1 Introduction

Recently, representatives from 188 governments have adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), with the aim “to address biodiversity loss, restore ecosystems, and protect Indigenous rights” (UNEP 2022, para. 2). One of the framework’s main goals is to protect 30% of land and ocean environments by 2030, exceeding earlier agreements to protect 17% of terrestrial and 10% sea (Roberts et al. 2020; Sala et al. 2021). In many instances, few details remain about how to achieve these bold and sweeping targets. One of the core concepts associated with the 30 × 30 movement acknowledges that social-ecological challenges like wildfire, drought, and wildlife population declines do not respect fences and geopolitical borders. Thus, while 30 × 30 goals are likely to center on the creation and extension of protected areas (PAs), effectively protecting biodiversity will need to go further, crossing geopolitical boundaries and integrating private lands in order to create contiguous zones that can account for migratory routes and shifts in climate.

Private protected areas (PPAs) that achieve both ecological and human benefits will continue to be important policy instruments to strengthen PA networks needed to achieve global integration and adoption of 30 × 30 initiative goals. They often fly under the radar, however, outshined by their public counterparts. Nonetheless, efforts largely led by wealthy individuals, corporations, and non-governmental organizations are increasingly protecting millions of square kilometers of land and water across the globe and are recognized at the highest levels of biodiversity governance (UNEP-WCMC and IUCN 2021). PPAs have been lauded and received support from governments as a legitimate tool for protecting biodiversity and enhancing human well-being (e.g., providing jobs). As evidenced by prior research (Aastrup 2020), the alignment of the ideologies and political agendas underpinning PPAs will be critical to their broad-scale legitimation.

PAs have an associated discourses—language-driven mediums that stimulate action and exercises in power— that underpin and legitimize their origins and propagation (Serenari and Lute 2021). Evolutions in PA discourse have emphasized, for example, their diversity, shortcomings, and a need for deliberative approaches to management (Paterson 2014). As commanding as discourses can be, narratives—or stories—help give meaning to these discourses by stabilizing assumptions about PPAs, simplifying criterion by which to evaluate them, or qualifying their benefits, amongst others. Narratives originate from unique framings or worlds and are powerful tools for minimizing or enhancing the legitimacy of protectionist conservation efforts. Helping defines success and renders decision-making as common sense; narratives can become embedded in networks and structures of power and provide communicative blueprints for broader discourse (Woodhouse et al. 2021). Despite their track record of helping legitimize conservation projects, few studies have yet to systematically explore the narratives that coincide with the rising popularity of PPAs and give them global legitimacy.

To close this gap, we examined narratives developed by researchers, conservation entities, politicians, and others who have given meaning to globally renown PPA projects. Specifically, we examine narratives that helped legitimize Doug and Kristine Tompkins’ master PPA projects within Chilean Patagonia and Argentina. The couple created and donated perhaps the most renowned and contested system of PPAs in the world, with repercussions for cultures, politics, economics, and biodiversity (Di Giminiani and Fonck 2018). At a finer scale, our analysis reveals connections, tensions, and contradictions produced by the broader Tompkins Conservation’s family of projects and traces their evolution throughout the processes of land acquisition and PA development, management, integration, and donation. Broadly, this investigation reveals the entangled meanings ascribed to PPA projects, which might help us to better understand the efficacy, or the lack thereof, to help solve global biodiversity loss.

1.1 Background on Tompkins Conservation

Tompkins conservation is a non-profit environmental organization co-founded by American environmental philanthropists, Doug Tompkins (1943–2015), and his wife Kristine Tompkins. Over the past 30 years, Tompkins Conservation has carried out extensive work on nature conservation throughout southern Chile and Argentina, setting a precedent for private as well as public conservation, by creating PAs and implementing rewilding programs (Bachmann-Vargas et al. 2021; Busscher et al. 2018; Hora 2018). Pumalín Park was their first large-scale project in Chile. In the early 1990s, the Tompkins confronted strong political and local resistance while purchasing the land to create Pumalín. Their aim was to create a PPA, with high-quality infrastructure for visitors. In 2005, Pumalín was designated as a Nature Sanctuary (Hora 2018). Later on, Patagonia Park became their second flagship project. The creation of the Patagonia Park, a former ranching estate located in the Aysén region (Chile), was not exempt of controversies either (Borrie et al. 2020; Louder and Bosak 2019). Meanwhile in Argentina, the Tompkins have been involved in the creation of a number of PAs, namely the Iberá National Park (NP), donating 1500 km2 (UNEP 2018), the El Impenetrable NP, El Piñalito Provincial Park, El Rincón (Perito Moreno NP), and Monte Leon NP (Tompkins Conservation 2019).

In 2017, as part of a broader conservation strategy, Tompkins Conservation signed a cooperation agreement with the Chilean state aiming to create new NPs in Patagonia, enlarge the surface of three other parks, reclassify national reserves as NPs, and create the Route of Parks of Patagonia (Chilean Ministry of the Environment 2017). Launched in 2018, the Route of Parks is “a vision of economic development based on conservation and ecologically minded tourism” (Tompkins Conservation 2021). Inspired by a last of the wild imaginary (Promis et al. 2019), the route envisions the Patagonian territory (from Puerto Montt to Cape Horn) as a network of 17 NPs encompassing 60 local communities, wherein tourism should be developed as a key economic sector, enabling local communities to build livelihoods in line with nature conservation objectives (Bachmann-Vargas et al. 2021; Borrie et al. 2020). In 2018, Pumalín Park was designated as Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park (Chilean Ministry of Public Lands 2008). To date, Tompkins Conservation continues its work by developing wildlife programs and promoting the Route of Parks of Patagonia, among other activities. On August 24th, 2021, it was announced that Tompkins Conservation was renamed Fundación Rewilding Chile. In their website, Kristine Tompkins stated, “the name Rewilding Chile promotes the idea that we will bring back species where they have gone missing. Where the gems of the country haven’t been protected, we will help protect them in perpetuity. I will continue to work alongside the Chilean team, as I always have, under a new name that strongly identifies our future path” (Rewilding Chile 2021).

