The A-list celebs move in

Observations on Patagonia

The rich and famous of Europe and America have discovered a new location for buying up land and property. Media barons, fashion designers and A-list Hollywood stars are being drawn to the still beauty and isolation of Patagonia at the southern tip of Latin America, with its mountainous horizon of blue and grey water-colours interspersed with the flame-tipped clusters of the Arrayanes Forest, which inspired the animators of Walt Disney's Bambi.

The US millionaire Douglas Tompkins has bought a natural reserve so large that its 300,000 hectares form more than 20 per cent of one Chilean province, Palena. The land contains ancient dense forests, snowcapped volcanoes, and fjords. Like many of the foreign purchasers, Tompkins says he wants to protect the land - recognised as one of the last untouched areas of natural beauty in Chile - from unscrupulous developers. And, though only after years of pressure, Tompkins has just signed a deal to create a national park on the land, assigning roles for local elected representatives and providing space for the displaced native populations which were the area's previous inhabitants.

Nevertheless, accusations persist that Argentina and Chile are selling off their natural assets to the highest bidders. Since Argentina's economic crash, land there has become particularly enticing. Many prospective buyers start their exploration of Patagonia with a stay at one of Charles Lewis's estancias. His land runs alongside the spectacular Lago Escondido and is surrounded on all sides by the snowy peaks of the Andes. It features two internal lakes and a hydroelectric dam and is within driving distance of the chic, Alpine-styled town of Bariloche.

Lewis, who owns the licence for the Hard Rock Cafe, bought his second estancia two years ago at a knock-down price as the Argentinian economy ground to a halt. His visitors have included representatives of the American entertainment aristocracy, such as Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, who plan to acquire their own private kingdoms for what by Hollywood standards are modest sums.

The media mogul Ted Turner also owns two farms in Argentina, one covering 5,000 hectares and the other, acquired just two years ago, with 37,000 hectares, including 25km of river. He has decided to preserve the latter - known as the Collon Cura (or "mask of stone") - as an "organic reserve".

The agricultural consultant Pepe Santamarina describes this as "kind of a crazy idea" and explains: "He closed the farm and is producing nothing so it can be left as a natural resort. He's not giving work to anybody there and in this type of farm down south you have to work the land. If the grass is too plentiful, you end up with an overpopulation of wild animals. It's important to keep things balanced."

But Turner may not be crazy at all. "If I was investing today in the way I was back in the 1960s," he recently told a Turner Foundation conference, "I would invest in water - it is the new television." The Patagonian lake district is one of the world's last untouched natural water supplies and now it is up for grabs at post-devaluation prices. You can see the logic from his point of view.

South from Bariloche, by the lakes of Esquel and the glacial oil-rich valleys of Santa Cruz, the Italian fashion magnate Luciano Benetton owns 900,000 hectares of farmland; the Benetton company is said to be the largest landowner in Argentina. He grazes 280,000 sheep that produce 6,000 tonnes of wool per year - 10 per cent of the production needs of his firm, the world's biggest consumer of virgin wool.

To the native local Mapuche population, inhabitants of this land for 13,000 years, Benetton simply represents the latest conquistador. Much of the land he now owns was previously denoted as unoccupied indigenous territory, but today, as Rogelio FermIn, a local Mapuche farmer points out, "they've fenced off all that they wanted". Benetton took the prettiest valleys and the most beautiful pampas, FermIn says. "They left us among the stones, among the worst fields."

Some members of this community have even had their belongings seized by local police following eviction notices served by Benetton. To get access to water from the area's only stream, one 85-year-old woman now has to scale the fence of the property - or face a 91km walk.