Sunday, September 24, 2006

Philanthopists Versus Politicians: Development Versus Environmental Preservation

Swimming capybara at the Iberá marshes, in Corrientes, Argentina
© 2005 Carla Antonini

Read "Argentine Land Fight Divides Environmentalists, Rights Advocates" by Monte Reel, The Washington Post, September 24, 2006.

The excerpts below are in my order, rather than that of the author:
Since the 1990s, the relatively cheap and expansive acreage of Argentina has attracted millionaires in search of unspoiled estates, including household names such as Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone. Douglas Tompkins, founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, and his wife Kristine McDivitt, the former chief executive of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, have bought about 4.7 million acres in Chile and Argentina. Their strategy is to identify properties in danger of ecologically damaging development, buy them, then create private parks that they eventually turn over to the local governments. Last year, they donated about 210,000 acres to Chile to form part of the Corcovado National Park. Tompkins said he eventually hopes to do the same thing with his 741,000 acres in this species-rich wetland region (in Argentina).

But last month, Argentina's undersecretary for land and social habitat (Luis D'Elia) declared war on such land purchases with one highly symbolic act: He marched onto Tompkins's land, cut down a fence and called for the expropriation of the property. "We believe this is a new way of trying to dominate the South American countries," said Araceli Mendez, a congresswoman who represents this region and sponsored legislation last month that would expropriate Tompkins's land. "It is dangerous for the defense of our national security to have the concentration of so much land in the hands of foreigners."

Days later, he (D'Elias) tood alongside the ambassadors of Venezuela and Bolivia -- two countries that recently have implemented measures to redistribute land from wealthy estate owners to the poor -- and made his intentions even clearer.

"We want to tell everyone: We're going to continue cutting down fences," said Luis D'Elia, the government secretary. "What is more important, the private property of a few, or the sovereignty of everyone?"

Not only do these battles pit South American nationalism against foreign investors, they are drawing a bold line between two activist movements -- environmentalists and social justice advocates -- that are often grouped together under the same "progressive" label.

The Catholic Church joined the chorus this month, issuing a 128-page document that warned against the "foreign-ization" of Argentine territory. Environmental groups, such as the Argentina Wildlife Foundation, have generally backed Tompkins.
Comment: In the old days, Communist countries did not allow philanthopy since it diluted the power of government. Leftist governments have agreed in many cases.

The new concentration of wealth (I just read that every one of the Fortune 400 now has more than one billion U.S. dollars net worth) and the new philanthopy of these billionaires is opening new partnerships for development.

Offhand, it seems to me useful to have foreign philanthopists joining in the debate between social justice advocates, promoting land reform, versus environmental activists, who worry about the preservation of fragile biosystems facing the incursion of poor farmers. Certainly their money could be useful!

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