in all of these projects. Each of these parks protect a unique ecosystem, spanning climates from the wetlands of Northern Argentina to the desert of the Patagonian steppe, and while each of the parks’ needs may be quite different, they all have the same goal of restoring and protecting local biospheres.

In 2017, Conservacion Patagonica signed an agreement with the Chilean government, to create five new national parks (including promoting Pumalin Park to national park status) and expand three others. In all, this agreement expanded national parkland in Chile by ten million acres and was the largest private land donation in history.

Throughout the process, CP and Tompkins faced criticism from local Chileans who, uncertain of Tompkins’ intentions, felt that their sovereignty was being violated. Viewing Tompkins as a Western outsider, local Chileans felt that he was imperialistically imposing his will on their land and livelihoods. However, simultaneously, Tompkins was hailed as a leader in eco-philanthropy by the global Western community for his work in protecting these ecosystems. While Tompkins and Pumalin Park provide a situational example, negotiating the tensions between these two conflicting narratives of eco-philanthropy and local cultures is important for PPA’s around the world.

Global Motives: Eco-Philanthropy

At first glance, PPA’s appear to be the ideal solution for conserving ecosystems around the world where local resources are lacking. This was certainly the case with Tompkins and Pumalin Park in Chile. Since the 1970’s, when the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990) deregulated the socialist state of President Allemande, Chile has had a strongly neoliberal economy which emphasizes limited government interference and privatization. This privatization and deregulation has allowed extractive industries, predominantly mining and logging, to turn into some of the wealthiest, and thereby most powerful, entities in Chile. So, while the Chilean government did establish some protected areas throughout the twentieth century, the majority of natural land was either owned privately, a result of Pinochet’s privatization, or controlled by powerful logging companies. Furthermore, the national parks that were established mostly covered land that was not useful commercially, with regulatory frameworks deemed “scattered and fragmented” by the IUCN. With a weak regulatory structure, limited resources and in competition with powerful logging companies, the Chilean government has not had the resources to establish necessary protected areas, a cost-intensive process which requires purchasing private land tracts and developing park infrastructure.

In the absence of government action, Tompkins was able to use

      Douglas Tompkins and Kris McDivitt

his vast financial resources to step in, buy land deeds and establish a private protected area. Here, the immediate advantage of PPA’s becomes apparent: a non-reliance on governments in the developing world, many of whom also feel pressure to support resource extraction in order to fuel their growing economies. As opposed to the powerful, economically developed global north, these governments often do not have the luxury of being able to set aside exploitable land for conservation, even if they recognize its importance. Tompkins’ establishment of Pumalin Park preserved nearly a million acres of fragile Patagonian forest, and all of his protected areas in Chile store an estimated eighty million tons of carbon, which show the conservational relevance of Tompkins’ actions at both local and, perhaps even more, at global scales. The way in which Tompkins achieved his conservation goals is also notable and perhaps a bit paradoxical; he used his wealth and capitalist strategies, from the consumerism culture he disavowed, to achieve success in Chile’s neoliberal system. For example, Tompkins raised serious capital for the park by leveraging his global business connections and using tactical corporate-esque marketing. This is the crux of the success of PPA’s and eco-philanthropists; they have the wealth and business know-how to effectively achieve conservation goals, especially in countries with capitalist systems like Chile where wealth is the true source of power. Without Tompkins’ intervention, it can be presumed that this land would have eventually fallen to the other wealthy, and thereby powerful, entities in Chile: logging companies. Tompkins’ connections to the business world continued to reap conservation benefits as after his investments in Chile, he gained global recognition, made eco-philanthropy fashionable and spurred further investment in the region by others such as Tom Brokaw, George Soros and Goldman Sachs.

Local Peoples

The impacts of PPA’s on humans, which can be easily forgotten, must also be taken into account when analyzing their holistic effectiveness. Local populations of rural Chile mostly consist of campesinos, or local farmers, and indigenous peoples, predominantly the Mapuche, both of whom largely depend on the land for their livelihoods. PPA’s can positively impact these local communities through the creation of jobs and an eco-tourism industry. While developing Pumalin Park, Tompkins hired locals to develop park infrastructure and work as rangers or guides. The establishment of the park also created a stream of eco-tourism that revitalized the economies of local communities who provide hospitality services and sell handmade goods to eco-tourists. While there is no comprehensive survey data of Pumalin Park, a study of a similar nearby PPA, Huilo Huilo, shows that local communities supported the development of the park for these economic reasons. However, at the same time, inequity in the distribution of park jobs and eco-tourism profits led to internal tensions within the broader local community. The Huilo Huilo study reveals that only some communities, often due to location, reap economic benefits from the park, while many others do not see any benefits. In fact, the nearby presence of the PPA has negative economic impacts, such as elevated land prices which can price locals out of their homes. It is important to recognize that PPA’s, while economically beneficial to some, can actually lead to economic and even political instability for other community members.

Another side effect of PPA’s, perhaps of greater concern, is the displacement of local peoples and the loss of cultural identity. In Southern Chile, irregular land tenure is common due to Pinochet-era policies, which means that many rural communities do not actually have legal documentation for their land. To gather land for Pumalin Park, Tompkins bought land deeds from absentee landowners, leading to the evictions of local peoples who had actually been living on those plots for years. This displacement was disruptive to these peoples, both campesino and indigenous communities, who financially depend on the park’s natural resources and whose cultures are deeply rooted in their natural surroundings.

