- In the early 1990s, Kris and Doug Tompkins began buying up vast amounts of land in Chile and Argentina and setting it aside for conservation.
- Since the early 2000s, their non-profit Tompkins Conservation has donated over 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, which spurred the permanent protection of nearly 6 million hectares (15 million acres) and the establishment of 13 new national parks.
- The Tompkins had performed “a kind of capitalist jujitsu move” as Kris Tompkins put it in her 2020 TED talk: “We deployed private wealth from our business lives and deployed it to protect nature from being devoured by the hand of the global economy.”
- Kris Tompkins spoke about her organization’s conservation work, rewilding, and the costs of our current industrial model during a February 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
In the early 1990s, using the money they earned from their leadership roles at Patagonia Inc., The North Face, and Esprit, Kris and Doug Tompkins began buying up vast amounts of land in Chile and Argentina and setting it aside for conservation. Their acquisition of large blocks of forest, wetlands, and steppe — along with their plan to do “nothing” with it in terms of logging, mining, or agriculture — raised suspicions that they had nefarious intentions. In Chile, their phones were tapped, their movements monitored, and their property subject to military flyovers.
After an intense few years, the public and government came to understand the Tompkins’ aim of protecting and restoring wilderness so it could be enjoyed by everyone. Since the early 2000s, their non-profit Tompkins Conservation has donated over 800,000 hectares (2 million acres) of wilderness in Chile and Argentina, which spurred the permanent protection of nearly 6 million hectares (15 million acres) and the establishment of 13 new national parks.
The Tompkins had performed “a kind of capitalist jujitsu move” as Kris Tompkins put it in her 2020 TED talk.
“From where we sat, we saw the dark side of industrial growth. And when industrial world views are applied to natural systems that support all life, we begin to treat the Earth as a factory that produces all the things that we think we need,” she said. “As we’re all painfully aware, the consequences of that worldview are destructive to human welfare, our climate systems and to wildlife. Doug called it the price of progress. That’s how we saw things, and we wanted to be a part of the resistance, pushing up against all of those trends.”
“We deployed private wealth from our business lives and deployed it to protect nature from being devoured by the hand of the global economy.”
After Doug Tompkins’s death in a kayak accident in 2015, Tompkins Conservation accelerated this work, establishing new marine national parks covering about 10 million hectares (25 million acres) in the southern Atlantic Ocean and redoubling efforts to rewild protected areas, including restoring big predators like jaguar and puma that had been eliminated from these lands.
“Fifteen years ago, we asked ourselves, ‘Beyond protecting landscape, what do we really have to do to create fully functioning ecosystems?’ And we began to ask ourselves, wherever we were working, who’s missing, what species had disappeared or whose numbers were low and fragile. We also had to ask, ‘How do we eliminate the very reason that these species went extinct in the first place?'” Tompkins explained in her TED talk. “What seems so obvious now was a complete thunderbolt for us. And it changed the nature of everything we do, completely. Unless all the members of the community are present and flourishing, it’s impossible for us to leave behind fully functioning ecosystems.”
Kris Tompkins says that rewilding efforts have faced less opposition than her and Doug’s land acquisition in the early 1990s. She says even the jaguar — the largest terrestrial predator in the Americas — has been welcomed back by some communities.
“Of all the top predator species, [the jaguar] was the easiest socially and culturally to bring back because the ranchers of Corrientes province [in Argentina] have always seen the jaguar, which has been missing since the 1930s, as their kind of mascot or spirit. Their boldness and strength is represented through the jaguar, which none of them have seen for 90 years,” she told Mongabay. “That was a real shock. We were really prepared for years and years of preparing ourselves and the province and the country for the return of these jaguars.”
“We had much more trouble with large-scale land acquisition in the beginning than we have with rewilding extirpated species.”
Kris Tompkins spoke about her organization’s conservation work, rewilding, and the costs of our current industrial model during a February 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
This interview text has been edited for clarity.
AN INTERVIEW WITH KRIS TOMPKINS
What sparked your interest in nature and conservation?
I think those answers always have mice with long tails. It’s hard to know where it really begins, but we all grew up on our great-grandfather’s ranch here, exactly where I am now [Editor’s note: the ranch is outside Ojai, California]. And so, the out-of-doors was, for us, like indoors. There wasn’t much distinction. We were outside most of the time. At the time, I didn’t understand what beauty was and the nature of nature though.
My first husband was an expedition climber, and I grew up in the climbing tribe. And so, we were ski racers and I began to fall in love with the beauty and power of nature. Not just of it, which is how I grew up, but actually in it and participating in it.
