September 25, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Nationalists thwart conservation

I have long argued that one of the most promising avenues for promoting cooperation between North America and South America lies in the area of wildlife conservation. For example, "debt for nature swaps" in which environmental organizations buy the debt obligations of Third World countries in exchange for securing a permanent set-aside of land in critical wildlife habitats. It is a perfect "win-win" solution to two of the most vexing dilemmas in the arena of global politics. Another approach is grass-roots action by private individuals with the desire and the means to make a difference. Like many American philanthropists, Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face outdoor clothing company, wanted to repay his good fortune for the good of mankind, and indeed for the good of Nature itself. He and his wife, Kristine McDivitt, former head of the Patagonia company, set about buying tracts of land in Argentina and Chile, totaling 4.7 million acres altogether. They used it to create nature preserves, and ultimately turned over control of some of them to local governments, to become nature reserves in perpetuity.

Now, however, the forces of nativism and xenophobia are rearing their ugly head in Argentina, as political allies of President Kirchner are threatening to undo the good works of Tompkins and others like him. Sunday's Washington Post recounts the objections raised by Araceli Mendez, a member of the Argentine congress from Patagonia who has sponsored legislation to expropriate Tompkins' land, on the grounds of national security. Perhaps even worse, a high official in Kirchner's government, Luis D'Elia, showed up at Tompkins' estate and helped to tear down the fence. Appearing with the ambassadors of Venezuela and Bolivia soon afterwards, he justified the action by resorting to crude demagoguery:

What is more important, the private property of the few, or the sovereignty of everyone?"

How utterly insipid. In effect, D'Elia is pandering to absurd rumors (stemming from the presence of a new U.S. military base in Paraguay) that Tompkins is not really a high-minded friend of Nature, but is a covert agent working for the Pentagon! What could possibly explain such deranged paranoid fantasies? It may be that efforts by Tompkins to get his land-owning neighbors to adopt more environmentally friendly land-management practices, which are widely accepted in the United States and Europe, were taken as a grave offense in Argentina. President Kirchner has stayed out of this controversy, thus far.

It is important to remember the economic circumstances that paved the way for Americans to buy up so much real estate in Argentina: The massive devaluation five years ago that came about because of the fixed-exchange rate system put in place by former President Saul Menem, which was sustained -- ironically -- by financially unwise loans from the International Monetary Fund. This policy artificially shielded Argentina from market forces and thereby sustained a high rate of consumer spending until fundamental macroeconomic conditions were so far from equilibrium that a crash became inevitable.

This situation will put heavy pressure on nature activists in Argentina, many of whom normally are counted among the left-of-center "progressive" political forces. One leading group is the Argentina Wildlife Foundation, which has been supportive of Tompkins' work. Will they stand by while environmentally precious land is arbitrarily taken away -- most likely to be doled out to political favorites? Well-meaning environmental activists in the United States and other wealthy countries do need to remember to be sensitive of nationalistic sensibilities in Latin America and elsewhere in the Third World. Patient, earnest collaborative grass-roots work is the only way to overcome suspicions and achieve real progress -- or prevent further damage, at least -- on the international environmental front.

For background information on the status of various projects aimed at saving critical habitats in the New World tropics and subtropical regions, see the Latin America Wildlife conservation page (under construction).