Pumalín, Chile. Photo by Sam Beebe/Ecotrust, posted on Flickr.

In 1991, an American billionaire, Douglas Tompkins, bought 170 square kilometres of land in Chilean Patagonia. Over the next decade, he bought another 3,000 square kilometres nearby. Counting five other areas in Chile and three more in Argentina, Tompkins owns an estimated 8,000 square kilometres in both countries, making him one of the most important private land owners in the world. His goal? To preserve the land.

Tompkins, who made his fortune as founder of The North Face and Esprit clothing brands, has not hesitated to put his money to the service of conservation. When the Argentinean government wanted to protect a coastal area in southern Patagonia but lacked the funds to buy the land, Tompkins and his wife came to the rescue. The area, whose management guidelines the couple helped lay out, is now Monte León National Park.

His environmental philanthropy has, however, met resistance, and Tompkins has had to battle against scepticism and suspicions of ulterior motives. He has been accused of everything from expelling people settled on his lands and blocking highway construction to being a stooge in an undercover plot to take over South America's drinkable water supply.

In the meantime, his first nature reserve, established on the grounds of the land he bought in Chilean Patagonia in 1991, "Parque Pumalín" has continued to allow a reduced number of visitors (9,000 per year) on its hiking trails, camp grounds and lakes, provided they follow the park's strict environmental guidelines. (It is currently closed to visitors due to conservation efforts following the eruption of the Chaitén volcano in May 2008).

Pumalín, Chile. Photo by Sam Beebe/ Ecotrust, posted on Flickr.

Pudu in Pumalín Park, Chile. Posted by Daniel Martínez Pereira on Flickr.

Private parks in Latin America

Guanacos, Monte León National Park, Argentina. Posted by Julián Ortiz on Flickr.

Monte León National Park, Argentina. Posted by Julián Ortiz on Flickr.

Sunset, Monte León National Park, Argentina. Posted by Ricardo La Piettra on Flickr.

Douglas and Kris Tompkins. Photo by Sam Beebe/ Ecotrust, posted on Flickr.

Reñihué Fjord, Pumalín, Chile. Photo by Sam Beebe/Ecotrust, posted on Flickr.

Forest of araucarias, El Cañi private reserve, Chile. Posted by Nick Warner on Flickr.

"Most individuals or families doing this are sacrificing potential revenues to achieve it"

Claudia Sepúlveda Luque is a Chilean environmentalist who has worked on assisting small-scale private conservation initiatives. She has visited the Pumalín area many times, both before and after the park's creation.

Controversy over Pumalín has nothing to do with the project itself or its contribution to nature conservation in Chile. It has more to do with politicians who can't believe a foreigner would be interested in owning so much land without some obscure, hidden agenda. Nonetheless the park is highly regarded by scientists and environmentalists.

Another billionaire businessman — none other than our recently elected president, Sebastián Piñera — owns a protected area of similar proportion. Several years ago Piñera bought 1,800 square kilometres of land on Chiloé Island and converted it into Tantauco, a park following the Pumalín model.

What's more, Tompkins and Piñera are not the only ones buying land to protect it. They represent a very interesting social movement taking place in Chile. More and more people are setting areas aside to protect forests and wetlands and allow vegetation to regenerate.

An estimated 500 private conservation initiatives exist in Chile, undertaken by individuals, families or communities. Two thirds of these protected areas are smaller than one square kilometre, which shows that this is not an issue interesting millionaires only. These people are doing it spontaneously, without any government support. In fact, most of them are sacrificing potential revenues to achieve it.

Conservation has become an important subject in Chile: a recent national survey showed that 80% of Chileans consider the new government should give environmental issues a high priority. And an incredible 58% said conservation was crucial, even if it affects employment or foreign investment in the short term."