2 Theoretical Approach

Theoretically, stories help order and annunciate life experiences and human understandings (Polkinghorne 1995; Sharp et al. 2019). Narratives require researchers to analyze the composition of different worlds (Lieblich et al. 1998). The narrative paradigm is popular among sociology, psychology, anthropology, and other fields interested in making sense of human existence and affords researchers the option to use narrative as a focal point of research or means to an end (Lieblich et al. 1998). Our narrative analysis is grounded in social constructivism, a theory of knowledge that posits a cyclical process of deriving socially shared meaning. The utility of this theory is timely in light of recent theoretical and framework developments calling for the wholesale remaking of human relations to save our planet (e.g., Büscher and Fletcher 2020; Escobar 2018). A narrative constructionist approach is less interested in using narrative inquiry to understand internal or cognitive states and focused more on making sense of stories as social events or phenomena (Esin et al. 2014).

Moreover, analysis of the broader narrative context can reveal where we have been and where we are going (O’Neill et al. 2008). Narratives tell a story with a beginning and an end, wherein emotions, affects, and meanings make sense of a particular issue (Louder and Wyborn 2020). Narratives of nature conservation are often contested through counter-narratives. Narratives and counter-narratives can shape public opinion and policymaking, delineating what should be acceptable or not. Narratives of nature conservation may convey different conservation imaginaries, ranging from protecting the last wild place in the world to a combined conservation approach considering both natural and cultural dimensions (Adams 2020; Bachmann-Vargas et al. 2021). Moreover, narratives of nature conservation can make sense of public and private conservation initiatives, and their global and local effects. We accept that narratives are social phenomena because they are articulated through widely read academic and media outlets designed to shape knowledge, understanding, and experiences, and inform or influence societal developments and—therefore—values (e.g., Shlapentokh 1982).

Several studies have used narrative analysis to reveal the deeper meanings and spatial nature of human-nature relations, as we propose for our analysis of PPA creation. For instance, O’Neill et al. (2008) argued that a focus on spatial considerations, such as PAs, helps us unite human values about nature, identity, and sense of place. Drenthen (2018) explored conflict between rewilding and cultural heritage stating that divergent interpretations of the environment can serve as a horizon or framing for self-understanding. This study divulged how protectionist types fought for the removal of humans, even though socially constructed landscapes are technically meaningless without them, and that rewilders focused on temporal factors to promote new human-nature relations. More recently, Frei et al. (2020) revealed regional and local symbolic functions of three narratives about natural forest regrowth and demonstrated these divergences shaped unique and conflicting perceptions across four case studies.

3 Methods

3.1 Case Study Context

In Chile, Tompkins Conservation has donated approximately 4000 km2, which along with state owned lands were aimed at creating four new NPs, namely Pumalín Douglas Tompkins NP, Melimoyu NP, Patagonia NP, and Yendegaia NP. Moreover, the land donation comprised the expansion of three already existing NPs: Hornopirén, Corcovado, and Isla Magdalena, and the reclassification from national reserve to NP (Fig. 9.1). Former national reserves Cerro Castillo and Alacalufes became Cerro Castillo NP and Kawésqar NP, respectively (Chilean Ministry of the Environment 2017). Meanwhile in Argentina, the main focus of Tompkins Conservation has been the rewilding of the Gran Chaco, along with the expansion of PAs (Quammen 2020), with Iberá NP being one of their most important conservation projects.

Fig. 9.1
A map of the Chilean state with its owned lands is magnified on the right, with the protected areas highlighted in colors. The areas include Cerro Castillo, Corcovado, Hornopiren, Isla Magdalena, Kawesqar, Melimoyu, Patagonia, Pumalin D. Tompkins, Yendegaia, other protected areas, and cities.

Protected areas that were created and expanded based on the land donation made by Tompkins Conservation to the Chilean state, along with state owned lands

3.2 Narrative Analysis

Narrative analysis is a technique to analyze consistent stories about a phenomenon within texts such as newspapers, reports, and interviews. We situated our research within Lieblich et al.’s (1998) holistic-content analysis, where a combination of texts, including stories, commentary, and analysis, is broadly analyzed to reveal the plot or structure of the story, its foci, and trajectory (e.g., comedy or tragedy). Our approach followed a set of linear steps summarized by Sharp et al. (2019), including reading the text, extracting principal sentences and passages, defining categories, and evaluating and sorting material into the categories and subcategories (e.g., influential factors; how many times mentioned). Finally, we drew conclusions on this material to understand how narratives give meaning to the Tompkins case at a broader scale (e.g., interpretation, message). We employed an inductive rather than deductive approach to parse the meaning of PPAs from within academic, popular press, and political sources.

We cast a wide net and obtained peer-reviewed articles, popular press articles, and a few other documents such as undergraduate theses and conference proceedings. We searched Google Scholar (Doug + Tompkins + conservation + Chile), all databases—English and Spanish—within EBSCOhost and ProQuest (Tompkins + Patagonia; Doug + Tompkins + Chile) via Texas State University and Wageningen University libraries, and Google News (“Kris McDivitt”; “Kris Tompkins”), securing over 180 popular press articles. The search for Spanish popular press articles built upon previous bibliographic documents (e.g., Pinochet and Theroux 2016). We analyzed all text titles first, then scanned associated abstracts to determine if they would be further reviewed. After excluding articles for myriad reasons (Fig. 9.2), we settled on 32 academic articles—English and Spanish—between 1999 and 2020 focused on Chile, with one published in 2018 about Argentine projects. Select tangential documents helped capture the broader trend of foreign-owned land expansion in Argentina. In total, we analyzed 90 popular press articles focused on Doug and Kristine and their PPA projects, published between 1997 and 2021.

Fig. 9.2
A flow chart of narrative analysis. Deductive coding starts with problem definition and aims, followed by interests and value assumptions in the middle. In the end, solutions are interpreted, denoting the accumulation of cultural dispossession. Inductive coding begins with a holistic interpretation.

Synopsis of narrative analysis sample selection process

We did not bind ourselves to the assumption that narratives are mutually exclusive, given that narrative analysis relies on researcher discretion to build the interpretation of data and its meaning through systematic coding (Yanow 2000; Stelling et al. 2017). Soliva and Hunziker (2009), for example, submitted that the average individual stakeholder’s views about landscape change are comprised of more than one narrative. Additionally, our analysis blended the approaches of a few narrative studies to create a framework for analysis. We started with older texts first and moved chronologically to newer texts to detect patterns in the narratives.

