A Return to Reality

Chilean Land Conservation and Land Ethics

Chile boasts a high number of diverse landscapes and endemic species (Hiss, 2017; Tepper & Alonso, n.d.).  A vertical mirror image of the western coast of the United States, Chile traverses a variety of latitudes creating a range of biogeography (Hiss, 2017). Chile’s fjords, Mediterranean landscapes, temperate forests, grasslands, and alpine environments birthed a variety of unique species that date back to the early Tertiary (Hiss, 2017).  Additionally, the extreme diversity of these unique environments aided in the evolution of 90% of Chilean species that are found nowhere else in the world (Hiss, 2017).  With numerous similarities at the landscape level to the United States, Chile has recently followed the US in furthering private conservation opportunities (“Celebrating the Derecho Real de Conservacion”, 2016; Hiss, 2017; Tepper & Alonso, n.d.).

On May 31, 2016 under President Michelle Bachelet, Chile passed a historic law that changed their civil code (“Celebrating the Derecho Real de Conservacion”, 2016).  Like many other Latin American nations, Chile’s civil code is based on Roman statutes and not on the precedence of judicial rulings; therefore, Chile’s recent change in legal code is not only exemplary, but also history-making.  Chile’s new Derecho Real legislation allows for a private conservation to flourish.  Derecho Real is a flexible conservation tool that is similar to conservation easements in the United States, and because of this new legislation, private citizens have the ability to conserve their land with NGOs or non-profits instead of simply giving their land to governmental agencies for conservation. Derecho Real is “roughly analogous to what is called conservation easements in the United States” (“Celebrating the Derecho Real de Conservacion”, 2016, p. 1).

Currently, the United States has 24 million acres of conservation easements (Hiss, 2017).  The mix of public lands and private conservation easements allows land to be conserved quickly with little to no governmental input.  Based on the “bundle of rights” model (Hiss, 2017), conservation easements give private landowners the ability to sell a right, such as the right to protect natural resources while maintaining the rest of the land rights.  Private landowners enter conservation easements willfully and often work with NGOs or non-profits to determine action plans for their land for the future.

Many believe that the next step for Chile is to incentivize the Derecho Real, so that landowners receive a tax credit or financial incentive.  However, after reading “Celebrating the Derecho Real de Conservacion” (2016) and two reviews of the recent changes in Chilean conservation (Hiss, 2017; Tepper & Alonso, n.d.), I cannot help but reminisce about a lecture by Ignacio Jiménez Pérez of the Tompkins Foundation and the Conservation of Land Trusts of Argentina at E.O. Wilson’s Duke University Biodiversity Conference (2017).  Pérez’s presentation was nothing short of electrifying, and the undergraduate students that accompanied me almost rose out of their seats to give him a standing ovation.  Presenter after presenter (for three days) stated the problems and shortcomings of current conservation efforts: the need for a global landscape level strategic plan, changes in governmental will, adjustments in the tax code, and financial assistance, which all seemed to plague the presenters.  Pérez on the other hand offered something different. 

When asked how the Tompkins Foundation (a foundation which made the largest land donation to a country in history) could be replicated in the United States where money for conservation is scarce, Pérez beamed with a smile.  Next, Pérez stared at each American present and stated, “You do not have a money problem—you have a messaging problem”.  What Tom and Kris Tompkins, founders of the Tompkins Foundation accomplished in Patagonia could be deemed simple a financial transaction; however, Pérez knew that finances were a minor component to the deal.  Instead, Tom and Kris Tompkins had developed inside themselves a new kind of land ethic.  American born and established entrepreneurs, the Tompkins knew that their legacy would be fleeting, if only financial. Additionally, the Tompkins had spent countless hours in the wilderness and developed a deep connection to the natural world. 

According to Pérez, the Tompkins decided to partner with the local gauchos in Patagonia, and like the indigenous Mapuche, they determined that the land around Patagonia was a powerful agent which held their lives and businesses (2017).  Hiss describes this change in society “a shift in the nature of reality” (2017, p. 17). However, after considering the land ethics of many indigenous societies, I would state that we are “returning” to reality.  As American capitalists, we often think that financial sector is preeminent; yet as we see more clearly, we realize that our survival is deeply interwoven with ecosystem health.  In order to move conservation forward, I would suggest that we do not simply focus on changing our governmental or financial structures, but that we focus on changing our ethics.


Hiss, T. (2017, February). South Star: Chile and the Future of Conservation Finance. Land Lines, 8-17.

Photo by:  Disclaimer: I do not own this photo.


Winter is a new day.

Winter is a new day.