Douglas Tompkinscalls himself a 'deep ecologist'. He is a millionaire on a quest to preserve some of Argentina's last frontier lands from human encroachment by buying them and turning them into ecological reserves.
But Argentina may not permit him such philanthropy. Opponents are branding him a new-age 'imperialist gringo' and claim he has a secret aim: to help the US military gain control of the country's natural resources. Tompkins, who sold his Esprit clothing firm in 1989 for a reported $150m to devote his time and wealth to ecology, takes such attacks in his stride. 'Land ownership is a political act; it arouses passions,' he says.
Tompkins, 63, holds to a very severe brand of environmentalism and is fond of reminding listeners that, unless runaway consumerism is halted, 'we humans will be building ourselves a beautiful coffin in space called planet Earth'.
Yet such statements do not carry much weight with Argentinian nationalists. The heaviest fire has come from radicals in the ruling Peronist party. Left-wing legislator Araceli Mendez introduced draft legislation in Congress a few months ago to confiscate the American's vast holdings. At the centre of the storm is a 310,000-acre estate Tompkins owns in the Ibera wetlands, a labyrinth of marshes, lakes and floating islands of nearly 2 million acres. 'He says he's worried about the birds and the wildlife,' said Mendez. 'But his land is above the Guarani aquifer, one of the most important fresh water reserves in the world, only 700km from an airbase the United States plans to build in neighbouring Paraguay.'
The aquifer is soon to become an issue of strategic defence policy. Argentina's military planners are convinced the country's oil and fresh water deposits could become targets for world powers in an ecologically dark future, and are putting together 'Plan 2025', dividing the country into regions based on their resource potential.
The Argentinian press has suggested Tompkins might be a covert CIA operative securing US access to the aquifer. And even Argentinians who don't share such conspiracy theories are uncomfortable with Tompkins transforming his properties into environmentally pristine but unpopulated and economically unproductive areas....
Tompkins and his wife say they are not old-fashioned imperialists in a new guise. 'All the fears created by the fact that I am American buying land are ridiculous,' said Tompkins. 'My intention has always been to eventually turn over the land to the Argentinian government for a national park.' He has already done so, donating an estate in Patagonia to the National Parks administration in 2004. In the late Nineties he had bought the 155,000-acre Monte Leon sheep farm, including a 25-mile stretch of South Atlantic coast, home to one of the largest Magellan penguin rookeries in the world and also abundant in sea lions, pumas and birds.
But pressure to pass an anti-Tompkins bill in Congress could be strong. The presence of other high-profile foreigners fuels passions. The Italian clothing giant Benetton holds 2.2 million acres in sheep farms in Patagonia and has clashed with the indigenous Mapuche people over land ownership claims. And US media magnate Ted Turner likes to go trout fishing on his Patagonian estates.
For Tompkins, it has been a long road from fashion king to 'deep ecologist'. As the founder of North Face and Esprit, he sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of clothes worldwide every year. All that changed when he became involved in radical environmental projects, what he calls his 'restoration work', returning native animal and plant species to the nation-sized swaths of land he owns....