We coded texts with NVivo software version 12 (QRS International, Doncaster Australia), and with Atlas.ti software version 9 (Scientific Software Development GmbH). The coding procedure extracted relevant text elements and clustered them according to categories (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Deductive coding involved thoroughly reading sentences and paragraphs, organizing, and synthesizing data elements in a way that produced a coherent account. We started narrative development establishing codes related to problem definition/framing, aims, interests, values, assumptions, solutions, and strategies because they underpin the construction of stories (Frei et al. 2020) (Fig. 9.3).

Fig. 9.3
A flowchart of the narrative analysis includes search strings of electronic databases and title and abstract screening. In phases 1 and 2, the reasons for exclusion are provided, followed by full-text screening and the inclusion of 90 popular press and 32 academic texts.

Example of how the research team moved from deductive to holistic using narrative analysis. Sample text is from Holmes (2015)

We shifted to an indicative approach for axial coding to refine narratives and determine the relationships between PPAs and meaning. This involved using inductive analysis of the texts and the more common codes, enabling themes to emerge. For instance, preliminary themes such as problem definition, author goals, and assumptions gave way to refined themes such as socio- political conflict, asymmetrical power relations, direct policy influence, ideological evolution/rural transition, neoliberal ideological incompatibility, and exclusionary decision-making. The greatest number of files and references within each axial code determined which themes we prioritized for the final stage of analysis. In the final stage, we achieved a holistic interpretation of narratives by systematically selecting main codes and relating them to other codes through back-and-forth movement between the data elements and the emerging story (Sharp et al. 2019; Stelling et al. 2017). We followed Polkinghorne’s (1995) story ending/outcome and criteria-focused approach, considering the story’s ending or outcome once again to distinguish causal linkages and link disconnected data. This approach is particularly useful for academic articles framing their analysis within a particular theory. To improve the trustworthiness of our results, continual movement back and forth between the data required multiple rounds of triangulation. To reduce the likelihood of researcher views and biases being introduced into the analysis or interpretation of the findings, we reviewed articles independently, agreed on a coding scheme, and reconciled any discrepancies observed until agreement reached 100%. Additionally, we improved our approach through a rigorous peer review process.

4 Results

4.1 Academic Narratives

In our analysis, we identified six academic narratives (Table 9.1). These narratives are not mutually exclusive and overlap, comprised by analyzing the texts in aggregate.

Table 9.1 Academic and popular press narratives ascribing meaning to Doug and Kristine Tompkins private protected area projects within Chilean Patagonia and Argentina

A set of narratives were dominated by researchers framing their work as a critique of neoliberal conservation or situating PPAs as a neoliberal project (n = 16, “a capital accumulation strategy that commodifies nature” (Busscher et al. 2018, p. 579)). Most of the scientific inquiries have been conducted in English, with a focus on Pumalín NP and Patagonia NP both located in Chile, and the Iberá NP in Argentina. Researchers operating in this space often articulated an accumulation by cultural dispossession narrative. From this perspective, researchers discussed the discontent of local people with the disregard for culture and local traditions by the Tompkins archetype approach in the process of PPA and nature-based recreation development:

For several years, some stakeholder groups have expressed feeling that their values have not been considered within the initiatives and processes undertaken by the Tompkins Conservation Foundation. Recent complaints have centered on the negotiation processes associated with the donation of the private parks, the subsequent establishment of new Chilean National Parks, and the creation and marketing of the Route of the Parks. Critics report that these negotiations were almost entirely contained in Santiago, the nation’s capital, where members of the foundation interacted exclusively with high-ranking members of the government. Now that lands are transferring to the Chilean government under the administration of CONAF, these groups are calling for greater transparency, more intentional local involvement, and participatory practices that consider local values and priorities. (Gale and Ednie 2019, pp. 6–7)

Bourlon (2017b) articulated the replacement of, for example, utilitarian values with protectionist ones stating, “The rural world, entrepreneurs and defenders of the spirit of the pioneers, clearers of virgin lands, criticize his opposition to development and lack of respect for their way of life” (p. 1). Conservation Land Trust’s focus on restoring degraded landscapes underpinned their efforts to re/write history in Latin America to create their ideal type of landscape (Busscher et al. 2018). Clear intent to erase identity and attachments to the land (Blair et al. 2019) to reconstruct culture in the region was chronicled by Louder and Bosak (2019):

In one moment, when asked a question about Valle Chacabuco, (the park administrator) cut off the researcher mid-sentence, correcting, saying, “It’s Patagonia Park [not Valle Chacabuco],” She said, “it’s taken years to get people to stop calling it that.” (p. 169)

Bantle (2010) stated that cultural dispossession encompassed disruption to daily activities and symbolic and material livelihoods, resulting in deficient support for Patagonia NP: “It seemed as though the more of the threat a respondent thought the park posed to the regional culture, the more negatively they perceived the park.” (p. 6)

Academics sketched a narrative that a disregard for rural Chilean lived experiences was by design. Specifically, researchers dedicated much effort to unpacking an obvious ideological schism that was exacerbated by exclusionary tactics (Jones 2012). Over two decades, researchers outlined a persistent imposition of an ideological force, through which the local nature acquired a sort of museum status (Núñez et al. 2018, p. 149), that led to myriad problems and setbacks for the Tompkins, until they realized their ultimate goals of donation and, frankly, legacy-building. Borrie et al. (2020) inferred researcher rationale underpinning their analyses in that “PPAs that are seen as reflecting the values, priorities and political power of private interests” (p. 3). The Tompkins’ worldview was rooted in an American or Western brand of protectionism through fortress conservation, elevating the importance of PAs in Latin America to safeguard landscapes imbued with symbolic meaning. As mentioned by most researchers, this schism was exacerbated by Doug’s unapologetic Deep Ecology activism and devotion to Western environmental philosophy (e.g., Tecklin and Sepulveda 2014, p. 215). Ideological conflict was attributed to a “clash between two completely antagonistic paradigms or worldviews” (Ramírez and Folchi 1999, p. 2) or a “storm of imaginaries,” as Bourlon (2017a, p. 88) colorfully put it. In the battle to define Patagonia (Louder and Bosak 2019), imposition of Doug’s vision for a Next Economy to better or save humanity, and imaginary prioritizing the environment-recreation-culture nexus (Blair et al. 2019; Bourlon 2017b), was fought off for decades. It was first opposed by the central government in Santiago (Blair et al. 2019) and corporations “not interested in social movements, environmental or otherwise” because they were “an obstacle” in “development plans” (Wakild 2009, p. 116). Researchers began to chronicle local community experiences, with this narrative bolstered by findings that some locals were unsupportive of “Tompkins’ idea of conservation” (Jones 2012, p. 253). Distrust of PPAs among locals was tightly linked to a history of exclusion and under-representation by government (Zorondo-Rodríguez et al. 2019) and the argument that the costs of PPAs to local people may in fact outweigh the benefits (Holmes 2018; Borrie et al. 2020).

