work journal

Kris Tompkins on rewilding Chile and Argentina

January 15, 2023

When I landed an interview with Kris Tompkins, I spent over 40 hours researching her. It's not every day you get to talk with the UN Environment Patron of Protected Areas. Or at least, not for me.

As the first CEO of Patagonia, Kris helped lead the company from a small climbing gear manufacturer to an outdoor apparel titan and a pioneer for corporate responsibility. In 1993, age 43, she retired from Patagonia, married Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and co-founder of Esprit, and moved to a remote farm he’d bought in Chile’s Lakes District.

Kris is a world leader in large landscape and species restoration. Her organization, Tompkins Conservation, has purchased roughly 2 million acres of private land for conservation in Chile and Argentina; has taken on ambitious ecological restoration projects including reintroduction of native species, and has donated most of its land as national parks and other protected areas, with the remaining acreage pledged for donation.

Since Doug's death in 2015, Kris and her team have also helped protect another 10 million acres of new national parklands in Chile and helped establish three new national parks in Argentina.

“We’re trying to encourage other individuals, whether they have great assets or not, to sit up and realize they have a great responsibility toward this,” Kris told me for the story. “Forty years ago, we didn’t know what we know today. There’s a moral imperative to act.”

My interview with Kris was the first time I even considered the importance of agriculture in fighting climate change. At the time, I had not yet studied regenerative agriculture, and was even still tilling my own home garden. An excerpt from our conversation:

Kris and Malinda Chouinard of Patagonia were together in Argentina, getting ready for the launch of Parque Patagonia. I remember the tea kettle whistling in the background in the middle of our conversation, and the two of them finishing each other's sentences.

I asked Kris about the relationship between food, agriculture and conservation, specifically posing this to her:

This concept that agriculture can further, not diminish, conservation aims, seems hard to conceptualize on a large scale. I see on your website that the agricultural lands Tompkins Conservation manages serve as biophysical buffers to protected areas, and expand wildlife habitat in the nonproductive areas of the farms. And you cite Wes Jackson of The Land Institute as saying, “If we cannot turn around agriculture, then there is no hope to turn around the environmental crisis.” I see the natural connection between your other work and this, but does it ever feel like a stretch? Do you ever feel spread too thin?"

Kris told me:

We are very serious about ag. Doug always said, "If you don’t get agriculture, you can kiss the rest goodbye. Agriculture uses the vast majority of territory that’s opened up. Largely, it involves toxic chemical fertilizers and causes erosion. I don’t care how much conservation land you put in play, you cannot have a healthy global ecosystem unless you go back and start with agriculture that is the basis for human life.

If you think about conservation not as a wildlife notion but as true conservation of the planet in big swaths with ag, there's no getting around it. I believe that with my whole heart. In many ways, it is easier to create national parks and everything else we do than it is to make headway into healthy ag.

Everything Doug did with his life, everything, culminated in what is known as Laguna Blanca Farm over in Argentina. It was the final manifestation of his life and what he thought was important. It is clearly, indisputably the toughest kind of conservation to pull off. You can't separate our work away from Laguna Blanca. It is farming with the wild, which a book that Daniel Imhoff wrote years ago. It's also like something Wendell Berry would say, "You have to be able to farm with your neighbors, but your neighbors are not just your human neighbors. They are your non-human neighbors. Your grass next door. The bobtail cats. Any action that has detrimental effects on any living being has to be calculated.

It’s just like pumas killing guanaco. Of course somebody loses in this great game, but we have so overstepped our bounds, and largely for the last 10,000 years when agriculture was developed and because it was a strategy for humans to settle—we all know the story— then came the possibility for humans to populate more rapidly. That’s a huge part of how we’re all thinking. If you don’t get ag right, it’s very difficult to make the other changes you hope to see in your lifetime or the next.

No one is immune to all of this. I’m not eating organically every day. It’s more basic than that. The point is to understand what are you eating? As Alice Waters said, your politics start at the kitchen table and so much of that is knowing what you're eating. We didn’t know what we were eating when I was growing up. It was vegetables you hated. Nobody ever thought about where they came from. In the aggregate it’s not the just the small farmer. It’s the Farm Bill in the US. It's one of the reasons the EU came into being in Europe, is to try to knock out competitors that would go up against French and German agriculture. These are huge systems that go far beyond our genuinely earnest reasons to go shopping at the farmers market.

Ag is the giant structural monster to try to change.

We can't change anything about the era we were born into. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, not to use things that you know are bleeding the Earth. But if you can, you have to turn your back on that and if you're writing health policies or farm bills, you have to fight for farm bills that lead you toward a healthy ag system.

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