Conservation—or Elimination? Eco-Imperialism, Outdoor Outfitters, and the Erasure of Patagonia

One of the central appeals of Patagonia to tourists is its mountain climbing, with summits in El Chálten considered some of the most technically difficult climbs in the world, offering steep grades and few ledges. Cerro Torre in particular is a famously difficult climb, as the summit is a mushroom ice cap. In 1959, the Italian climber Cesare Maestri claimed to have summited Cerro Torre with his climbing partner and photographer, Toni Egger. During their descent, Egger tragically died and his body was lost, along with the group’s only camera, effectively leaving Maestri no proof of his ascent.1 In 1970, Maestri returned to Cerro Torre with a veritable army of support staff and a pneumatic air compressor and drilled several hundred bolts into the face of the mountain to make another ascent.2 This was decried by the mountaineering community as a violation and an affront to true alpine mountaineering.3

“We feel like you have stolen the bolts from us. This route is part of our cultural heritage, and you have taken them and you have no right. We want the bolts.”

The bolts became essentially part of the mountain and assisted many climbers in their ascent up the mountain, becoming known as the Compressor Route. However, some climbers still considered it insulting to the mountain, which they valued for its natural formations. In January 2012, North American climbers Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk completed a “fair means” free ascent of Cerro Torre, avoiding the bolts and even removing many on their way down the mountain.4 This was considered an affront by Italian climbers, who still idolized Maestri, as well as local Argentinians, who saw the removal as a crime and even briefly arrested the pair.5 Argentine protesters reportedly gathered outside the apartment of Kennedy and Kruk and a translator told them, “We feel like you have stolen the bolts from us. This route is part of our cultural heritage, and you have taken them and you have no right. We want the bolts.”6 While this seems like an isolated story within the mountaineering community, it perfectly represents the central tension in Patagonia between largely white environmentalists, who feel the need to preserve a supposedly pristine nature and remove human interference from the region, and local Chileans and Argentinians who most feel the effects of these changes.

Some of the efforts toward conservation in Patagonia come from an unlikely source: US-based clothing companies. In 1968, Yvon Chouinard, Douglas Tompkins, and some friends drove a van from Ventura, California, to Patagonia, at the tip of South America.7 The trip ended with a climb up Monte Fitz Roy, and it proved to be a huge influence on the lives of Chouinard and Tompkins.8 The two men would go on to found the outdoor clothing companies of Patagonia and North Face, respectively. Later, Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, a former CEO of the Patagonia clothing company, became the largest landholders in Patagonia and moved there permanently in the 1990s. In Patagonia they established many parks and protected areas.9

The Private Protected Area (PPA) is touted as a crucial new tool for the preservation of biodiversity.10 It functions essentially like a park, except that it has more flexibility as it is held and operated by individuals, NGOs, or other nonstate groups.11 This new form of conservation is an essentially neoliberal one, relying on large investments of capital and notions of private ownership.12 The stated mission of the Tompkins’s PPAs was to introduce sustainable ecological agriculture and return wildlife to its natural habitats. However, the infrastructure they built in the region, such as luxury cabins, hiking trails, and roads, contradicts this notion.13

The creation of PPAs and infrastructure has led to an influx of ecotourists to Patagonia. It has also inspired some other wealthy foreigners to buy land in southern Chile, including Tom Brokaw and former Secretary of the Treasury and Goldman Sachs chairman Hank Paulson, who handed over a large company holding in Tierra del Fuego to be administered by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2004.14 The short summer lasts only about three months in Patagonia, limiting peak travel times, which means that the flow of tourists is often not enough to sustain local economies in the region.15 The jobs that are available are mostly based on service, leaving many people with seasonal employ as guides, porters, and so on for ecotourists.16 Moreover, some tourists buy land, as noted by the American kayaker Chris Spelius, who runs a rafting company in Futaleufú. “Residents sell their land,” Spelius observes, “and in five years time they are left with nothing and gringo has a great ranch to retire on.”17

The displacement of local residents began with the purchasing of lands by the Tompkins family. Some locals protested the creation of protected areas, which would effectively end their livelihoods and compel their removal.18 Livestock has historically been important to the fertile steppes of southern Chile, and it is how many locals in Valle Chacabuco and other regions make their living.19 However, this traditional use of land is not allowed in protected areas, and so over twenty thousand sheep and four hundred miles of fencing were removed from the region in the interest of “preserving” Patagonia.20 When asked about this, one local Chilean remarked, “Saving Patagonia?! More like destroying everything that Patagonia is!”21

“Saving Patagonia?! More like destroying everything that Patagonia is!”

