The Green Land Grab

It was heretical for an environmentalist to say so, but Dick Rice was sure the big timber companies were not lying. They couldn't afford to help save the forests. His epiphany came during a 1990 trip to Bolivia, where Rice was studying sustainable forest management, a scheme for logging forests without destroying them. Environmentalists had spent a decade and hundreds of millions of dollars developing SFM, but Rice said it didn't add up. Even with cheap labor, cheap land and little regulation, big logging companies have paper-thin profits that would be wiped out if they followed the SFM's rules, like cutting around certain trees. Rice, today the chief economist of Conservation International, concluded that pushing timber companies to log "sustainably" couldn't work. But if timber firms were so strapped, wasn't it possible big environmental organizations could outbid them for land?

This hardheaded "Just buy it" approach has old roots in North America, going back at least to conservationist pioneers of the early 20th century like John D. Rockefeller Jr. Overseas, however, Americans had treaded more softly, largely for fear of being seen as "green colonials." Now those reservations are fading. With species of plants and animals dying off at the rate of 10,000 per year, environmentalists say they've got to move fast to buy and protect precious habitats. Conservation International figures that 60 percent of land species can be found in 25 biodiversity "hot spots" covering only 1.4 percent of the land on earth, mostly in developing countries. Rather than trying to persuade big business to stay off these lands, conservationists are now trying to buy them for nature reserves. "Until now, the only people buying public lands in the international arena were loggers," says Rice.

CI now bids on logging rights to forests it has no intention of logging, often beating out the timber companies. Its campaign has been richly backed by its chairman emeritus, Gordon Moore, the cofounder of Intel, who donated $100 million to the acquisition offensive last year. CI, the World Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy and others have cut deals in the Philippines, Bolivia, Belize and Guyana, where last July CI leased 200,000 acres at just $1 an acre. Most of these programs try to make up for the loss of logging jobs by hiring locals to manage the land. Rice will be scouting possible leases in Papua New Guinea and Kenya next month. Fully backing the approach, CI board member and renowned naturalist E. O. Wilson says the economist's idea helped launch a "revolution" in global land conservation.

It's a revolution with real political risks. Everyone in the conservation community knows the story of Kris and Doug Tompkins-- she's a former CEO at Patagonia apparel, he's the founder of Esprit clothing. In the 1990s the couple bought 800,000 acres of land in Chile, planning to turn it all over to the government for a national park. Instead, they found themselves accused of everything from imperialism to espionage. (It didn't help that their property runs from the eastern border to the Pacific coast, cutting Chile in two and alarming the military.) Now, as that brouhaha has quieted down, the Tompkinses have joined a great land rush in crisis-riddled Argentina.

The collapse of both Argentina's currency and its sheep-wool industry has driven down land prices in scenic Patagonia to as little as $5 an acre, attracting buyers like Ted Turner, Sylvester Stallone and George Soros--who bought 1 million acres in the 1990s. Wise from experience in Chile, the Tompkinses adopted a low profile in Argentina, setting up the Patagonia Land Trust, which works through a local environmental group, the Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina. In November the group gave 155,000 acres to the government as a national park, and since then PLT says Doug Tompkins has bought an additional 250,000. In pitches to American donors, the couple's foundation stresses the urgency of saving habitats--and the buying opportunity created by the collapse of the peso. This is good green business.

For any developing nation, an economic crisis may not be the best time to retire open lands from commercial use. But much of the land for sale in Patagonia has been so overgrazed that ranchers describe it as pelado, or peeled, anyway. So far, Argentines have been too busy protesting international bankers to take much notice of the land rush, but that could change, warns Buenos Aires political analyst Felipe Noguera: "There is the potential for Argentines to feel that yet more of the family silver has been sold off to foreigners." Arguably, if Argentina has to sell off land, better to sell to green tycoons for public nature preserves than to other tycoons for private playgrounds. But it's not clear a financially battered populace would make such distinctions.