Profile: Douglas Tompkins

Newstatesman.com profiles Douglas Tompkins, millionaire property magnate turned ecologist

Ever heard of Douglas Tompkins? The name may not ring any bells over here in Britain but cut across to the Americas and it’s a quite different story.

A former fashion magnate who co-founded North Face and Esprit, Tompkins was prompted to sell-up after an “epiphany” in the 1980s. He has since devoted his $150m fortune to buying up vast tracts of land in Chile, then Argentina, creating what is now one of the world’s largest privately owned conservation sites.

Born in 1943, he was raised in Millbrook, N.Y., a summer resort for Manhattan's upper middle class. Tompkins dropped out of high school and found his way to California to try to make the US ski team in time for the 1964 Olympics. He then met first wife and first business partner, Susie Russell.

He failed to make it onto the ski team but soon found another niche. He decided to pursue his talent for business and design and in 1966 in San Francisco founded clothes company North Face. Two years later he sold the business for $50,000.

Along with his wife, Tompkins then set up a dress making company that would become Esprit. In the late 80s, when Esprit was flying high in American fashion Tompkins read George Sessions's and Bill Devall's primer, Deep Ecology: Living As if Nature Mattered, and decided to make a change.

As he states on his Deep Ecology website: "Within the few hours that it took to read the book, I experienced a powerful epiphany. Everything suddenly made sense. The book offered a new vision of how things got the way they were. It combined the activism of David Brower, my environmental hero (founder of Friends of the Earth), with the insight of Robinson Jeffers, my poet hero."

His passion for commercial industry was waning. "Fashion is one of the most intellectually vacuous industries," he has said since. "We had to manufacture desires to get people to buy our products. We were selling people countless things that they didn't need."

In 1988 he and several friends bought 1,000 acres of forest in Chile's Lake District. And in 1989 founded the Ira-Hiti Foundation, the name often given to the Deep Ecology Foundation. Then in 1990 he sold his share of Esprit for a reported $150million.

Tompkins had bought a ranch 600 miles south of the Chilean capital Santiago, originally intending it to be used as a retreat. Then he slowly, and quietly, began purchasing more land – he and second wife Kristine McDivitt, have spent about $150 million buying two dozen properties covering 2.2 million acres of Chile and Argentina.

He has not been without his opponents. Once it became known that an American was buying up huge tracts of land the Chileans started to take notice and speculate about this foreigner’s motives.

The claims have been predictably wild - some have suggested that he wants to create a nuclear dumping ground, others speculated that he wanted to seize control of water supplies in a world with a growing thirst - there have even been accusations that Tompkins, “a buttoned-down, grey-haired WASP”, had acquired the land as the site for a new Jewish state.

Antonio Horvath, a conservative senator for southern Chile said: "If I were to go to the United States and buy a big area of Florida as an environmental preserve and tell people they can't go here or there, I think the U.S. would kick me right out of there".

In 1996 when Tompkins made efforts to join the north and south sections of Pumalín Park by buying a further 74,000 acres, his efforts were blocked Chile’s then Christian Democratic government.

The Roman Catholic University of Valparaiso, that owned the land, eventually sold it to a Spanish-controlled power company.

Tompkin’s latest battle has been concerning energy production. In 2004 two utility firms, Spanish-owned Endesa and Canadian-owned Hydro-Quebec announced a $4bn plan to build four dams.
Chile was experiencing perpetual power crises and needed the 2,400 megawatts expected to be generated. The impoverished region also needed the proposed 38,000 jobs.

Along with his wife, Tompkins began a campaign against the project – it was close to their newly acquired land in Valle Chacabuco.

Hesitantly and almost apologetically, many local business leaders and politicians agreed with them, calling the dams “gargantuan, destructive and a threat to the local lifestyle”.

In 2006, Rafael Mateo, the CEO of Endesa's Chilean operations, told the Santiago business magazine Capital that the dams would avert a national "energy crisis." He blamed opposition on "radical groups with unadapted ideologies." He declined to discuss the Tompkins's role, briefly describing him as "a private gentleman with land that would be crossed by a transmission line".

A new socialist president, Michelle Bachelet, who took office in March 2006, seems to have backed away from the previous government’s support of the dams saying her administration would review carefully the potential environmental impact of the proposals.

Meanwhile the Tompkins have become big employers in the region but there remains a clash of cultures over the rich Americans who are buying up vast tracts of Chilean territory.

Miguel Stutzin of the National Committee for the Defence of Fauna and Flora (Chile’s oldest and most organized environmental group): "This kind of philanthropy doesn't exist in Latin America -- giving without getting something in return. And that has created enormous suspicions”.

Tompkins is aware of this: "We want to do something good, but you've got to be very naïve and out to lunch to think that certain sectors of society are not going to put up resistance"

It has always been the intention of Tompkins to preserve the land he has bought and then return it to government of Chile and in 1995 the park was granted sanctuary status by the Chilean government.

For outside environmentalists, his work has worldwide significance because it combines large-scale wilderness protection, land restoration and organic farming. As to whether the Chilean government will eventually take over Pumalin and make it a national park, as Tompkins hopes, only time will tell.

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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