And then in the early 80s, I began to see largely through (Patagonia founder) Yvon Chouinard that these places we took for granted were in fact being taken for granted. That in fact, we had to learn how to read what was actually happening in these places we loved so much. And that was kind of a new dawn for me and certainly influenced the last third of my life.
From that upbringing, you joined Patagonia and eventually took the helm of it. You turned the company into a model of corporate responsibility, which continues to this day and is very impressive. So, what inspired you to take that approach to Patagonia?
That was completely 100% Yvon. I met Yvon when I was 15 years old and during my college years, our mother complained to me that I looked at her as a bank. And that contrary to my assumptions, I had to get summer jobs. So, I started working for Yvon in the summertime. And when I graduated from college, I had no idea what I was going to do. And so, I started working for him full-time and it was still just rock and ice climbing equipment in those days.
And then a year or two later, he wanted to make clothes for all of us, and that’s how we started Patagonia. And there were only six of us. And then in a few years, I became the general manager. And I don’t know when we started calling me the CEO, but I was that for a very long time. And then when I was 43, I retired and went to South Chile with Doug.
What did you take from that corporate experience at Patagonia into your conservation work as well as your philanthropy?
I think there’s a lot that you take with you. I think the two most important things: One, you have a sense of order and finance and budgets and a kind of discipline that I think comes out of growing a business, a successful business and the discipline that that requires. And most especially, which is a lot of personality-driven too: Doug and I were very results-driven. We focus on something and we’re going to be the dog with the bone until we get it done.
There’s a sense of being extremely results-driven and relentless because conservation has so many pitfalls along the way that you have to learn to just drive past those and keep going and going. And I think our personality is probably like that, but also business trains you to do things you might not imagine you could do.
So, on that pitfalls front, there was a lot of contentiousness in Chile when you started your conservation work.
Well, isn’t that an understatement?
So how are your efforts perceived by the public today?
It lasted four or five years and was ruthless. There were military planes flying over our house and our phones were tapped for five years and all sorts of things. It was bad and occasionally dangerous.
That was during the Frei administration. Then once Ricardo Lagos assumed the presidency, a lot of that, at least on the political-military side, shifted around. But it was tough because we are two foreigners arriving in a country, buying up large tracts of land, a lot of it forest, and not cutting it. That was highly suspicious.
When I look at it now, this is a full generation ago, I understand why there was tremendous suspicion and discord over what we were doing, but I didn’t understand it then. I wish I knew then what I know now and I would have probably passed through that period a lot more calmly than I did. But we were accused of everything, creating a new Jewish state, even though we were raised Anglicans, a nuclear waste dump for the United States. That we would take all the cattle out of South Chile and replace it with American bison and military territory for Argentina to come in and finish Chile off once and for all. But that was a long time ago and that has utterly changed.
We’ve donated many national parks in Chile and built infrastructure so that all are welcome and very participative in local and regional communities. So that era has long been over with, although of course, we know that there are people who run counter to conservation in general. Regardless of where it is, you’re going up against the model of industrial production, and when you do that, of course, it doesn’t matter where you are and you’re going to get in the crosshairs of somebody. That’s always the case.
Has the gift of these areas as public lands to the people of Chile had any ripple effects on the broader idea of philanthropy in the region?
I think it’s slowly starting to take place with philanthropy specifically, but what has really changed are the number of families or individuals who are creating their own parks. They may not want to gift them to the government and to all Chileans or Argentinians as we have, but that’s astounding. That’s how far things have evolved since we started. It’s amazing the number of private parks that there are. People are really looking at their land and the acquisition of land through another lens. And that’s not true in all cases, but it’s very significant.
So, in terms of what we Americans understand as the philosophy of philanthropy, that’s slower going. The raw act of donating and supporting issues that fall outside of education or the arts or health, which are all necessary as well. But it’s an evolution, as in all things.
Since you started this endeavor, you’ve made rewilding a major component of your work. Rewilding is also contentious for some. Are people starting to come around on the idea of rewilding like they did with the creation of what are now public lands?
Well, you really have to go by species. The one species whom we’ve been working with for 10 years: jaguars in northeastern Argentina. Of all the top predator species, it was the easiest socially and culturally to bring back because the ranchers of Corrientes province have always seen the jaguar, which has been missing since the 1930s, as their kind of mascot or spirit. Their boldness and strength is represented through the jaguar, which none of them have seen for 90 years.