A third academic narrative that we called the neoliberal elite’s contradictory conservation subterfuge refers to that PPAs were a shrouded operation, cast as one thing to garner support but pursuing and achieving another aim. This narrative advances in at least two paths. The first narrative framing highlights that the Tompkins were a wealthy, well-connected elite class of citizens seeking, intentionally or not, to (re)colonize Patagonia for conservation (Bourlon 2017b). Holmes (2014) signaled that history may be repeating itself in Chile, writing that the Tompkins had been “accused of coercing smallholders into selling their land, and not respecting the rights of smallholders who lacked legal title” (p. 558). The cultural dispossession narrative dovetails with this framing. Additionally, a few researchers pointed out the unspoken contradictions of PPA creation and operationalization. They made light of the fact that Doug and Kristine made their millions by taking advantage of the capitalist system (Bourlon 2017b; Wakild 2009). Jones (2012) asserted that the PPA phenomenon actually replicates and does not reject capitalist expansion by, for example, dispossessing local economies by eliminating the sheep grazing industry. Núñez et al. (2018) elaborated on the re-appropriation of Nature through conservation interests, underpinned by power and capitalist mechanisms in order to (re)create new businesses and support capitalist production, a phenomenon these authors labeled eco-extractivism. The other path characterized PPAs in an upbeat way. For instance, Wakild (2009) wrote,

But some would say Parque Pumalín is a business, veiled as a gift. Tompkins is the biggest employer in the region and his investment of close to $50 million dollars makes up 10 percent of the total foreign investment in the region in the past ten years. His ecological footprint may be small, but his economic one is worth taking notice. (p. 117)

Bachmann-Vargas et al. (2021) referred to an optimism about tourism being a vehicle capable of financing nature conservation, and critiques that have ensued about the commodification of nature. The authors were chary in their discussions of tourism-driven initiatives, such as the Route of Parks of Patagonia, and their potential to materialize win-win scenarios for local communities.

We note that not all researchers were devoted to situating Tompkins’ PPA projects and outlining their contradictions and controversy within a neoliberal conservation paradigm. A few researchers mentioned PPAs as fringe (Tecklin and Sepulveda 2014) or regional/global neoliberal conservation projects (Borrie et al. 2020), while others inserted a neoliberal model as a backdrop for alternative practices of territorialization (García and Mulrennan 2020). Additionally, we observed a notable split between researchers, exemplified by three additional narratives characterizing the Tompkins’ achievements in a different, more positive light.

One divergence was brought forth by the investment or green grab? narrative which deconstructs PPAs as having a potentially dual meaning. Some researchers contrasted the capitalism-focused purchase, transaction, and green grabbing phrasing (Busscher et al. 2018; Holmes 2014) and framing with that of investment (e.g., Hora 2018; Wakild 2009). These researchers tended to offer a less critical, more balanced, and sometimes positive framing to the evaluation of Tompkins’ projects but references to green grabbing carried a negative connotation.

In Argentina, local authors described the creation of the Iberá NP as a rapid process that transferred the Provincial estate and its jurisdiction to the National State (Mantegna et al. 2016). This process foregrounded the national debate on foreign-owned land and green grabbing. The authors indicate that conservationists—mostly foreign investors—possess most of the estates around the Iberá, thereby controlling its access. In 2011, Argentina passed a Bill called Protection of the National Territory and Rural Lands, which states the conditions for foreign citizens to acquire land (Pohl Schanake and Vallejos 2008).

Some authors employed a positive framing to the impacts of PPAs. Researchers not wholly embracing a critical lens informed a narrative that PPAs advance sustainable development. One way this was achieved was by chronicling positive effects of early PPAs on local economy. Research by Wakild (2009) found a positive ripple effect of Pumalín on the surrounding communities. Other researchers also noted efforts to “reappraise local culture and stimulate sustainable tourism” in Iberá, Argentina (Busscher et al. 2018, p. 579). Some researchers found noteworthy synergies between PPAs and environmental activism. For instance, Hora (2018) noted that the Tompkins’ opposition to dam construction in the Aysén region placed PPA efforts in the good graces of Chileans, while the Tompkins’ global influence helped bring global attention to the plight (Jones 2012). However, Bantle (2010) demonstrated that this endearment was not universal because the roots of infrastructure development or PA imposition are cut from the same colonialist cloth.

The final narrative articulates a paradigm shift in Chilean human-nature relations, which also might be termed as the Tompkins effect. This narrative is synergistic with the ideological imposition narrative, as well as with the Tompkins’ influence on wealthy Chilean and foreign citizens who have been interested in environmental philanthropist initiatives ever since (Bourlon 2017a). Following this trend, the former President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, among others, created their own PPAs (Bourlon 2017a). Hora (2018) suggests that researchers’ conclusions about cultural disruption should not be viewed as a sweeping generalization. Findings determined that an evolutionary framing is more appropriate:

Results of the investigation show that 27 years after the implementation, it is clear that Pumalín Park has changed this paradigm and other possibilities for development arise as opportunities for rural marginalized areas that are rich in nature and cultural landscapes such as the Patagonian fjord lands. (p. 17)

Quantitative data collected by Bantle (2010) also reinforced that some locals do take pride in the park, a change that can influence the manifestation of new values. Hora (2018) concluded that there is evidence that Pumalín Park positively shaped local values, identity, and economy since its foundation and, therefore, is well-integrated into the local community. Ramirez and Folchi (1999) foreshadowed several of the narratives we extracted, writing,