Chile is an interesting site for these PPAs as it has a particular history of neoliberal governance and experimentation. The United States was involved in a coup that overthrew the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973 and was closely aligned with the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973–90) in its first years. Pinochet’s administration undertook a vast dismantlement of previous socialist policies and privatized large swaths of the public sector. The Tompkins PPAs can be seen, then, as one more example in a series of neoliberal undertakings in Chile.

Like the region of its namesake, the clothing company Patagonia has dabbled in neoliberal experimentation. The company advertises itself as a green company, selling secondhand clothes and even seeking to downsize itself.22 In aligning with this green message, the company envelops itself in images of nature.23 In this sense, it is using nature to advertise itself and also to profess a message of sustainability, giving it a double greenness, but the effects that result include increased consumption, which runs counter to its very very message.24

The region of Patagonia is also heavily present in the company’s branding and messaging. A stylized silhouette of the Fitz Roy range appears in Patagonia’s logo. The images of mountain climbing in the region that the company uses on its website and in catalogues to sell its products, as well as the outdoor adventure lifestyle, come from sponsored climbers, as do similar images used by the North Face, Mammut, and Black Diamond. 25 These sponsored climbers are considered to be among the best in the world and can devote their full time to climbing without having to rely on other jobs as sources of income, a dream for many elite climbers. However, since these companies are headquartered in Europe and North America, the sponsored climbers are also largely European and American.26

 Local Chilean and Argentine climbers who undertake the same climbs in Patagonia as other climbers are at a distinct disadvantage to rising American, French, Italian, and German climbers said to appeal to larger national markets.27 This process of using Patagonian imagery has the effect of both encouraging and profiting from the outdoor adventure lifestyle in Patagonia, further excluding South Americans by not sponsoring local Chilean and Argentinian climbers.

The exclusion of local people in Patagonia has only continued. Shortly before Douglas Tompkins’s death, there had been talks between him and the Chilean government to commit over a million acres of land to the creation of a national park system in the region.28 Michelle Bachelet, then the president of Chile, added nine million acres to expand existing parks and create new ones.29 This did not come without criticism, however. The Chilean military and some politicians openly worried about Pumalín Park, which cut across the narrow strip of Chile that lies between the Pacific Ocean and the border of Argentina, separating the country.30 Chilean business leaders worried that economic development in the region would be impeded by the parks, and while rafting, climbing, and ecotourism are significantly less intrusive to the environment than mining or logging, they have not proven to be viable long-term strategies for the economic growth of local Chileans.31

The anxieties of the Chilean military and Chilean business leaders echo the central tension between many white environmentalist projects and people who have lived and worked in regions for generations. Similar tensions have long existed over the creation of national parks in the United States, where Indigenous peoples were removed from their lands to create Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Glacier National Parks. There is a deep connection between discourses of environmental purity and racial purity.32 Efforts to conserve and keep areas pristine, that is, without the polluting nature of people, ignores local use patterns that are the livelihoods of people.33

Colonization and dispossession have a long history in Patagonia. From the 1870s to 1884, the Argentine general Julio Argentino Roca undertook the Conquest of the Desert. Like the contemporaneous American Indian Wars this was not, in fact, a war between rival states but a genocide of Indigenous groups on the frontier. In Chile, Vicente Pérez Rosales led an effort by the Chilean government to settle areas in Patagonia with Chilean and German colonists. This was followed by conflicts with the Mapuche peoples in the region and the expansion of ranching and agriculture in Patagonia. The Mapuche people, who comprise the largest Indigenous group in Chile, continue to clash with the Chilean government to seek greater autonomy and the restoration of land.34 Human rights groups and the United Nations have criticized the Chilean government for the lack of constitutional recognition of the Mapuche, as well as their failure to consult with them on developing lands belonging to them.35

