Convergence: The Unlikely Partnership That Saved Punta de Lobos

The land that launched a worldwide campaign for its protection. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Soens

Converge: to come together from different directions so as eventually to meet.

Ramon Navarro didn’t initially trust the millionaire. “All I have is my name, and if Nico backed out of the deal, my reputation would have been ruined,” he tells me.

Ramon Navarro at his home break. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Farias

Navarro, Chile’s most famous surfer, comes from a family of fishermen in the small town of Pichilemu. Nico Davis, on the other hand, is heir to EuroAmerica, one of the largest insurance companies in the country and was raised in a life of privilege in the capital, Santiago.

The two men come from different worlds, but both served as key players in a recent land conservation success story at Chile’s best-known surf spot, Punta de Lobos, in the town of Pichilemu.

On a brisk November morning in 2017, Navarro stands in front of a large crowd at “El Mirador,” the valuable beachfront plot of land at the tip of the point that has recently been protected from development. In the crowd are musician Jack Johnson, members of the outdoor company Patagonia, and hundreds of Pichilemu locals.

Cactus hug the iconic cliff and mustard-colored wildflowers explode in the surrounding pastures. Pichilemu has developed rapidly in recent years, and new homes dot the hills in the distance. Chilean architecture has a distinct style and the homes, although uniformly square and boxy, somehow complement the bucolic hillside.

As Navarro speaks, the wind whips into the microphone and creates a vibrato. His typically energetic voice sounds uncharacteristically shaky. “My earliest memories were listening to the seals barking on the rocks down there,” Navarro says. He pauses and turns his head away from the audience and removes his sunglasses for a moment to wipe his eyes. He exhales and continues. “I just can’t believe this is real, I can’t believe the point will be protected forever.” He says a few words of gratitude to his community in Spanish, puts the microphone down, walks over to his wife, buries his head in her arms, and begins to sob.

Navarro’s emotion is understandable. He was born near the point, and his adult life has been dedicated to environmental activism. In 2011 he became a national hero when he successfully rode a wave as big as a six-story hotel at The Eddie Aikau Invitational, a big-wave competition on surfing’s grandest stage. He leveraged this new attention to spotlight coastal issues in his country.

Navarro leveraged his success as a surfer to bring attention to coastal issues back home. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/deHeeckeren

Chilean oligarchs like Nico Davis, however, are not known for their conservation values and are more typically associated with the coastal pulp mills and coal-fired power plants that Navarro protests.

Men like these would rarely encounter one another. In Isabel Allende’s memoir, “My Invented Country,” she writes about the segregation in Chile: “In Santiago … the lines of demarcation are clear. The distance between the mansions of the wealthy on the foothills of the cordillera, with guards at the gate and four-car garages, and the shacks of the proletarian population where fifteen people live crowded together in two rooms without a bath, is astronomical.”

As a Patagonia surf ambassador, I have come to Chile for the multi-day celebration of my friend Ramon’s great accomplishment. I have come to aid in the consumption of their dangerously delicious national drink, the Pisco Sour, and I have come to find out who Nico Davis is, and why the mysterious millionaire who was shuttled to the celebration by private helicopter is now working alongside a team of surfers, conservationists and local fishermen.

In 2013, the longtime owner of El Mirador sold the land, and there were rumors that a hotel developer was interested in developing another property further down the point. A blueprint of a multi-story hotel later surfaced that showed structures wrapping from the pastures to the side of the point.

Desperate to prevent impending and irreversible changes to the point’s beautiful landscape, Navarro sent an email to Save The Waves, a California based coalition that focuses on coastal conservation issues around the world.

Land sales and development plans threatened the point that overlooks Chile’s best-known wave. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Johnson

“Two weeks after I started working at Save The Waves I got this email from Ramon and he was like, ‘Save The Waves, help! The point is for sale,’” says Nik Strong-Cvetich, the executive director of Save The Waves.

“I met with Ramon,” Strong-Cvetich continues. “I told him, look, we can’t buy the point, but we do have this program called The World Surfing Reserves, and we can do what’s called a ‘surfonomics study,’ which could help the case to conserve the land.”

Surfonomics measures the economic value of waves. Without studies conducted on the money generated through surf-related business and tourism, lawmakers don’t necessarily see what they lose when they greenlight development projects that may scar the coast.

Their goal was to use the surfonomics study to show government officials the value of the surf and justify its protection. Furthermore, when a surf spot is named a World Surfing Reserve by Save the Waves, a local “stewardship council” is put into place, along with a site-specific stewardship plan to protect the reserve. A local committee was formed focused on the long-term conservation of the point: the Committee for the Defense of Punta de Lobos, of which Davis became a member. The first step of the group was to temporarily freeze development, and thereby buy themselves time to come up with a permanent solution.

The Pichilemu mayor’s office agreed to the freeze. But in Chile, private ownership rights tend to trump conservation longterm. If Navarro and co. wanted to protect Lobos for good, they would need to find roughly $900,000 to purchase it themselves.

In a country with limited conservation precedence, the best way to secure the land was to own it outright. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Soens

“So that was the beginning of this crazy-ass dream,” Strong-Cvetich says. They set out to raise the money, leaning on a strategy that used the media muscle of Navarro’s main sponsor, Patagonia, to serve as a fundraising tool.

In 2014, as Navarro and Save The Waves were setting up a fundraising plan, Davis offered to buy the property outright. He made a handshake agreement with Save The Waves that once they had successfully secured the funds, Davis would sell the property to a local foundation at a loss of roughly $140,000, which he would cover out of his own pocket.