That was a real shock. We were really prepared for years and years of preparing ourselves and the province and the country for the return of these Jaguars. And we were happily surprised by that. By and large, rewilding doesn’t cause much trouble. We have had a lot of discussion about pumas in Southern Chile because they’ve really been decimated along with foxes over the last 80 years, as long as there have been livestock down there. The systematic killing of predators of course is prevalent.
There have been individuals and some mayors who are very unhappy with the idea that these top predators are coming back, but generally, rewilding is seen as a positive thing. We had much more trouble with large-scale land acquisition in the beginning than we have with rewilding extirpated species.
How is the rewilding as we’re going so far?
Well, it’s a good time to ask because it’s going smashingly well, considering we have jaguars freely roaming the national park today. The first ones are out there living free for the first time in 70 to 90 years. And we have more who are on deck, some cubs and their mother. The cubs need to be a couple months older, and then they too will go. We have two cubs in another national park in northern Argentina that will start the population in that national park, where there are no jaguars.
I’m very proud of the teams who run all those. Well, I’m proud of everyone, but rewilding is quite hands-on. It could be midnight. It can be 10:00 in the morning. Rewilding is a 24-7 job for different teams and it’s tough work.
A lot of the things we’ve done, we were the first people to do it. For example, we were the first people to have to set the regulations between Brazil and Argentina and between provinces to move animals back and forth. So, there was a lot of regulatory work that had to be designed and actually implemented so the next projects wouldn’t have to go through that over and over again.
The team members who work on the ground with these species go out for months and years. They are very committed on the ground in these special areas with these special species. They’re the reason that we’ve had a lot of success.
We know protected areas are a proven intervention for conservation, but by definition, these will always be limited in extent. So, what do you see as ways to drive the systemic change needed to address the broader drivers of environmental degradation and destruction, on a society or economy wide level?
That’s a very big question because when you look at what’s driving climate change and species extinction, and all the things we talk about, the globalized industrial economy is the muscle for this. And of course, heads of sovereign states have a lot of power, relative power, but basically, everything is driven by economics and the global economic system.
So that makes dealing with it a lot tougher. Right now, Biden is very attentive toward climate change and rolling back some of the policies of Trump like the [national] monuments here in the States. So, it’s a cascading effect of consumerism driven by consumers. Consumers have to understand that what we do affects all these things we think we care about. And it’s very hard to get people to voluntarily change their habits.
Now this year with the pandemic, I’ve been encouraged by the fact that globally people can change on a dime when they’re forced to. The problem is we are forced to, and the suffering that has accompanied this event is so high. But it did show me that we can change our behavior radically and very quickly.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the collapse of civilizations. Because I keep thinking, “Why do we keep doing this over and over again?” And there is a lot of overlap in terms of what the conditions are when civilizations collapse, whether it’s Rome, the Mayans, Easter Island, and the Khmer.
So, the question, at least as I understood it, is really complex and I generally feel that human behavior changes in a climate of adversity, and we’re very slow or simply bad at changing our mode of life voluntarily. So, I think it takes a pandemic, people freezing to death in Texas, and all these other things that really began to change people’s behavior and change the kind of leadership that they need. That’s my personal thought on that.
So, on that front, speaking specifically to Patagonia, what has been the impact of COVID on your work in that region?
Very little. We have actually, I would say, been working more fluidly as a team since we were all stuck in one place. Because for years, we’ve always been in the field or moving around. It’s very hard to come together and do deep planning and things like that.
We have found that for our work in Chile and Argentina and here in the States, it’s actually been helpful that we’re all stuck in one place because the communication is daily and fast. And it’s just one of those things where we’re lucky in that it turned out to be positive for us, forcing us to get a lot of the work done face to face. There’s “Zoom to Zoom” that we kind of struggled with before because everybody moves around so much.
Do you see long-term opportunities for conservation arising from the post-pandemic recovery?
I always see opportunities. We’re moving on a lot of stuff that we started. We have had a sort of second generational master plan. I started before we finalized all the donations to Chile and to Argentina. I wanted to know where we are going even though we had another 18 months to really finalize everything.
And last June, we pulled the trigger on a lot of stuff. I think that there’s opportunity politically: this is a moment here in the States, for example. If I was working up here, I see four or five things on a large scale I would go after first because you don’t have these kinds of moments that often. And when you see one, you should throw everything at it.
I see a lot of new rewilding efforts going on around the world, even rewilding Britain. It’s hard to imagine being able to rewild Britain, but they’re doing it. So, I’m very optimistic and geared up for a lot of conservation and rewilding—on both land and at sea. We don’t look just at land anymore.
