Douglas Tompkins: A ghost roams the valleys of Patagonia

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By Hector Kol
Translation by Taylor Ffitch
 
I learned about him in 1994, when a brief note in “El Mercurio” mentioned the existence of EDUCEC, an organization that represented the interests of a U.S. millionaire who had bought large expanses of public land to convert them into national parks.
 
It was an incredible piece of news that I added to my collection of newspaper clippings, which I still have. I had never imagined that in Chile, the country that enacted Decree 701 for forest development, in which the state pays businesses to CUT DOWN native forests and replace them with non-native pine and eucalyptus trees, a millionaire from the Empire would come to do exactly the opposite: defend those forests by buying the land that sustains them in order to conserve them and eventually donate them to the State in the form of national parks.
 
Out of curiosity I wrote to the director of EDUCEC, Carolina Morgado, to get more background and information on this unusual news item from a daily completely alien to my reading preferences. In reply, I received a description of the general outline of the project, a plastic-bound document that I also still have. And it was true: the land was bought, surveyed, studied, improved, and then donated to the Chilean government.
 
In barely two years, the gringo was an obligatory topic in any political meeting I participated in, where the specter arose of a Chinese (and later Zionist) invasion of an area that came to Chilean’s attention solely because of the scandal generated by this foreigner’s presence. In the late 90’s, at those meetings when they asked me to explain why I considered “ecological issues” to be, more than anything, political issues that required a political solution, they inevitably asked me the same thing: what do you think of the Gringo Tomkins? And more than once the discussion ended in me providing a copy of the EDUCEC project. Even so, nobody believed that a millionaire Gringo wanted to waste his fortune protecting forests and not enhance it by cutting them down.
 
For the traditional Left, it was impossible to believe that a “good” Gringo existed, who came to Chile not to exploit it but to conserve it, and what’s more, the concept of CONSERVATION itself was unknown in Chile.
 
The first time I defended Tompkins’ project in print was in 2001 in an article published under the title “Un fantasma recorre las calles de Palena” (A Ghost Roams the Streets of Palena) in the official paper of the Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Movement, “El Rodriguista.”  From then on the “Rorros” were environmentalists and I was a “Rorro.” The Gringo was a demonstration that utopia could become reality simply through human will. 8 million square kilometers of Chilean land are now protected, studied, and will be national parks for all Chileans and all humanity because there was one man who wished it so…
 
I came to the Pumalín Foundation, successor of EDUCEC, in 2009, when Fernando Siebald, the foundation’s lawyer, came to my home to find me. The Gringo had asked for me to consult on aquaculture matters, and saw fit to offer me a job after I was accused of involvement in the Salmon-Chile building fire.
 
The police had already turned upside down my house in Puerto Varas, and it was not easy for Fernando to convince me to accept the job. I was accused of arson, which the salmon fishers asked to be considered an act of terrorism, and I understood that it was very risky for the foundation and its project for me to lend my services with such a charge. As someone from the foundation itself said, Héctor Kol would be a cluster bomb inside Pumalín…and I agreed.
 
I finally joined as an external consultant, abandoning my work with the union for small fishermen, whom had offered no help to me whatsoever during the process, despite my having worked with them for four years.  They were afraid the Salmon Chile fire controversy would affect their “prestige.” El Gringo had no “prestige” to defend…
 
I came to the foundation 15 years after having found out about their unusual project, and I only had to do in the Patagonian seas what the foundation had done already on dry land: work with efficiency and dedication. I spoke with The Gringo fewer than ten times during those six months I lived with his collaborators and workers. We didn’t need to talk more; he knew exactly what I was doing and what I was capable of, just as I knew what he was doing and what he wanted from me: to work for the eradication of the salmon farming industry. More explanations or instructions weren’t necessary. The Gringo trusted my work, and I admired his. Mutual respect is everything when you work on issues that challenge a predatory system.
 
The Gringo made the birth of social movements possible in Chile, by inspiring the Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia without Dams) movement that coordinated the technical studies, application of the law, social mobilization and publicity against the HidroAysen hydroelectric project. It was his most sublime opposition to the predatory system propagated and protected by the highest levels of the State, freeing Chilean society from its prostration before the seemingly invincible: the neo-colonial capitalist economic model. He was the principle architect of the process, as Juan Pablo Orrego stated in his speech the day of the Gringo’s farewell. He did not leave us only parks…he left us a plan, a strategy and an example for how to triumph in an unequal struggle. The Gringo established a tradition, he planted faith…
 
In the heat of Patagonia Sin Represas, the student movement was reborn and score of local movements appeared in opposition to one or the other investment project that increased the distance between real life and the life of dignity that we should live. For thousands of Chileans, a life of dignity started to be more valuable than an investment, a temporary job offer or compensation plan, which is the type of social bribe used by businesses that base themselves on destruction of nature to “create wealth.”
 
The Gringo died as did Fernando Siebald: enjoying the nature they defended so much. The master and perhaps one of his best students left their lives in Patagonia, making eternal a love for these lands like the one The Gringo’s wife described in her response: an untouchable, indestructible, and irreplaceable love…
 
We will surely not let this love be extinguished, be felled, pierced or contaminated. We know it can be done. We know it is possible…because The Gringo made it possible.
 
Safe travels, Gringo…we will harvest what you planted.

Hector Kol is a biologist and salmon farming activist who has worked with Fundacion Pumalin's marine program since 2009.