Chilean President Michelle Bachelet signed decrees Monday creating vast new national parks using lands donated by a US conservation organisation in what is believed to be the largest private donation of land ever from a private entity to a country.
The agreement was signed by Bachelet and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, the widow of Doug Tompkins, a founder of the North Face outdoor wear company who accumulated the land before his death.
It will create the new Pumalin and Patagonia national parks while expanding others to help create a "Route of Parks." The string of 17 parks will span more than 2,400 kilometres across the South American nation, stretching from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn.
In all, the plan ultimately seeks to increase Chile's national parkland by more than 40,400 square kilometres. Bachelet said that would expand national parklands in Chile by 38.5 percent.
"This is not only an unprecedented preservation effort," Bachelet said at a ceremony surrounded by pristine lands. "It's also an invitation to imagine other ways of rationally occupying our lands, of creating other economic activities, of using natural resources without preying on them. In other words, it's about generating sustainable development."
Tompkins Conservation, which is led by McDivitt Tompkins, said the area that will be protected is three times the size of the United States' Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined, or about the size of Switzerland.
In all, 4.5 million hectares are being added to Chile's protected zones, with the ancillary aim of them also boosting tourism to the unspoiled reaches of South America. Some 10 million tourists have already visited Patagonia's wilderness over the past four years, according to official statistics.
"Today is a historic day for Chile and for the world. Today, Patagonia is protected with a new network of Parks," said Rodrigo Catalan, head of conservation at the World Wildlife Fund in Chile.
The lands will safeguard millenary forests, unique fauna and flora species, and one of the purest reservoirs of water in the world, he said. But they also present daunting challenges for conservation, including how they will be financed and how they will benefit local communities.
"It's a day to celebrate, but tomorrow, we have to think how we're going to make this conservation real," he said. "How are we going to manage and finance this great legacy. It's a tremendous conservation legacy that we have to take care of for the world."
Since her husband's death in a 2015 kayaking accident, McDivitt Tompkins worked to permanently protect from development the millions of acres the couple acquired over a quarter century.
Her husband was an US conservationist and co-founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing companies, and he used much of his fortune to buy huge tracts of land in Patagonia, a lightly populated region of untamed rivers and other natural beauty straddling southern Chile and Argentina.
At first, his purchases of land to preserve swaths of wilderness caused suspicion and strong opposition by local politicians, loggers, power companies and nationalists who stirred rumours that he was trying to steal water and other resources. But he promised he would eventually return the land to both governments to be preserved as nature reserves or parks.
"This is a reflection of the power of dreams and ideas, built path by path," said McDivitt Tompkins. "We're proof that nothing is impossible. No dream should go unfulfilled."
"Chile needs to take this decisive step to protect and preserve our biodiversity, our unique landscapes, the habitat associated with endangered national species," including trees, indigenous deer and the Andean fox, Bachelet told reporters in the southern town of Cochrane.
The decree was one of the last big flourishes of Bachelet before she leaves office in March, handing over power to Sebastian Pinera, a conservative billionaire who won a December runoff election. Under Chile's Constitution, a president cannot try for immediate re-election.
- AP / AFP