Consequently, the Tompkins project represented a clear alteration of the society/nature exchanges that had been articulated culturally, socially and financially through a very long history. (p. 9)

To create a new space for conservation, Jones (2012) and Bourlon (2017b) concluded that the Tompkins’ projects created new spatial, social, aesthetic, cultural, and political realities to design a green Utopia: “Doug Tompkins effected a change of paradigm in Patagonia” (p. 43). For instance, Bachmann-Vargas and van Koppen (2020) identified the Patagonian wilderness discourse, acknowledging the substantial influence Doug and Kristine had in the formation and reproduction of the ideas that helped reframe Chilean Patagonia as a pristine and untouched place, and one of the last wild places in the world. Bourlon (2017b) also downplayed criticism about value changes and local discontent about a major rural transition occurring in parts of Latin America, remarking because locals are complicit in making PPAs happen:

The rural world, entrepreneurs and defenders of the spirit of the pioneers, clearers of virgin lands, criticize his opposition to development and lack of respect for their way of life. Nevertheless, they sell their land to rich Westerners and Chileans who want to possess their own private parks at world’s end while hoping that tourism will ensure their future. (p. 1)

Additionally, Borrie et al. (2020) acknowledged the potential of a Tompkins-style approach, provided that other local and national actors incorporate its logic and strategies:

The [Route of the Parks] promotes a collaborative public-private approach to what the Foundation describes as “conservation-based development.” ...Still, the Route’s success will ultimately depend on the willingness of local communities to incorporate its logic and strategies within their own planning, development, and priorities. For example, in early 2020, a publicly funded Territorial Integration Program (PTI), was created to focus on the integration of local interests with the Route of Parks Concept. This initiative has received funding for three years through the support of the government economic development agency (CORFO), the Lakes Regional Government, the National Tourism Agency (Sernatur), the National Forest Corporation (CONAF), and the Ministry of the Environment (MMA), as well as private participation from universities, six associated communities, and tourism operators ( If initiatives like PTI prove successful, and are validated by local communities, they are likely to be replicated within other parts of the increasingly integrated public-private Chilean system. (Borrie et al. 2020, p. 12)

4.2 Popular Press Narratives

Analysis of popular press sources revealed three main narratives (Table 9.1). These narratives were enveloped within broader corpora, with few authors espousing just one narrative. Early texts focused only on Doug, characterizing him as having deep connections to the Patagonia landscape. Many authors situated their works within a wilderness ideal, referencing Doug’s affinity for the “pristine, virgin, nameless, wild, dramatic, untouched, and untamed” Patagonian landscapes: “Pumalín is a revelation…the land that time forgot” (Graydon 2006). Against this backdrop, we termed the counter-culture eco-warriors’ narrative. This narrative depicts a legendary mountain and whitewater adventurer who made his fortune as a fashion mogul but decided to follow his passion living “the wilderness dream in the real Patagonia” and uphold these landscapes in his image post-capitalist epiphany. All text connected the Tompkins’ wealth to their capitalist pursuits and successes but pursued a “high school dropout-turned-billionaire” tenor to emphasize Doug’s counter-culture lifestyle from his youth to his evolution from adventure recreationist, entrepreneur, and green philanthropist. He was often portrayed as a doer with a “well-practiced talent for making things happen” (Eckersley 1999). Most texts reference Doug’s wealth due to ownership of Esprit and The North Face companies, highlighting the size of his land purchases and the amount of money he made or spent. Texts then progress to his “anti-capitalist epiphany” to “atone for his capitalist past,” ultimately resetting his moral compass with Deep Ecology (Mark 2019).

Older articles rarely mentioned Kristine or her role because of their relatively new relationship. That tendency shifted in the mid/late 2000s when she took on the role of “peace broker” (Doherty 2020) to offset Doug’s “blunt, outspoken, and critical ways” and commentary about, for example, logging, mining, and salmon farming (Bonnefoy 2018; Warburton-Lee 2001). In 2012, Kristine received her own headline calling her “Mrs. Patagonia” in an article published by Revista Que Pasa (López 2012). The article emphasized her leading role in the creation of the Patagonia NP, along with her opinions about the HidroAysén project. Most of the texts focused on Kristine, often via interviews with her, when she took the reins after Doug’s death. A staple of most articles was a reference to her role as CEO of Patagonia, Inc. and her access to financial capital, to accentuate her business acumen as a complement to Doug’s ambition. For example, Weir (2017) remarked, “she helped turn his company, Patagonia, into a global brand” (para. 2). A few authors mention her connections to outdoor recreation, hence preserving the broader explorer-capitalist turned ecowarrior narrative that remains popular in texts.

Several press articles elaborated on Doug’s efforts and the controversies related to the nature conservation projects. Accordingly, we termed the second narrative that emerged from popular press articles the “gringo complot”: ideological standoff at the end of the world. Texts often expressed the ideological divide caused by injecting Deep Ecology into a natural resource-dependent society. It is important to note that there are at least two thrusts to this narrative. The first is a pre-donation misfit. Green philanthropy donating lands back to the people of Chile and Argentina was a goal or dream of Doug and Kristine, but they were not yet such philanthropists until the official first donation, that of the Pumalín property, which received nature reserve status in 2005 and became a national park in 2018. It is appropriate to characterize early texts as portraying Doug and Kristine each as an “ecowarrior” (Frankel 2004) on a “mission” to “combat biodiversity loss by “rewilding” natural habitats and expanding protected lands” (Ruggiero 2017). Most texts referred to all goals of buying contiguous land, restoring or improving it from the ravages of livestock grazing and timber extraction, rewilding it by introducing native wildlife such as Huemules (Hippocamelus bisulcus) and jaguars (Panthera onca), then donating the land for national park creation while installing a nature-based tourism economy. The main political conflict was the act of purchasing of land. Chilean press dedicated a number of articles reporting the gringo complot, on the grounds of the extensive land acquisition in southern Chile and referring to how Chile was “being cut in two parts.” The purchase of land raised a bevy of suspicions. Some local authorities argued that there was a complot to appropriate Patagonia, and authorities found it questionable that wealthy Americans would want to spend their money on environmental campaigns in Patagonia rather than energy projects (El Mostrador 2012). Meanwhile, Argentine news outlets were referring to Tompkins and his natural empire around the Iberá in 2005 (Zacarías 2005).