Do you actively engage with other initiatives in other countries, sharing lessons from what you’ve done?
We do it informally. If somebody wants to know how we do it, we are happy to share. Especially in rewilding, where there is a lot to the technical side (like) if somebody wants to know about jaguar breeding or how to put together large landscapes.
We are a completely open book in that sense because for us, the only thing that matters is the net increase of territory preserved and species returned to their rightful places. It could be us. It can be someone else. We don’t really care. The net effect is what is the net effect.
I wanted to return back to the broader transformational question I asked earlier. Last week I spoke with Jennifer Morgan, who’s the head of Greenpeace International. She said the following: “Politics and leaders certainly can influence culture and norms. We believe culture has much more influence on politics and leaders. So, our culture goes, politicians either follow or lose elections, and companies can either change or go bankrupt.” So, that kind of gets to what you spoke to in terms of consumer behavior. What’s your take on that?
I wouldn’t tend to agree with her. I wish I could. I do, but culture is driven by economics today. It’s not the other way around. And so, I would see rather the converse of that statement.
Culture originally came about when humans started to gather, it was a way to protect one another. It could have been five people. It could have been 100 people. Culture is built to protect the home fires, let’s say, and that is not what’s happening today. And cultures around the world are hammered by this overlay of production, harvest, and consumerism. So no, I would disagree with her.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
I get asked this a lot, and usually it comes in the form of what people can do. I’ve been thinking a lot about this and the number one thing they should ask themselves is “Why are you asking me what I think they can do?” Because the number one thing you can do is figure out what are the root causes of our circumstances and what has to be done. And I don’t care if it’s two meters out your front door, it’s in your town, it’s in your state, it’s in your country.
People have to at least have the curiosity and drive to figure out what’s going on around them. Take the Greta Effect, for example. Is anybody marching in your town on Fridays? You have to decide for yourself what’s meaningful to you. And then you have to just open up your eyes and your ears and decide. It doesn’t have to be radical. It doesn’t have to be the Extinction Rebellion. It can be just acting. The act of acting is activism. And no one can tell me what I should be – could be – doing. I don’t know where you are. I don’t know how old you are. I don’t know what you love. But I do know that we are far past the moment in our human history to be sitting on the sidelines.
It’s up to each person to fight for the things that they love or the things they know to be true, or those things they know are not right. You have to have that two inches of motivation to do something and declare yourself to be part of a movement that is not going away.
These social movements and ecological movements are growing, they’re not going away.
I get asked a lot, “Overall, are you hopeful?” I have really come to dislike the word ‘hope’ because I think in many cases it implies a sort of abdication. I have hope because you are out there and you’re having conversations about things that are difficult or on the edges of things.
I think hope has to be earned. I don’t think you get to have hope unless you’re part of it: an active part of creating hope. Otherwise, you’re just waiting for someone else. Your hope is not dependent on your own actions. And this I think is really dangerous and takes the life out of our hearts. I really do.
What people can do is decide and remember that what you do with your life defines who you are. So, if you’re wringing your hands and worried about what’s happening on your street or in your town, and you just wring your hands, then you deserve the outcome that you’re going to get. You get out in your street, in your town and you work towards something better for everybody and all life. And you might still lose the battle but you will have participated in something that will be one of the highlights of your life, and it will define the rest of your life. That’s what I think.
I think in my heart of hearts, I just hold out that this distance between someone who’s a conservationist, someone who’s a leader, someone who is worried about the quality of the water coming in through their faucets, that the gap between those who are thinking about that stuff, and those who are kind of looking over the wall and kind of seeing that it’s going on, but they don’t know what to do.
If I went to a seven-year-old right now and said, “Have you ever heard about the climate changing and dah, dah, dah?” Does this person know anything about it? That the specs and the disaster? Maybe not. If I said, “Let’s go do something about it.” Whatever that is, they go immediately. People want to be asked. People want to be told that they can stand up and go become little activists, young activists, 80-year-old activists. It is the participative role in society that we’ve lost. And that’s what happens to civilizations that collapse.
There is a centralization of power or the assumption that ‘you will take care of everything, so I’m just going to sit and wait until you do.’ And it really doesn’t work that way. So you have to move against your cultural norms and become a fighter. That’s what I think anyway.
Learn more at Tompkins Conservation.
The title of this post was edited shortly after publication to reflect that Tompkins Conservation also works outside Patagonia.