Left to Right: Mapuche Woman, Chilean Campesino, Eco-Tourism Interactions, Lodge at Huilo Huilo

Virtualization of Nature

The establishment of PPA’s displaces local people from the land not only literally, but figuratively as well. In offering a chance to experience nature and the wilderness, PPA’s inherently assume a split between humans and the natural environment. This Western conception, termed a “virtualiz[ed] vision” of nature, creates an imagined space of nature with no human presence; a conception that in fact makes it easier to physically displace locals. PPA’s explicitly propagate this idea through their marketing as shown by the website of Pumalin Park, which is plastered with natural imagery but has few references to cultural history.

This virtualized vision of nature comes into direct conflict with local peoples’ cultures and livelihoods, which are intertwined with their natural environments. For example, both campesinos and indigenous people have a rational-use relationship with the land, in which they respect the land yet still believe in using its resources responsibly. This directly conflicts with PPA’s vision of nature in which any human presence is unnatural. In Huilo Huilo, Mapuche communities commented on their frustrating inability to use natural resources around them as they were accustomed to, while campesinos commented on their inability to raise livestock freely. Furthermore, PPA’s separation of human and land leads to the loss of indigenous culture which is tied to the land. In Pumalin Park, surrounding local communities comment on the loss of their cultural norms and traditions, such as the drinking of mate or asado, within the park. And it is not only the virtualized vision created by the PPA that can lead to cultural tensions; the aforementioned mere fact that Tompkins established the park as a foreigner drew skepticism from Chileans. While these skeptics were eventually assuaged by Tompkins’ donation of the park to the Chilean government, it is not always the case globally that PPA ownership is handed back to the local country, which can exacerbate tensions. While PPA’s intentions are not to impact local people in this way, these side-effects of displacement and cultural impingement are harmful to local communities struggling to maintain their cultural identity. However, it is also important to note that this impact is variable, while many are negatively impacted in this way, there are some communities that do reap economic benefits and have better relations with PPA’s.

Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve
Reconciling Local and Global

The tension between local cultural issues created by PPA’s and global motives of nature conservation can be hard to reconcile as they are operating on such different scales of local and global. There is definite significance to both sets of motivations; steps must be taken in order to conserve the Earth’s ecosystems before it is too late, and simultaneously, the cultural sovereignty of rural and indigenous people, already marginalized groups, cannot be violated. Yet, there is no clear-cut resolution to negotiate these two motivations. An easily accessible solution would be splitting land between PPA’s and indigenous peoples whose wise-use practices still aid with conservation. Yet, this is problematic for several reasons. First, this solution essentializes indigenous peoples as “noble savages” and mounts the unfair assumption that their lifestyles and cultural practices must adhere to pre-industrial forms. In fact, many indigenous peoples live modern lives, raising complicated questions about degrees of indigeneity and what degree permits an indigenous group to stay on their land. Second, this solution also assumes that individuals will always make the correct decision surrounding conservation, which is simply not the case. With economic struggles or generational changes, some may not consider long-term impacts and may decide to sell their land to extractive companies for short-term gain.

These reasons, especially the latter, may motivate PPA’s to adopt an imperious mindset, yet it is important that they do not disregard the needs of local communities. Protecting the rights of rural people and preserving Earth’s cultural diversity is just as important as preserving its biodiversity. While compromising between these motives is difficult, there is some common ground as both groups share an appreciation for nature and an enemy in extractive companies who exploit the land for short-term gain. In fact, Tompkins and CP currently partner with local communities to dispute the construction of disruptive hydroelectric dams. Furthermore, Tompkins has partnered with local communities to establish organic, sustainable farming initiatives that allow agriculture and nature to interface symbiotically.

Ana Cua Estate managed by Tompkins
Local peoples protesting Hydro-Aysen dam construction.
A Global Phenomenon

These issues and dynamics are not isolated to Tompkins and Chilean PPA’s, but are rather a representation of the issues facing PPA’s globally, especially in the developing world. Looking at Sri Lanka, virtualized visions of nature created by PPA’s led to the removal of the Wanniya-Laeto peoples from their native forests. In Tasmania, inequitable gains from eco-tourism created conflict between local communities and, in Alaska, cooperation between the Inuit and conservationists led to the obstruction of oil pipeline construction. Just as in Chile, negotiating the motivations of locals, conservationists, and companies is difficult around the world and, while similar tensions arise frequently, each case is situational as each region has unique cultural groups and environmental goals. There is no simple solution, but as PPA’s continue to be established it is important to genuinely consider the many nuances, many of which are not so apparent in Western media, in order to reach an equitable solution.


The Wanniya-Laeto people, who have a direct line of descent to the Sri Lankan island’s original Neolithic community, live in the forests of Sri Lanka, which in recent years, have been turned into protected areas. The virtualized view of nature accompanying these protected areas, which view the Wanniya-Laeto people’s interactions with the land as equivalent to poaching, have led to the removal of the Wanniya-Laeto peoples from their land. Today, few Wanniya-Laeto people are still able to truly preserve their culture and traditional lifestyle.

Aboriginal Tasmanians

Eco-tourism in Tasmania has become an increasingly important stream of revenue for an otherwise economically-depressed state. However, this revenue mainly benefits the already wealthier Tasmanians rather than the local peoples and aboriginal Tasmanians leading to tensions between the two groups. Increased tourism in fact can lead to the deterioration of the natural environment. For example, the tourism diving industry has affected reef health.

Roll over tiles for more information

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