At least half of texts referenced the mismatch between protectionism versus economic development values, writing of their “strange purpose” to pursue conservation over land development (Rohter 2005). Eckersley (1999) wrote, “It is no small irony that had Doug Tompkins planned to develop the land, he would have been greeted with enthusiasm” (p. 32). Similar to academic texts, several journalists, particularly those writing in the 1990s and 2000s, described tensions that arose due to the lack of local community buy-in for wholesale changes to their livelihoods and, more rarely, mentioned “hostility” towards Doug and Kristine (Wieners 2014). Nearly one-third of articles referenced the manufacture of “suspicion and strong opposition by local politicians, loggers, power companies, and nationalists” (Cuevas and Luna 2018) that underpinned a coordinated “vitriolic smear campaign” (Eckersley 1999) to besmirch “wealthy outsiders” (Wieners 2014) Doug and Kristine and the formation of a “green conservation cartel aimed to stop development” (Vidal 2016). This sentiment was summarized by Langman (1997):

In a May press conference, Tompkins and his attorney, accompanied by leaders of Chile’s largest environmental groups, presented information to counter a “harassment campaign” they said had been waged by the government. Among the numerous false accusations, they said, were rumors that Tompkins was pressuring locals to sell their land, building a nuclear base, planning a Jewish colony, developing a secret gold mine and financing political opposition. (para. 4)

Consequently, the gringo complot narrative found fertile ground in conspiracy theories. For example, the idea that Doug and Kristine sought to establish a Jewish colony inside their purchases was inspired by the so-called “Plan Andina” (Bohoslavsky 2008) and also by the large number of Israeli tourists coming to Patagonia (e.g., Hamon 2015). Moreover, critics of Deep Ecology emerged from the Catholic Church, referring to the Church’s opposition to abortion. According to an article published in 2006, the Church expressed its objection to the work of Doug and Kristine, asserting that “the Christian vision of the ecology stipulates the supremacy of the “human ecology,” which oblige us to condemn the mistakes of the “deep ecology,” when its vision tends to consider the human being as one more element of the universe of the living beings, and when it punishes the fertility of the men because their actions against nature” (Chile Sustentable 2006, para. 16).

Socio-political concerns surrounding sovereignty and national security highlighted authors’ desire to portray political and legal ideological paradoxes within Argentina and Chile societies. For example, texts pitted nationalism against foreign investment: “what is more important, the private property of a few, or the sovereignty of everyone?,” (Reel 2006, para. 8), quoting a government secretary who supported cutting fences bordering foreign land acquisitions. Texts also pitted sovereignty against cultural integrity: “…inspires further questions of legal regulations in Latin America to limit foreign purchases of real estate given painful colonial legacy” (Hayden 2012, para. 2). And texts pitted social justice against environmentalism: the latter are “often grouped together under the same ‘progressive’ label” (Reel 2006, para. 10). These tensions manifested in various ways. One example was an outright attempt to purchase coveted land before Doug and Kristine. The hydro power juggernaut formerly known as National Electricity Company, S.A. (ENDESA) Chile beat Doug and Kristine to the purchase of a 125-square-mile tract owned by the Catholic diocese of Valparaíso out of spite for their support for local anti-dam protesters (Earth Island Journal 2000; Salas 2015).

The second thrust is the idea of donating land after its purchase to fulfill the green philanthropy role, which many authors—including academics—also found socially, economically, and politically problematic for Chile’s free-market economy. Hayden (2012) highlighted a divergence in North and South American ideologies commenting, “While [Doug] believed he was going south to serve as a savior of sorts, in reality, he was perpetually referring to his northern and U.S.-driven worldview in his assumptions about Chilean and Argentine land and people” (para. 2). Byrnes (2009) summarized sentiment of projects occurring in both countries writing, “Here in South America, this type of charity is not common—and is even viewed with suspicion by some” (para. 7). Texts emphasized saving nature and sustainable agriculture as complementary appendages, which later were merged with mentions of an ecotourism economy. The latter was a main focus of texts chronicling the Iberá Wetlands case in Argentina, with these more recent texts highlighting the rewilding of jaguars (Panthera onca) after nearly a century of extinction and emphasis on ecotourism replacing “indiscriminate hunting or environmental changes” (Garzón 2017, para. 18).

After Doug’s death in 2015, the narrative, as we termed the Triumphant Ecobaron/ess: from villain to hero(es), became more prominent. These narrative positions both Tompkins as overcoming the odds and using their capital to save landscapes from human degradation, portraying a shift in the media framing; from villain to hero(es) (Pinochet and Thenoux 2016). Further, this powerful narrative depicts the Tompkins as helping to align humans with sustainable behavior by helping them discover the intrinsic value of ecosystems. Within this narrative, the Tompkins emerge as having overcome criticism, attacks, and bureaucratic stonewalling to save the planet: “This is the story of the couple who purchased paradise, the neighbors who curse their name and the idea that might save life as we know it” (Weir 2017, para. 1).

They exercised patience and diplomacy—particularly Kristine—and seized an opportunity to finally see their dream become a reality. They won over their critics through a measured campaign (Warburton-Lee 2001) slowly winning the hearts and minds of Chileans (Langman 1997): “To some extent, the Tompkins have become more accepted, in part, because they did what they said they would do” (Wieners 2014). Fitzner (2018) wrote, “Over time relationships with locals have improved too, as the Tompkins worked to involve people in the project and hear out the concerns of locals” (para. 6). Their accomplishments served to build trust among their staunchest critics across local and national scales as well: “The Chilean government has warmed up to the conservation projects” (Daley 2017, para. 7).

One of Doug’s milestones in this regard was his active involvement as an environmental activist, mobilizing his network and contributing with economic resources to campaigns such as Patagonia Sin Represas (Patagonia without dams). He launched this effort to protest the construction of five dams in the Aysén region (i.e., HidroAysén project). Tompkins’ detractors seized the opportunity to promote the counter narrative of Patagonia without Tompkins. Sentiments of mistrust and the ideological standoff that emerged from the purchase of a former large ranch (i.e., Valle Chacabuco), which later on became the Patagonia NP, spurred the animosities and the local debate (Saverin 2015). Nonetheless, by 2015 the press detailed that the opposition to the hydro power project became a new “battle for the gringo” but one in which he won, as he finally defeated HidroAysén (Fernández 2015b).

