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Sebastián Piñera: Chilean Businessman, Politician, and Environmental Philanthropist

| Thursday May 1st, 2008 | 0 Comments

pinera.jpgEarlier this week, Hilary Clinton stood in front of a crowd of steel workers in a small town in Indiana and spoke of the mettle of the country. “So this is not just about steel,” she exhorted, alluding to the famous poem inscribed on a wall in the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the south, Chilean presidential candidate, Sebastián Piñera was equally inciting famous passages of his own.
Often known to quote former British PM Margaret Thatcher and Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Pi√±era has lately been proponing his Nuevo Trato, or New Deal, which is likened to FDR’s infamous namesake nearly a century ago. It is comprised of sweeping social, political, and economic changes for a country that is still constructing its identity in the decades after the Pinochet dictatorship. From both sides of the political spectrum, it is difficult to consider Pi√±era anything short of a visionary. A child who grew from rags to riches, he is now a billionaire business impresario, and a veteran of the country’s increasingly growing elite class. He was the first to bring credit cards to the country in the late 70’s and if you ask most Chilenos about Pi√±era, they will likely tell you he is a majority stakeholder in the largest airline in country. Others might tell you he is one of the owners of Colo-Colo, Chile’s most successful football team of late. What you might not as easily hear is he is also one of the largest protectors of Chilean wildlife.

In 1993, Pi√±era started Fundaci√≥n Futuro, in efforts to preserve the beauty of the world, to revive the culture and the art of the people, open educational horizons, and develop the Chile of the new millennium. One such effort of Fundaci√≥n Futuro and Pi√±era was Parque Tantauco, 118,000 hectares of ocean-kissed land on the southern tip of Isla de Chiloe, just off of the Chilean coast. Created in 2005, the park is the realization of “a personal dream” for Pi√±era. It is a place, according to the park’s website, where one can find adventure sports, excursions, whale watching, and kilometers of protected wildflowers, amongst other things.

Parque Tantauco
and Pi√±era’s efforts have been the subject of a slew of articles in the past few years, and stand as examples of a recent trend of philanthropy to protect South American wilderness pioneered in large part by former North Face and Esprit founder Doug Tompkins. Tompkins, who created Parque Pumalin in Chilean Patagonia, has along with his Bay Area-based Foundation for Deep Ecology, The Conservation Land Trust, and Conservaci√≥n Patagonica set aside over a million acres of wilderness as parkland in Argentina and Chile. It is Tompkins’ goal to eventually endow all of those lands to the respective countries for permanent protection.
The increasing exposure of Patagonian wilderness in the international eye, however, has also brought with it a fervent debate as to the role of foreigners in the preservation of domestic lands, leaving many Chileans and Argentines alike wary and distrustful of the intentionality of such large land purchases. Sebastián Piñera, to his benefit, has not bore the brunt of that debate; though, that does not mean his environmental efforts have not received their own share of scrutiny.
These days as US presidential hopefuls grapple with issues of an unpopular war and a faltering economy in debates and town hall meetings, Piñera has been feverishly meeting with Chilean government officials and environmentalists to discuss a looming energy crisis. Garnering more and more support in recent months, many environmental groups that view the current administration as largely ineffective in terms of environmental policy have switched their backing to Piñera.
However, as Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper reported last week that Pi√±era’s campaign was faltering, these recent accords may be coming at an expense. As the center-right candidate vies for the support of the country’s moderate vote, Pi√±era may be alienating himself from a larger majority of Chileans who are more concerned with more elemental issues such as the increasing cost of living and lack of jobs. In March, the rate of inflation in Chile reached it’s highest level in 14 years, hovering around 8.5%, nearly double the country’s central bank’s initial projections for 2008.
Regardless of how the businessman politically navigates the ebbs and flows of his campaign, one thing stands clear: the philanthropic support of the upper class to preserve some of the world’s most beautiful and complex eco-systems couldn’t come at a more critical time. However, Pi√±era also serves as a great example of what comes next. After all, the green movement as a whole cannot be (pardon the pun) sustained by a few, very rich people. As we are starting to see more and more in the US, what will be the result when environmental causes increasingly become political issues? As candidates stand in front of crowds in steel plants or university lecture halls and vow to create “green-collar” jobs or oppose gas tax breaks, will the politicization of the green movement bring about more or less substantial change? How will it inspire individuals, business, and governments alike to preserve the wonder and beauty of the land, from the creeks and streams in Montana to the far reaches of the Patagonian wilderness? Or, to cite Solzhenitsyn, from where will the call to save the world come?


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