A Look at the Role of Business in Conservation in Chile

The pre-trip coursework for GIP Patagonia included an article about the conservation of 10 million acres in Chile, the result of a public-private partnership between the founder of the North Face brand, Douglas Tompkins, and the Chilean government. Mr. Tompkins’s conservation organization donated 1 million acres that he acquired over two decades; the Chilean government donated the remaining 9 million. The land forms the Patagonia National Park system, which is “more than three times the size of the Yosemite and Yellowstone parks combined,” and “expands Chile’s national parklands by nearly 40 percent.” The park is now untouchable by mining interests, as well as the logging industry and ranchers, who want to capitalize on the country’s natural resources. This endeavor highlights a unique example of “doing well by doing good;” instead of bulldozing forward and achieving his vision on his terms, Mr. Tompkins struck a compromise and partnered with the Chilean government, to their mutual benefit.

Wilderness worth preserving

A couple of details make this story remarkable: first, the deal rose out of a desire for social and environmental good, as opposed to a pressing business need. A growing field of study at CBS is how businesses can profit from social impact. In this case, Tompkins’s brand prospered, and then he leveraged his personal wealth to benefit a place he loved. The upshot is a lasting legacy for Mr. Tompkins and Chile, as well as indirect benefit to North Face’s brand.

Second, so many companies want to exert change on their own terms- tax incentives in exchange for bringing business to cities; funding projects in exchange for branding and publicity. Communities often question what motivates corporations to bankroll change. The more land Mr. Tompkins purchased, the more backlash he received: he was stifling the economy (the business community); he was putting Chilean sovereignty at risk (military officials/ politicians); he was attempting to exert foreign control over the country (leftists, nationalists); etc.

Many Chazen trips focus on change and innovation- how countries are developing to meet new challenges and improve the lives of their citizens. What often goes unexamined is whether certain cultural aspects deserve to be preserved. Is all change positive, or is the issue more complex? Chile is still grappling to balance economic progress and environmental preservation. While we were hiking, our NOLS instructors told us that just outside of the park, a mining company is looking to buy up huge tracts of land. The local community is divided about the prospect- some feel it would bring more jobs to the region, while others feel it could damage tourism, which is currently a huge economic force.  Questions like this will continue to arise in Chile and should be an integral part of the GIP Patagonia coursework.

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