In recent texts, the Tompkins were less a part of a problem and perspectives are skewed towards framing them with their system of value. Headlines read, “The Fashion Executives Who Saved a Patagonian Paradise” (Mark 2019) and “Gave It all Away” (Weir 2017) to become genuine conservation or wildlands philanthropists or eco barons (Franklin 2008). In the texts analyzed, the Tompkins were depicted, rather neutrally, as gringos spending Yankee dollars and appealing to good intentions (Quammen 2020), but, more recently, were regarded as heroes, conservation champions, vigilantes, fighters, rewilders, revivers, and eco-capitalists who created a society-altering legacy: “…in a generation the parks created by the Tompkins in Chile and Argentina will be cherished as national treasures embedded in their identity” (Wilkinson 2018). Garzón (2017) and Londoño (2020) extended this narrative to depict how citizens of Argentina were the ones experiencing an epiphany. Garzón (2017), quoting a source, wrote, “It’s as if after his absence the locals have reevaluated their opinion, realizing that he didn’t want to ‘steal Iberá’s water,’ but instead to create a new model for conservation.” In these more recent texts, the aim appears to be to leave the reader with a sense that the Tompkins now have more supporters than detractors, and that the critics were wrong all along. Fernández (2015a), quoting Andrés Azócar, author of Doug Tompkins biographic book, wrote,

The passing of Tompkins is the most symbolic (event). He died much more legitimized and respected than his detractors are today. Chile has more respect for Tompkins than it has for his opponents. When he passed away, the conflictive and harsh man was gone, but you realize that the parks are there. His projects speak for himself. Everybody speaks about his parks, which no longer are his property, but are his parks, which will belong to the State. (Fernández 2015a, para. 13)

Moreover, there is a sense that Doug was, and Kristine is, a sagacious being, destined to overcome the odds and realize their PPA dreams because of the synergies between, in large part, their risk-taking adventure recreation feats, success in the corporate world, and strong sense of place. Some argued that their efforts did humanity a favor, “saving the environment and communities from an out-of-control economic model that each day is edging civilization ‘closer to the abyss’” (Langman 2012, para. 1). This narrative has even been fashioned to portray Doug as a martyr of sorts (e.g., his battle with ENDESA). Mark (2019) quoted the superintendent of Pumalín to achieve this tone: “…he died fighting for what he wanted…When he died, people finally got it.” He is also considered a role model for how to define and operationalize nature conservation and treat conservation philanthropy as a value. Fernández (2015b), quoting Patricio Rodrigo, one of Doug’s friends, stated, “I would say that one of the values that [Doug] instilled in nature conservation in Chile, is the concept of philanthropy” (Fernández 2015b, para. 11).

5 Discussion

According to Bruner (1990), humans innately use stories to organize experiences that unfold chronically and through an unfolding plot. Additionally, it is important to consider how narratives influence the establishment of what experiences mean to human lives, the ways humans construct reality (Carter 2013; Sharp et al. 2019). To better understand what PPAs mean to the ways humans experience biodiversity conservation through park creation, we establish the point of the stories being told. As indicated by Riessman (2008), every story has a moral, lesson, or point. Hence, in the text that follows, we use this approach to make sense of narratives collectively and what they tell us about what PPAs mean to human-nature relations.

First, our results suggest that one meaning of PPAs is rooted in critical analyses intended to confront neoliberal conservation where competition and markets are elemental to problem definitions and solutions (Igoe and Brockington 2007). A notable result from our analysis indicates that, thus far, academia has demonstrated a growing preference for a critical lens. Deployment of a critical approach is at least aimed at linking “reason with transformation” (Lynch 2001, p. 352) to reveal how humans, for example, produce conflicting or unjust outcomes, degrade the environment, and alienate our species from important values while promoting unsustainable ones (Richardson and Fowers 1997). For these PPA researchers, a lesson of the story is that history is repeating itself. The Tompkins’ PPAs in Chile and Argentina have an origin, replication, and resistance process that is similar to those of public PAs. Our analysis highlighted that PPAs are considered as an ominous reimagination, replication, or appendage of late-stage capitalism or neocolonialism (Serenari et al. 2017). Researchers found critical assessment useful to detail biases, injustices, and contradictions that underscore neoprotectionist values (e.g., people and nature cannot coexist, PAs are ideal, locals can protect Nature with monetary inducements; Brockington et al. 2012; Büscher and Dressler 2007). Social impacts of both public and PPAs include but are not limited to livelihood disruption, displacement, denunciation, and cultural death (Serenari et al. 2017; West et al. 2006). Narratives that express the needs, grievances, and requests of impacted communities, local people can be viewed as legitimizing subaltern human experiences within a top-down conservation-development paradigm. Yet, there is an awkwardness about trying to address the PPA-environmental justice nexus if for no other reason than trying to reconcile private property rights within the larger, problematic human project of enhancing environmental governance for the collective good.

A second lesson, specifically, of pro-PPA narratives, is that as long as property rights are embedded within societal values, landowner engagement in and the legitimization of private lands conservation (PLC) will be critical to achieving large-scale conservation goals. As evidenced by our results, narratives that communicate the successful bridging of politics, PLC, and positive social change may help cultivate shared values over time. Hence, we feel there is a need to consider the implications of engaging in an overindulgence in academic critique of PPAs. For instance, academic criticism about PPAs has been considered a bureaucratic challenge to notable conservation projects occurring outside of the public domain such as the Tompkins’ PPA and rewilding efforts (Zamboni et al. 2017). While important for inducing positive change, critical narratives of PPAs may, in the interim, erode the support they need to, despite their capitalist underpinnings, be preferred over environmentally degrading projects such as megadams or mining. Therefore, we believe there is an opportunity to reframe PPAs in a constructive way that produces positive conservation outcomes and behavior change in the short and long terms (Nisbet and Scheufele 2009).

