Green Millions for Patagonia Campaign

Carla Alonso and Darío Zambra / La Nación (Chile)
Sunday, October 28, 2007

They love to raft down the Futaleufú River and fish in the Baker. They travel around the planet, looking for arenas to challenge those mega-projects that threaten the environment. Aaron Sanger, Jacob Scherr, Robert Kennedy Jr., Alan and Donald Weeden and Douglas Tompkins, among others, are building a million-dollar battle.

“We’ll get the money we need to win this battle”, assures Aaron Sanger, the attorney recruited by NGO International Rivers Network (IRN) to lead their crusade against the HidroAysén powerplants. "We have enough funds to get into this, and many foundations have already made a commitment to provide whatever we need”, emphasizes Sanger, the same activist who, in 2003, organized a boycott against Chilean lumber and forced the Matte and Angelini groups to sign an agreement to protect native forests.

Sanger is not bluffing. When the 35 organizations that make up the Council to Defend Patagonia (CDP) decided to publish a book on the campaign, IRN did not hesitate to provide the 50 thousand dollars that made it possible to print 3000 deluxe, full-color books.

This same prosperity, unknown for local environmentalists, bore fruit in the book on, "The Chilean Patagonia without Dams", launched on October 4th in the Hidalgo Castle on Mt. Santa Lucía. "There were lots of Americans and Europeans we didn’t know, but we heard a Spaniard say, as he drank red wine, Go ahead and drink up, because we are treating! Then we realized that they were sponsoring the event”, tells one participant in the event.

Several of these strangers are funding the million-dollar crusade to keep Endesa and the Matte group from building five hydropower mega-stations in the Pascua and Baker River basins, in Aysén. They are executives and activists of the most powerful conservation NGOs of the US, the millionaires who bankroll environmental causes, such as Douglas Tompkins, Alan Weeden or Alan Horne.


One of the most important entities committed to this campaign is the powerful Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), with over 1.2 million members and activists on Internet, working with attorney Robert Kennedy.

The Council’s annual budget of 60 million dollars has Board members including businessmen such as Robert J. Fisher, President of GAP; Peter Morton, founder and President of the Hard Rock chain, and Alan Horne, President of Warner Bros. who instituted the use of recycled oil in all the cars and trucks used in his media empire.

The NGO is mainly funded by membership fees, and also receives donations from over 200 institutions and individuals, contributing amounts ranging from 25 thousand to 100 thousand dollars a year: the 2006 list, for example, includes actors Paul Newman and Nicolas Cage, and Ted Turner’s foundation. Jacob Scherr, director of the NRDC’s international program, tells us that the Council has established mechanisms to ensure that such funds come from people and entities that share their principles. “We have a certain number of well-known individuals who belong to our organization, such as Robert Redford, James Taylor and Di Caprio, who have shown a lifelong personal commitment to environmental issues", he says.

Scherr tells us that his organization has programmed two trips to Patagonia in 2008, first with a group of executives and businesspersons called Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), who want to spread the idea among their Chilean peers that an ecological company can be effective and successful. Another visit, in March, will include notables such as Bobby Kennedy and Di Caprio himself.

"We are quite interested in appealing to business leaders, not just to talk about alternative energy sources, but also for them to help us make an independent analysis of the energy alternatives for Chile’s future", says Scherr, adding that his organization is pursuing a study, along with experts from industry, government and NGOs, that will be headed by researchers from the University of Chile. "Our members and activists have sent over 23 thousand emails to Chilean leaders, such as Bernardo Matte, Rodrigo Iglesias, Mario Valcarce and Marcelo Tokman, asking them to join in the process", he explains.


Up until a few months ago, Aaron Sanger was one of the worst headaches for the two big Chilean logging companies, Arauco and CMPC. As Director of Forest Ethics, this attorney lobbied powerfully with US buyers of Chilean timber, including giant Home Depot, to force the Angelini and Matte groups to sign an agreement to protect the native woodlands, and finally won.

During these negotiations, he met Eliodoro Matte, President of CMPC and one owner of Colbún. When he changed jobs, Sanger shared his decision with the President of CEP and told him that they would again be on opposing sides, this time because of Patagonia’s rivers.

The attorney previews that, just as in 2003, his strategy against HidroAysén will center on the international markets for the Matte and Angelini groups, which also hold stock in Colbún. "The Chilean economy depends heavily on its foreign image, and we believe that the image of HidroAysén will be associated with a primitive energy policy and the picture of degrading Patagonia, which is a worldwide symbol of Nature", he explains.

IRN also expects that money will not be the stumbling-block in this plan. A call to such powerful foundations as Ford, Steward Mott, Tides, Wallace Global or Weeden, is enough to raise the thousands of dollars that has made them one of the main funders for Patagonia without Dams.

From Connecticut to Futaleufú

Thirty years ago, after amassing an enviable fortune on Wall Street, Frank Weeden decided to spend part of it to create an organization to protect biodiversity. Today, the Weeden Foundation is managed by its founder’s four children, but one of them, Alan, is the one most committed to conserving Chile’s Patagonia.

"Three decades ago was our first trip there", says Donald, who is Alan’s son and the Foundation's Executive Director. "My father and I kayaked in the sea west from Puerto Natales for almost a month. Since then we have visited the region every year. We even made the first trip down the Baker River, from Cochrane to Puerto Edén".

All the Weedens are fans of river kayaking, although Donald is the greatest enthusiast. ("He was one of the pioneers in kayaking down the Biobío in the 80s, before they built the Pangue powerplant", says one of his close friends) and Alan prefers fly fishing. They enjoy these hobbies every March, when before summer in Connecticut and New York, and they settle in at their property where the Futaleufú and Espolón Rivers flow together. "It is a pleasant little cabin on a piece of land over 100 hectares", adds the same friend.

Just this year, the Weedens have turned over 40 thousand dollars to Ecosistemas, 15 thousand to the Environmental Prosecutor, 20 thousand to IRN and another 20 thousand to Conservación Patagónica, which is Tompkins’ foundation. "Douglas is a close friend of the family and gets together every year with Alan and Donald, whether in Pumalín or in New York", says another source.

In addition to the fund left by its creator, the Weeden Foundation raises funds from other magnates. There is no more effective way than the photo-montages of their campaign, showing the flooded valleys and Patagonia crossed by huge high-tension towers. "We don’t need to electrocute Patagonia. There are other alternatives. It is too beautiful a place to destroy it", says Donald.

Tompkins, moving out

How much money does Douglas Tompkins contribute, who is viewed by many as the great philanthropist of Chilean conservation? Plenty, but less and less. Although until a few months ago the owner of Pumalín was the main funder of the anti-dam NGOs, through his foundations, The Conservation Land Trust and Conservación Patagónica, his financial strategy has shifted.

"He is reducing his involvement, because he doesn’t want his presence to continue causing problems for the campaign, and he is aware that it is easier to attack the position of Patagonia without Dams if he remains the principal funder", explains a CDP executive.

Tompkins, however, has made the commitment to find new funders, as he did with the Weedens. "They are mainly Americans, but he has also contacted Germans, Belgians and Dutch supporters, whom we will be meeting in the coming months”, says the same source.

Environmentalists also know that another weak flank of the campaign is the involvement of Víctor Hugo Puchi, owner of the Aquachile salmon company, an industry questioned for some of its environmental and labor practices. He owns land and provides funding, but within the CDP they under-estimate his significance. "He talks a lot, but his actual funding is not so great", one affirms.

Whitewashing the origin of funds does not keep environmentalists up at night anyway, since they know that there will always be a way to challenge those who put up the money. One says, "ultimately, all money is dirty money".