Chilean Patagonia thanks its pristine wilderness to successful conservation efforts. Among them Tompkins Conservation, a remarkable, private initiative. 

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While we are moored in Puerto Williams, we keep a close eye on the weather forecast. “Other sailors have warned about this,” Ivar sighs. “All we can do is wait while the strong westerlies rush through the Beagle Channel.” It’s a typical Patagonian summer, characterized by strong winds from the west and lots of rain. The Andes mountain range intercepts all the depressions from the South Pacific and directs them in our direction.

It’s more than 1,300 nautical miles through Patagonia’s uninhabited wilderness until our destination Puerto Montt. As our options to re-provision along the way are limited, we will have to survive on what we have on board. Not only are all corners of our boat stuffed with food, the entire front cabin is full of firewood for the wood stove. After all, we can expect cold and rain. These circumstances make the coming leg the most challenging one to date. At the same time, spectacular nature and abundant wildlife await, so we look forward to setting sail.

Yendegaia Rewilded

For two weeks our patience is put to the test, before we can finally exchange Puerto Williams for the anchor bay at Yendegaia. Years ago, Americans Douglas and Kristine Tompkins bought the land that stretches before us with the aim of protecting it. Thanks to their investment, the land has remained largely untouched and nature could be brought back to its original state. Their foundation “Tompkins Conservation” later donated the land to the Chilean government so it could become a national park. We understand why they wanted to protect this area: the vast and unspoilt wilderness is overwhelmingly beautiful.

Nature at Its Best

The following days and weeks we sail further north along the Chilean coast. We often face headwinds, which force us to tack all day. As a result, our progress is slow. But in exchange, we get to see the area extensively. White-blue glaciers drip from mighty mountains and countless animal sightings ensure that the mood on board is ecstatic. Humpback whales, sei-whales, playful dolphins, shy penguins and curious seals regularly swim close to the boat. At every anchor bay a pair of flightless steamer ducks welcomes us, just before frantically paddling away with their short wings. We spot otters, condors, albatrosses, giant kingfishers, and many other birds. Never before have we seen so much well-preserved nature. “It still look like it did 300 years ago, when Fitzroy and Darwin sailed here on the Beagle” says Floris. “Yes, because many areas are national parks, they have remained untouched” Ivar replies.

Pumalín: Where It All Began

After three months in the wilderness, civilization is only a few days sailing away. But before leaving rugged Patagonia, we anchor in a well-sheltered bay near Pumalín National Park. We can’t stop gazing around. The snow-capped Michinmahuida volcano towers over green forests. Crystal clear water flows from streams into the bay and in the distance we see a traditional wooden house. It feels like we are inside a painting. Douglas Tompkins must have thought so too, because this is where he bought his first piece of land, in 1991. Back then the founder of fashion brand Esprit decided to sell his shares and invest his money in nature. He and his wife Kristine, former CEO of outdoor brand Patagonia, put their efforts into nature conservation. They founded the Tompkins Conservation and bought large swaths of land in Chile and Argentina with the aim of protecting and restoring nature. When Douglas died after a tragic kayak accident in 2015, Kristine continued the work.

Just before our arrival the foundation donated Pumalín park to Chile. “Why did they do that?” Ivar wonders. “Let’s ask them!” Floris suggests. And so a few days later, we sail on to Puerto Montt, leave our boat in the marina and travel to the office of the Tompkins Conservation in Puerto Varas.

Conservation and Activism

In their stately building we meet director Carolina Morgado. Passionately, she explains the organization’s purpose. “Worldwide we see that crises resulting from human activity are getting bigger, both ecologically and socially. Consider the warming of the biosphere, the economic unrest and the destruction of indigenous cultures. But as far as we are concerned, the mother of all crises is global extinction. Species are disappearing at lightning speed due to overfishing, industrial agriculture, and because habitats are destroyed and broken into pieces. Little attention is paid to that, even though life on earth depends on biodiversity.”

We nod in agreement and ask what they are trying to do about it. Carolina continues: “Tackling the root causes of the problems requires cultural, social, economic, and political changes. We believe we can contribute by focusing on the value of wilderness. Our aim is to create protected parks, restore and rewild nature, and stimulate ecological agriculture and activism.”

“Ah, so it’s more than buying land,” Ivar notes. “Yes, buying is the easiest step”, Carolina laughs. “We then remove fences and reintroduce animals that used to live there. And when land is under threat because of damaging development, such as logging or river damming, we educate and support local activists and communities to defend their land.”

Success Story

As the status as a national park offers the best protection in the long term, the Tompkins Conservation enters into cooperation with the governments of Argentina and Chile. “We convince them to involve pieces of land that are adjacent to our land, so that considerably larger national parks can be created” Carolina explains. It’s a fruitful form of public-private partnership: It has led to a vast network of national parks in Argentina and southern Chile. Together with other partners and governments, Tompkins Conservation have helped to protect some 5.7 million hectares of natural areas. They have successfully reintroduced vulnerable species to some of these areas. These include the elusive huemul deer and iconic puma. “Apex predators, such as the puma, are key to maintaining balanced ecosystems” Carolina explains. “They keep the number of their prey in check, remove slow, weak and dying animals, and keep them moving around, which is good for plant life.

Investing in Nature

We have seen the impressive results of the Tompkins Conservation’s work with our own eyes. Southern Chile could stay untouched and wild in large part thanks to their dedication. A lot of effort, expertise, and funds have gone into protecting so much nature. Yet investing in nature can also be applied on a smaller scale, for example through supporting organizations that were established for this purpose. Douglas Tompkins once said “If anything can save the world, I’ll put my money on beauty.” After our sailing trip through the beautiful, pristine wilderness of Chilean Patagonia, we believe he might be right.

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