Greens buy threatened Patagonian wilderness

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British environmental charities are rushing to buy land in Patagonia, one of the world's great natural wildernesses, to keep it out of the hands of property developers and seclusion-seeking international celebrities.

British environmental charities are rushing to buy land in Patagonia, one of the world's great natural wildernesses, to keep it out of the hands of property developers and seclusion-seeking international celebrities.

Nearly a sixth of Patagonia belongs to just 350 foreign owners. The Benetton brothers, Luciano and Carlo, have invested £62m in a ranch with 60,000 square miles of sheep farms. George Soros, the Hungarian-born billionaire investor, has bought 964,000 acres just south of the province of Buenos Aires, where he breeds cattle. Ted Turner, the American CNN media baron, has built a mansion in the Andean foothills, and Sylvester Stallone has bought 30,000 acres in San Martin de los Andes.

Sparsely populated Argentinian Patagonia, which stretches for 1,200 miles from the Rio Colorado to Cape Horn, was evocatively described by the writer Bruce Chatwin as a land of "rags of silver cloud and a sea of grey-green scrub". It is home to an astonishing array of wildlife, from guanacos and pumas to Magellanic penguins, fur seals, elephant seals and whales. Famous footage of killer whales flinging themselves on to a beach to snap up seal pups was filmed at Peninsula Valdez.

Despite this, there is little protection for wildlife outside the immediate vicinity of Peninsula Valdez. In the 1980s, public outrage only just stopped plans by a Japanese company to harvest 40,000 penguins for food and their skins for gloves.

In what it sees as a pre-emptive strike, a British environmental charity, the World Land Trust, has bought La Esperanza, a 15,000-acre ranch just north of Peninsula Valdez and Puerto Madryn, the biggest city in the region, for £260,000. It gave the land to a local organisation to run as a wildlife reserve. Already the ranch, home to pumas, great horned owls and parrots, has attracted a new colony of sea lions and killer whales.

The charity, which has David Bellamy as a trustee and the support of Sir David Attenborough, hopes it will act as a buffer zone, keeping development and overgrazing at bay. "We wanted to get there first to make sure the land was kept in sympathy with the wildlife," said the World Land Trust's John Burton. "Before we got involved there wasn't a single nature reserve anywhere the length of the Patagonian steppe."

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has joined a local organisation, Fundacion Vida Silvestre Argentina, to buy 25 miles of coastline around Monte Leon in Patagonia's Santa Cruz province.

"There is no federal marine legislation in Argentina and every bit of land and sea is open to unsustainable development," said Sarah Jones, marine policy officer for WWF-UK. "The only way at the moment to preserve a site in Patagonia and keep it from developers is to buy it for conservation purposes."

Pressure on wildlife in Patagonia has been heightened by economic problems and the easing of restrictions on foreign land ownership. Argentina's financial meltdown and a long-term collapse in wool prices have crippled the sheep farms and ranches that dot the vast region. Some farmers have attempted to make good the slump in their incomes by increasing the size of their ranches and settling more livestock, transforming their holdings into industrial-scale ranches with tens of thousands of sheep. But this has led to overgrazing and widespread soil erosion. Others have sold out to developers who seek quick returns from new hotels or shrimp farms. Low prices and the huge expanses of uninhabited, unspoilt countryside have been the main attraction.

"With land so cheap, there is always the potential for something damaging to be built or done," said Mr Burton. His charity, which raised a loan to buy La Esperanza, is seeking to repay it by selling one-acre plots to British supporters. Each costs only £25 – and that is the market price.

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