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Deciding how and where to spend money can be a tricky decision for the mega wealthy. Douglas Tompkins knew exactly what he wanted - land and lots of it. When he cashed in his shares in sportswear company Esprit in 1990, he began buying up large tracts of land in South America. A self-proclaimed 'deep ecologist', he and partner Kristi McDivitt, former CEO of the outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, now owns 800,000 hectares in their trademark location. But they are not alone.Sylvester Stallone, Michael Douglas and CNN's Ted Turner all have impressive hideaways here in the land of the Mapuche.
So too have Joseph Lewis, one of Britain's wealthiest men. But perhaps most controversially of all Luciano Benetton, owner of the €2 billion clothing empire that bears his name. In 1991, Benetton purchased 900,000 hectares of prime sheep-rearing land - almost the size of Northern Ireland. Both he and Tompkins are two of the biggest landowners in the world. Both claim to be deeply committed to the protection of the environment in Patagonia - a claim that deeply offends the indigenous Mapuche people. They believe this land is their rightful inheritance and they want rid of Benetton, Lewis and others.
Straddling the southern Andes, Patagonia has been the home of the Mapuche people for over 11,000 years. Today there are an estimated 250,000 Mapuche people living in Argentina and almost four times that amount in Chile.
In 2002, Atilio Curiñanco and Rosa Nahuelquir applied to and got permission from the local land office to set up home on unoccupied indigenous territory. What neither Rosa and Atilio nor the local land office realized at that point was that this land had previously been purchase by the Italian clothing magnate Luciano Benetton. In setting up their home Rosa and Atilio were catapulted into an international conflict involving the Mapuche people and wealthy foreign landowners. That conflict resulted in their eviction by Benetton. But neither Rosa and Atilio nor the community at Santa Rosa where they live accept Benetton's right to evict them. They have returned to the land from which they were evicted and are openly challenging Benetton in the courts and in the forum of world opinion.
Among their key supporters is Argentinean Nobel Peace prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel. In July 2004, Esquivel backed the Mapuche in their struggle. In the Italian newspaper La Republica he described Luciano Benetton as having the same mentality as the conquistadores. In response Benetton offered a donation of 7,500 hectares. The Mapuche rejected his offer. The situation is currently in stalemate.