“At that point we were like, this could fucking backfire,” Strong-Cvetich says. “There was no way we could guarantee that the deal would go through. At any point, Nico could have pulled out, Nico could have kept the land, Nico could have raised the price. It was scary, but we felt like we could trust him because he didn’t need this project as his core business, and because you could see that he had really fallen in love with Punta de Lobos.”

Navarro was risking his reputation by aligning with Davis. If Davis backed out of the deal, Navarro feared that he would be seen as a sellout. To make trust issues worse, Davis was in the process of building a hotel at the base of Punta de Lobos, called The Alaia. A potential fox was guarding the hen house.

Nonetheless, they agreed to Davis’ proposal, and began working to legally formalize the plan.

I am sitting at the bar of Davis’ hotel, The Alaia, with my second pisco sour. The drink enhances the warm afternoon glow of the turquoise waves that uniformly roll from the horizon to the sand on which the hotel sits. It turned out that Davis’ grand hotel plans that Navarro and his community feared materialized in a discrete, one-story structure with only eight rooms, all of them burrowed into the hillside. In fact, the bar in which I sit is the only section of the structure that is visible from the point.

A man walks into the bar, spots me, and walks directly to me. He’s a fit, middle-aged man with a sharp face and what turns out to be an equally sharp mind. He gives me an enigmatic grin and says in fluent English, “I hear you want to interview me?” “Yes,” I reply. “Does tonight work?” He tells me that tonight is for celebration. Tomorrow morning we can talk business.

Navarro and Davis on the evening of the land’s dedication. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Soens

That night, the group gathers around a fire on the beach. Jack Johnson plays his guitar. I notice Davis standing front and center in the crowd, grinning ear to ear.

Late the next morning, I sit across from Davis on a patio at his hotel restaurant with a cappuccino, a recorder, and a headache. Davis wears dark sunglasses to shield against the nemesis of hangovers: a bright day.

I ask him what his first involvement in philanthropy was. “Chile is a country of disasters,” he replies. “Every year we have disasters.” Davis is a natural storyteller and although he had a late night, he speaks in narrative, pauses effectively, and uses subtle hand gestures when making a point.

He tells me that in February of 2010, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake hit Chile and triggered a tsunami which ravaged several coastal towns and destroyed much of Pichilemu’s artisanal fishing industry – these are fishermen who slide into thick wetsuits and collect edible kelp and shellfish in the cold shallow water. Navarro’s father was one of these fishermen. Months after the disaster, many fishermen were unable to get back to work because their gear had been destroyed. At the request of a friend, Davis traveled to Pichilemu for his first time and bought the fishermen new gear so that they could return to work. “Sometimes things happen that are so big, your priorities change.” On that first trip Davis also had the idea for his hotel, The Alaia.

I ask Davis about his initial interactions with Navarro. “There was a big tension because when we started building The Alaia, Ramon saw me as an outsider and as a menace. So I told him, ‘O.K., what we need to do is work on trust.’ And the only way to achieve trust is to walk the walk. Eventually he saw in us a good partner.”

With the land deal in process with Davis, Navarro and Save The Waves launched the “Lobos Por Siempre” campaign in early 2015 to raise the funds to buy the property. Patagonia and filmmaker Chris Malloy made a documentary about Navarro called “The Fisherman’s Son,” and they used the global tour as a fundraising tool to collect donations. Patagonia matched $100,000 in crowdfunded donations. The company also began licensing their patented PSI inflation-vest technology to the surf industry for a fee, and donated the $150,000 generated through licensing.

Meanwhile, Nico Davis set up the Fundación Punta de Lobos and appointed a young Chilean, Matias Alcalde, to run the foundation that would be the future recipient of the land.

In the span of two years, and with the help of Patagonia, the Marisla Foundation, Packard Foundation, Waitt Foundation and 900 individual donors from 28 countries, Save The Waves and Fundación Punta de Lobos raised over $750,000. In October 2017, the land was officially transferred into the Fundación’s ownership, under the agreement that it could never be developed.

Fundacion Punta de Lobos Executive Director Matias Alcalde accepting ownership of the El Mirador land. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Soens

It was a new conservation model that involved a celebrity athlete (Navarro), a private company (Patagonia), an international non-profit (Save The Waves), a local non-profit (Fundacion Punta De Lobos), and small donors from around the world.

A coalition that comprised private companies and foundations, American and Chilean non-profts, grassroots activists and donors from around the world secured the land at the tip of Punta de Lobos. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Soens

Back at The Alaia, we can see El Mirador from our table. Davis points to it. “This is a small conservation project, but one that will have a huge impact.” Fundacion Punta De Lobos has already built a visitors center where the thousands of tourists who visit the point each year can learn about the story.

Davis is smart enough to recognize that his involvement in this project benefits his legacy. But why shouldn’t it? Some millionaires plaster their names on buildings to be remembered, far fewer wield their power to protect nature. In a time when government leadership is lacking in the conservation realm, this new model allows the private sector to step up. “Nico is a model of private conservation philanthropy in Chile and beyond,” says Strong-Cvetich. “He can inspire other philanthropists to take a look at conservation.”

As Davis and I finish the interview I think back to the first email Navarro sent to Save The Waves five years prior. Had that message not been sent, the cactus and pastures at El Mirador would have most likely been dug out to make way for a multi-story hotel. This unlikely partnership never would have happened. And Navarro might have never gotten to tell his community that the point would be protected forever.

Navarro on land that now belongs to Fundacion Punta de Lobos. Photo: Courtesy of Patagonia/Johnson

Davis is already in conversation with philanthropist Kris Tompkins (widow of North Face Founder Doug Tompkins), to conserve larger swaths of land in Chile. Before Davis leaves to fly back to Santiago in his chopper, he looks at me and says, “What we’re doing here, we can do elsewhere.”

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