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Seen from a low-flying light aircraft, the vast system of lagoons, marshes, shallows and grasslands that form the Esteros del Iberá in the north-eastern corner of Argentina stretch out into the distance, apparently devoid of all human activity.

But after a bumpy landing on the grass airstrip at one of the estancia, or ranch, of the US millionaire-turned-ecologist Douglas Tompkins on the edges of the wetlands, it becomes clear that all is not as tranquil as it seems.

Mr Tompkins has been thrust into the front line of a controversy caused by an attempt to expropriate the roughly 300,000 hectares of the wetlands that are foreign-owned – about a quarter of their surface area – the bulk of which has been bought by Mr Tompkins to conserve it.

Argentina’s under-secretary of the department of land for social housing, Luis D’Elía, is a former leader of the piqueteros, or unemployed protesters, who gained popular support during the 2001 economic crisis. He says the ownership of some 15m hectares, or more than 5 per cent of Argentina’s surface area, “could be the object of expropriation by the state”.

The government has distanced itself from Mr D’Elía’s declarations, although he has close relations with President Néstor Kirchner and is generally believed to act only with his approval. The investment climate in Argentina has already suffered after the government’s rough treatment of foreign investors and measures to calm inflation through price controls, tariff freezes for utilities and beef export bans.

“Is the government supporting [D’Elía] or is it in a tough position as he is a piquetero and it doesn’t want to alienate that bloc? Our position is that we don’t know,” says Mr Tompkins.

Mr Tompkins, who made his fortune by establishing the clothing companies North Face and Esprit, perches on a simple wooden chair in the modest sitting room at his estancia in the province of Corrientes. He says he is aiming to reintroduce extirpated species such as the jaguar and giant ant-eater to the marshlands, and dismisses as “laughable” his opponents’ claims that he is involved in a US plot to gain access to the enormous reserves of water below ground in the Guaraní aquifer. He is also criticised for mistreatment of local settlers, which he denies.

“The problem is about geopolitics,” says Araceli Méndez, the member of the lower house of congress from Mr Kirchner’s party who introduced the bill to expropriate Mr Tompkins’s land in August. “It’s a question of national sovereignty. We don’t want our natural resources to be in the hands of foreigners,” she says, suggesting that Mr Tompkins could be a CIA agent and claiming that the US is planning to establish a military base in Paraguay, some 700km from his property – something the US denies.

“This lady is off her rocker and has no idea what she is talking about – if she does she’s being completely disingenuous. Either way it’s a sad story,” says Mr Tompkins, who has put 826,000 hectares of land in Argentina and Chile under conservation, mostly in Patagonia, with the aim of restoring and protecting biodiversity and returning it to the public domain. In 2004, he donated a national park to Argentina and owns one of the largest private parks in the world in southern Chile.

“We’re trying to do good things – for the common good – as we believe in that. We don’t believe in accumulating wealth and lavish lifestyles,” says Mr Tompkins. “These people don’t understand what the idea of charity and philanthropy is about.”

Not all the foreign landowners in Argentina profess to have such noble aims, with large estates belonging to celebrities like Luciano Benetton, Ted Turner and Sylvester Stallone. Since the furore over Mr Tompkins’s land blew up, Mr D’Elia has threatened land owned by Luciano Benetton, who he accuses of blocking access to local Indian inhabitants.

“The huge extensions of land in the hands of foreigners are a sequel to the Menem [Argentina’s president from 1989 to 1999] decade. Foreign investors came in through the window to take for themselves lands without property titles,” says a document published by Mr D’Elía’s office.

For Mr Tompkins, a fervent supporter of the anti-globalisation movement, there is a clear irony in the expropriation attempts given that he plans to return the land to the state anyway, but he says he has become used to opposition to his environmental projects.

“It’s a pitched battle around the world. People are destroying the environment for their own ends and the world is coming apart at the seams. It’s a David and Goliath fight, and it’s not easy,” he says.

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