Published: 14 June 2007
Turf wars: Rich versus poor in Patagonia.
Peter Popham reports

When two liberal billionaires arrived with plans to protect vast tracts of land, they ended up provoking furious protests from South America's indigenous people.

The conquistador, it seems, is always the hated conquistador, no matter how nice his manners. The gringo is always the feared and hated gringo, even when he insists that all he wants to do is save the world.

A strange destiny conjoins Luciano Benetton and Doug Tompkins. Both made their money selling cheap, stylish clothes to the masses - Mr Benetton through his knitwear chain, Mr Tompkins first with the outdoor clothing brand The North Face, then with Esprit. Then both men found destiny, or redemption, or simply vast, cheap, empty space with great unexploited potential for rearing sheep, in the Patagonian wilderness in South America.

They were not alone. Other wealthy foreigners to buy enormous estates in the region included Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner and George Soros.

But now both Mr Benetton and Mr Tompkins find themselves embattled in Patagonia, their good intentions thrown in their faces, the misdeeds of every foreigner laid at their door, with dark talk of expropriation in the air.

Luciano Benetton, 72, the grinning, frizzy-haired, bespectacled marketing brain among the four Benetton siblings from Treviso, near Venice, became the biggest landowner in Argentina in 1997 when he bought 2.2 million acres of land in Patagonia. Like the other wealthy newcomers, he was a beneficiary of the market-friendly regime of President Carlos Menem in the 1990s.

For the Benettons it was a smart investment, pure and simple: staggering quantities of wool go into their products, and now hundreds of thousands of Patagonian sheep provide a great deal of it. But Mr Benetton, who has always been canny about his company's public image, took care not to trample on local sensibilities, and particularly those of the Mapuches, the Indians who have lived in the region for 13,000 years. In 2002 his Patagonian holding company, Compañia Tierras del Sud, opened the Leleque Museum to honour Patagonia by "narrating the culture and history of a mythical land." If the museum was meant as a kind of amulet against trouble, it didn't work.

The same year, a Mapuche couple, Atilio and Rosa Curinanco, moved into an abandoned farm in the middle of the Benettons' grazing land.
Traditionally the land had been farmed by the Mapuches - though not by the Curinancos. The couple received encouragement from a state-run property agency. But within two months the Compañia, as Tierras del Sud is known locally, had had them evicted. There then ensued a lengthy court battle between the Compañia and the Curinancos, which the Curinancos eventually lost. Benetton had legal title.

The Curinancos had never lived on the land before they arrived. The matter was cut and dried. End of story.

But it wasn't the end. Enter a legendary figure in the struggle of the poor of Latin America for justice: Adolfo Perez Esquivel, the architect and sculptor who became a champion of human rights and non-violent reform. In 1980 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the organization he founded, Paz y Justicia.

On 14 June 2004, Mr Esquivel wrote a public letter to Mr Benetton explaining why this was not and could not be the end of the story. "I begin to write this letter ...feeling both astonishment and sorrow ... that you, a businessman with a high international profile, has used money and the complicity of a judge, to take land from a humble family of Mapuche brothers," he wrote.

"I would like to remind you and let you know that Mapuche means 'man of the earth' and that there is a deep union between our Pachamama "Mother Earth" and her children and tribes ... They will continue to fight for their land rights because they are the legitimate owners, from generation to generation, even if they don't have the documents that an unjust systems asks for and that assigns the land to those who have money; they throw them out of their places stealing their land, the stars and the wind that bring with them the voices of their ancestors.
It is hard to understand what I am saying if you do not know how to listen to silence, if you cannot perceive the voices of silence, the harmony of the universe with life's simplest things. Something that money will never be able to buy.

"When the conquerors, "los huincas" [the white people], arrived, they massacred thousands of tribespeople with steel and fire, committing genocide and ethnocide to take their riches, stealing land and life.
Unfortunately this merciless plundering continues today.
"I would like to ask you a question Mr Benetton: 'Who bought the land from God?'"

From this eminent defender of the rights of the poor, it was a stunning document. The legal rights and wrongs did not matter a fig, Mr Esquivel declared. Listen to the wind and the stars, listen to the silence! Mapuche like Atilio and Rosa are the rightful heirs of all this land, stolen by the likes of you.

Mr Benetton took a month to digest the contents then replied in a tone of good-hearted reasonableness. "I thank you for your letter that was honest and to the point," he wrote. "Asking me, 'Who bought the land from God?', you reawaken a debate on property rights that, whichever way you look at it, represents the foundation itself of civilised society...
In today's world, physical and intellectual property have been globalized by those who can build with their skill and work, also favouring the growth and progress of others."