Third, our analysis revealed that both academics and journalists tell a story that suggests a lesson in that rewilding Patagonia presents a new cultural and paradoxical landscape (cf. Drenthen 2018). In our study area, and in many other parts of the world, PAs are Janus-faced, or understood as having two diametrically opposed sides. One argument for this depiction is that they have been situated within the archetype yet contradictory conservation-development paradigm that attempts to reconcile unbridled economic growth and nature conservation (Serenari et al. 2015). Representative of this clear discrepancy in values, the narratives we uncovered emphasize an ideological power struggle between conservation elites, the political class, and historically marginalized rural people. As these narratives unfolded or developed over time, highlighting an important temporal aspect of narrative development, the lesser-equipped rural combatants were worn down and displaced by the better-networked and resourced conservation elite, yet, keeping in mind that some locals were complicit in their own domination (i.e., conquest of their pre-Tompkins realities). Likewise, these narratives also demonstrated how a political class can be converted to adopting nontraditional neoprotectionist values when (a) ecotourism helps establish new symbolic and material values upon the landscape in support of a new economy and (b) the idea of building conservation legacies are embraced nationally. Additionally, strategies used by the Tompkins were inherently contradictory and obscured to avoid socio-political conflict during a grinding, elongated metamorphosis in which narratives helped shift the framing of or the conversation about PPAs to be more socially and politically friendly. Our findings indicate that the lengthy, multi-decade land accumulation and cultural shift processes highlighted by many texts is a temporal element that should not be overlooked. Texts often referenced the number of years it took to accumulate and, eventually, achieve national park status, as well as to change attitudes and influence a value shift. This particular temporal component plays a key role in a narrative that captures the persistent challenges experienced by the Tompkins over decades as they sought to propagate their ideology and become societal engineers.

The fourth lesson is that ideological warfare reveals the limits and capabilities of seriously engaging in our most important nature conservation debates. Our analysis demonstrated how narratives and their development and perpetuation can generate fear, uncertainty, doubt, conflict, and conspiracy, fueling ideological clashes and a battle for a supreme ideology. These sentiments underpin juxtapositions between cultural, economic, and political values produced by the persistent negative framing of the “structure of the ideological world” (Fowler 1991, p. 93). We consider the aforementioned outcomes as communicative emissions, transmissions discharged after exposure to and negotiating narratives that “create a world of conflict” (Carter 2013, p. 8). Our analysis suggests that this negativity reflects working through critical paradoxes and trade-offs that need to be made to make progress towards a more sustainable world. We also propose that negativity may be compounded by the popular press’s fixation on wealth, adventure-seeking, and dreaming the impossible dream of PPA creation, particulars that deviate from and can directly or indirectly influence social and political life in Chile and Argentina.

One of the important tools used to craft narratives in our study was the use of powerful visual imagery, in this case, to remind us of our existential limits. Popular press articles we reviewed were often situated within symbolic values. Loaded language describing a humanless, wild, pristine, or primeval landscape orients, familiarizes, or indoctrinates the reader into an “alliance of shared meaning” (Lester 2005, p. 123). These stories are relatable to those living in societal enclaves where this type of language intensifies behaviors that can support the PPA model such as fund-raising or ecotourism. Moreover, such narratives might be effective at offsetting the dualist, contradictory aspects of PPAs as outlined by many academics. In the PPA context, these narratives are salient to a popular, global reality that asserts how we currently relate to and govern biodiversity conservation is sufficient. Wilderness, sustainable development, PAs, and like concepts have been problematized by academics and philosophers who believe humans are not separate from Nature (e.g., Cronon, 1996) and that we must reconfigure our relations with Nature to do right by our planet and each other (Büscher and Fletcher 2019; Escobar 2018; Leopold 1989).

A dominant neoprotectionist value system has underpinned global projects like the 30 × 30 initiative and aligns with PPA formation in Chile and Argentina. Therefore, while societies figure out how to reconcile divergent conservation-development values, there is a need to pay careful consideration to the stories told in the conservation arena. The narratives assigning meaning to PPAs expose and (re)produce positive and negative outcomes as well as foretell both our ability and inability to achieve societal changes that can produce net benefits for human and non-human species alike.

Indeed, setting aside large tracts of land for biodiversity often produces immediate net benefits for biological and ecological systems, and cultivating broad socio-political acceptance for these projects can happen though might take decades with the help of carefully constructed and reality-altering narratives. Problematically, given our current climate, moral, and biodiversity challenges, we may not have that long to wait for the next iteration of narratives to evolve that promote reconfigured human-nature relations.

6 Conclusion

PAs are important policy instruments and narratives about them are powerful tools for minimizing or enhancing the legitimacy of protectionist conservation, PA networks, and human development projects and their archetype discourses. In this chapter, we unveiled nine narratives and their lessons or points that have given meaning to one of the largest private conservation efforts in Latin America, and a growing conservation phenomenon with global implications. Narratives distilled from academic and popular press texts revealed the meaning of PPAs in society. In our analysis, we highlight how the Tompkins projects advanced the PPA movement in the face of social and political opposition, aided and stymied by the narratives about their efforts. Yet, our analysis of narratives produced more questions than it answers. For instance, considering the temporal and socio-political aspects of our case study findings, if change from unsustainable to sustainable living takes time and is hotly contested, how quickly can we expect to evolve beyond what we have already accomplished? And how will societies integrate private lands into our bigger species and planet saving projects? We note that researchers must also consider how environmental non-governmental organizations, such as the Tompkins, position themselves within the popular press, social media, and academic research, to build their narratives.

The Tompkins’ projects both in Chile and in Argentina provide a window into what it takes for societies to confront different value systems, driven by the primary idea of nature conservation. Hence, we find the Tompkins case is somewhat of a microcosm of the world we reside in today. Alternative interpretations of reality and human involvement in creating, managing, or interfering in natural processes are hotly debated, and real cultural schisms require urgent attention. That said, achieving 30 × 30 or other goals will involve creating meaningful stories that unite academia, communities, politicians, the media, and other critical actors but also represent the various experiences linked to PPA projects. These stories, as shapers of reality, will help determine which conservation projects are feasible, beneficial, and logical, help cultivate a sense of proprietorship among stakeholders, and help societies evolve in a way that better balances competing meanings that prevent consensus about the role PAs play in safeguarding biodiversity.