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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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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.