The land will be added to Tompkins' Yosemite-size private ecological reserve, known as Parque Pumali. The park is near the town of Chaiten in Chile's in southern Region X.
With last week's acquisition, Tompkins owns 988,000 acres and is reported to be Chile's largest private landowner. That status has earned Tompkins the distrust of some Chilean nationalists, politicians and religious leaders, who have publicly questioned his motives.
Last week's purchase may have been a special one for the controversial environmentalist because it puts an interesting end to a dispute he had with the former mayor of Chaiten, Jose Miguel Fritis. Fritis, a self-declared foe of Tompkins, previously owned the land through the Santa Maria Inversiones investment group.
The mayor tried to sell the land to Tompkins for $1 million in August 1997, in what critics described as "a low-key extortion effort."
Fritis, a Christian Democrat (PDC) politician and regional councilor at the time, allegedly promised he would end his public opposition to Tompkins' Chilean presence if the multimillionaire agreed to buy his land. Tompkins refused the deal, however, saying the land was overpriced, not essential to the park's development and in violation of an agreement Tompkins had just signed with officials of President Eduardo Frei's government promising not to buy additional land in Chile for at least one year. To clear the debts of its associate company, the Santa Marta Livestock and Forestry Society S.A., Santa Maria Inversiones was recently ordered by Chile's Banco del Estado to sell the 7,400-acre plot. The company owed the bank $403,000, although local sources estimate that Tompkins paid no more than $276,000 for the 7,400-acre plot.
Fritis criticized the sale, saying Tompkins made it difficult for other parties to bid for the land. Fritis also voiced his dissatisfaction with the speed with which the sale was conducted and attacked the bank's unwillingness to accept a lower offer of $252,000 - the only other alternative to Tompkins' bid.
Relations between Tompkins and the Chilean people and government have improved considerably in the past few years, in part because Tompkins' park has created jobs and because a more sympathetic president - Ricardo Lagos of the Socialist Party - was elected last year. The U.S. millionaire has also helped fund environmental projects in Chile.
Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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