Lou Hoffman died in July at age 93. Though he had a fortune from the Hoffman-LaRoche pharmaceutical company his grandfather had founded, he was modest and didn’t flaunt his wealth. In fact, he drove a Fiat Panda and stayed in hostels. At Tour du Valat his four children were brought up with the children of the estate workers, and were told their grandfather had a “chemist’s shop” in Basel. The Economist of August 6, 2016 noted, “Only the glass of Montrachet offered to a visitor, or the glimpse of a Braque in the drawing room (Braque, a friend, had also fallen for the Camargue), hinted that Mr. Hoffmann could have led a different, self-centered life.
“Wherever and whenever he thought good, he gave money. It was done either overtly, as grants or loans with his name attached, or covertly, through donations from organizations whose finances he controlled. When the World Wildlife Fund was set up in 1961, Peter Scott invited him to be president, but he declined; he became its second vice-president, and made quietly sure his money bankrolled the WWF to success. His dollars, as well as his drive, also saved the wetlands at Coto Doñana in Andalucia, home to imperial eagles; the Banc d’Arguin in Mauritania, the stopover point for millions of migrating waders; the Faia Brava in Portugal, haunt of griffon vultures; and many others. In 1971, at Ramsar in Iran, he oversaw the signing of the first global treaty protecting wetlands.
“His charm, tact and optimism proved important, for in setting up protected areas he was often dealing with difficult people: officials of Franco’s Spain, Soviet Russia and Mao’s China, and industrialists and developers of every stripe. He was dealing, too, with many struggling, suspicious locals who earned their living from the wetlands. His technique was to bring them alongside, showing that they could benefit from conservation—even the Camargue rice-farmers, who each spring found flamingos foraging among their newly planted crops. In Faia Brava the dwindling band of hill-farmers were encouraged to open their houses to hikers. In Banc d’Arguin tribal fishermen were given exclusive access to the waters of the reserve. His motto, reversing the theme of conservation to that point, was ‘with man, not against him’.
“In 1948 he bought an old farm at Tour du Valat, without water or power, with a mind to live there forever and set up a center for study. He did both. His center eventually welcomed up to 100 researchers; the flamingos, which had declined sharply in the 1960s, were monitored and re-established within a decade.”
The Economist obituary ends: “The concept of reserved areas deeply dissatisfied Hoffmann, for he wanted the whole globe to be a place where man lived in harmony with nature, and no special protections were needed any more. He was no militant, seeing the cause of conservation as going far beyond partisan politics or the shock tactics of Greenpeace; but in old age he shared much of their frustration. Small successes had been notched up here and there; not much more. Like the bee-eaters battling the wind, he was grateful to have caught a few flies on the wing; but his real ambition had been to change the wind itself.”
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