Tensions between white settlers and local and Indigenous peoples are complex, but central to much of the discussion is land. Patagonia is merely one example in a series of these battles over land, and one that is ongoing. Neoliberal practices continue to evolve as new areas are privatized and cycles of ownership and displacement continue. Companies like Patagonia and North Face, despite their heavily publicized turns toward environmental efforts and sustainability, are part of this cycle of dispossession and displacement. They participate directly, when their founders buy up lands and remove local ranchers, and indirectly, by encouraging and profiting from ecotourism, which is not always able to sustain local economies and excludes local Chilean and Argentinian people from highly paid positions. As the story of the bolts on the Compressor Route illustrates, local Chilean and Argentinian people are caught between a rock and a hard place. The bolts are simultaneously representative of a violation and a part of their cultural patrimony.


Jake Boomer (he/him/his) is a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in the Social Sciences at The University of Chicago. His research interests include tourism, immigration, and the role that sport plays in forming national identity. Past projects have involved explorations of Catholic religious practice in early colonial Mexico and mining in Bolivia.

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  1. Marcos Mendoza, The Patagonian Sublime: The Green Economy and Post–Neoliberal Politics (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018), 30.
  2. Mendoza, Patagonian Sublime, 30.
  3. Mendoza, 31.
  4. Mendoza, 31.
  5. Mendoza, 31.
  6. Mendoza, 33.
  7. Yvon Chouinard, et al., Climbing Fitz Roy, 1968: Reflections on the Lost Photos of the Third Ascent (Ventura: Patagonia Books, 2013), 20.
  8. Chouinard, et al., Climbing Fitz Roy, 20.
  9. Pascale Bonnefoy, “With 10 Million Acres in Patagonia, a National Park System is Born,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2018, A6.
  10. Elena Louder and Keith Bosak, “What the Gringos Brought: Local Perspectives on a Private Protected Area in Chilean Patagonia,” Conservation and Society 17, no.2 (2019): 162.
  11. Louder and Bosak, “What the Gringos Brought,” 162.
  12. Louder and Bosak, 162.
  13. Bonnefoy, “With 10 Million Acres in Patagonia.”
  14. Emily Wakild, “Purchasing Patagonia: The Contradictions of Conservation in Free Market Chile,” in “Lost in Transition” in Chile: A Critique of Neoliberalism from Pinochet to “The Third Way,” Bill Alexander, ed. (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2009): 119–20.
  15. Wakild, “Purchasing Patagonia,” 119.
  16. Mendoza, Patagonian Sublime, 100.
  17. Wakild, “Purchasing Patagonia,” 119.
  18. Louder and Bosak, “What the Gringos Brought,” 161.
  19. Louder and Bosak, 161.
  20. Louder and Bosak, 162.
  21. Louder and Bosak, 161.
  22. Yaryna Khmara and Jakub Kronenberg, “Degrowth in Business: An Oxymoron or a Viable Business Model for Sustainability?” Journal of Cleaner Production 177, (2018): 721.
  23. Sharon J. Hepburn, “In Patagonia (Clothing): A Complicated Greenness” Fashion Theory 17, no. 5 (2013): 625.
  24. Hepburn, “In Patagonia (Clothing),” 623.
  25. Mendoza, Patagonian Sublime, 30.
  26. Mendoza, 34.
  27. Mendoza , Patagonian Sublime, 35.
  28. Bonnefoy, “With 10 Million Acres in Patagonia.”
  29. Bonnefoy.
  30. Bonnefoy.
  31. Wakild, “Purchasing Patagonia,” 120.
  32. Jake Kosek, Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 100.
  33. Kosek, Understories.
  34. Luis Fernando Astudillo Becerra, “¿Cumple Chile Los Estándares Internacionales En Materia De Consulta a Los Pueblos Indígenas? (Una Breve Revisión a Los D.S. N° 66 Del Ministerio De Desarrollo Social Y N° 40 Del Ministerio Del Medio Ambiente)” Estudios Constitucionales 15, no. 1 (2017): 129.
  35. Astudillo Becerra, “¿Cumple Chile Los Estándares Internacionales En Materia De Consulta a Los Pueblos Indígenas?,” 130.