Yet despite this robust restatement of the ground rules of modern business, Mr Benetton was conscious that his Compañia was a stranger in a strange land, and as such heir to all the dark injustices committed by "los huincas" past. And so he left open a chink. Let us meet, he said.
The two men met on Mr Benetton's home turf in Treviso, and again at a "summit" of Nobel prize winners in Rome, Mr Esquivel bringing Atilio and Rosa in tow.

The Argentinian government and non-governmental organizations became involved. The letters continued to flow back and forth - Mr Benetton's cordial, dry, reasoned; Mr Esquivel's biblical, resonant, rhetorical.
Yet there was give and take, too: Mr Benetton was prepared to give, Mr Esquivel to take. "Luciano," he wrote, "what you will be able to bring and share with our indigenous brothers and sisters will allow us to transform this other possible world into reality."

To get himself out of the bind - while declining to acknowledge any wrongdoing - Mr Benetton agreed to hand over 7,000 hectares of land to the Mapuches, though not the 385 hectares at issue, and help them to develop it. But this week, Mr Esquivel slammed the door shut. "The government has rejected the offer because the land is useless, neither adapted to cultivation nor to raising livestock," he wrote. "Only 350 hectares out of 7,000 is useable." Furthermore it was far away from that which belonged ancestrally to the Curinancos - who had resoved to return to re-squat the territory.

Mr Benetton flatly denied the land was unuseable: for 10km it ran alongside an important river, he pointed out. Of course it needed work, but Mr Benetton was willing to help to make the land productive.
Instead, nothing, back to square one. "We made ourselves available for a dialogue, we tried to be a catalyst for ideas and projects," he wrote.
"But we were left isolated ... The only concrete gesture, our donation of land, ended up being attacked by those who do nothing."

Mr Tompkins's Patagonian story ought on the face of it to be very different. The New York-born businessman sold out all his rights in Esprit for a reported $150m (£76m); now he dismisses it as a firm that produced "consumer items nobody needed."

A convert to the radical environmental stream known as Deep Ecology, expounded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, Mr Tompkins never had any intention, unlike Mr Benetton, of making money here; he just wanted to save it from itself, and from the forces of unbridled capitalism which the government had welcomed in at the same time as it welcomed him.

He also professed himself strongly in favour of the aboriginal and indigenous populations and their ways of living and thinking - listening to the wind, the stars, to silence. The Mission Statement of the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which he founded, says one of the causes of current problems is "the loss of traditional knowledge, values and ethics of behaviour that celebrate the intrinsic value and sacredness of the natural world". On the Foundation's website, a colleague, Alan Drengson, writes that the principles of Deep Ecology should make us "attend to the ecosophies of aboriginal and indigenous people so as to learn from them values and practices that can help us to dwell wisely..."

Fine words. But from the outset, Mr Tompkins, with his certainties and his curt gringo manner, has antagonised one powerful Patagonian group after another: the salmon farmers who destroy fjords with the waste from their farms and shoot sealions; bishops and priests, convinced that Mr Tompkins - who sees,uncontrolled population growth as one of the greatest threats to the planet - is a reckless advocate of abortion and birth control, and followers of General Pinochet, who point out that Mr Tompkins' vast holdings divide Chile in two. Some say he's a CIA agent, others that he's digging for gold. One enemy says he is monopolising Patagonia's biggest aquifer, which could become a future object of American aggression.

Senator Antonio Horvath, who represents Patagonia in Chile's parliament, claims Mr Tompkins is stifling the region's prosperity by blocking the building of a highway across his land. Last September, Argentina's under-secretary for land and social habitat, Luis D'Elia, marched onto Mr Tompkins's land, cut down a fence and demanded his property be expropriated. "What is more important?" he raged. "The private property of a few, or the sovereignty of the many?"

Poor recompense, one might think, for giving up a business empire to become the conscience of a country not your own. Mr Tompkins and his second wife Kristine, former CEO of another clothing empire, called Patagonia, have already helped to create three national parks in Chile.
Mr Tompkins has also welded together a diverse coalition to fight the construction of four dams, two on each of Chilean Patagonia's biggest rivers, which threaten to destroy the wilderness's ecosystem. And to the threats of expropriation he turns a deaf ear. As Mr Tompkins sees it, he comes from the civilisation that has already committed every possible mistake; his mission is to stop them being repeated.

"Parks generate tremendous local opposition at first," he told The Los Angeles Times this week. "It's a given. Then, after a while, once the thing gets established, the locals are the most fierce defenders. Sometimes it takes 20 years. But go up to Yellowstone now, for example, and ask them if they want to disestablish that park. There would be revolution."

Mr Tompkins told another journalist last year: "There's only one world spinning around in space. You have to do anything you can to stop the forces working to destroy it."