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The Future of National Parks in Argentina: An Interview with Ignacio Jiménez

The Conservation Land Trust Argentina is an organization which promotes the creation of national parks to expand their localization and re-introduce the wildlife that was lost in these areas due to human activities. We had the opportunity to talk with its Conservation Director, Ignacio Jiménez, to discuss different projects the foundation has in Argentina, the questions that surround them, and the future of conservation in Argentina.

The Conservation Land Trust of Argentina is a branch of Tompkins Conservation, a foundation created by the late Douglas Tompkins, American conservationist and billionaire, and now based in San Francisco. How did he become interested in Patagonia? Does that make you an American institution?

The Tompkins Conservation was indeed created by Douglas and his wife Christine Tompkins in the late 90’s. He was a mountaineer and a climber, and his heart and soul was in nature. He travelled around Patagonia in 1968, before he created the clothing brand The North Face and became famous, and he fell in love with the place. Thanks to the money he made with the clothing brand – a business he did not particularly appreciate, knowing that consumerism was a root of environmental and social problems – he thought he could use the money he had to help the nature he loved. So why not buying land?

He thus went to Patagonia, where his heart belonged, and started to buy land for conservation purposes, like the Rockefellers did in the 1920’s. It is a tradition in the United States for the rich to buy lands and donate them to the nations, but land prices there are high. In Patagonia, he knew he could have a bigger effect, as he was able, with the same money, buy much more area to protect. While Tompkins Conservation is American, I work for the Conservation Land Trust Argentina.

 

Douglas Tompkins started buying lands in Patagonia after visiting the place in 1968(Photo La Gran Epoca)

How many people work for the foundation?

There are around 100 people working in Argentina because there are several projects in the country, and I’d say that more than 60 percent are locals from the regions in which the parks are located. The rest of the staff is a mix between foreigners and Argentines.

You are the Conservation Director for CLT Argentina, but at the beginning, your focus was on the Iberá Park, located in the Corrientes Province. What is it that you did, and do, there?

Well, just to give you some context, I started working for the Conservation Land Trust in 2005, and from then until now, what we have been doing in Iberá is quite unique. We are creating a national park, yes, but above that, we are bringing back the extinct animal species of the region, like the giant anteaters, the jaguars, and the Pampas deer. At the same time, we are working hard with the local community in order for them to be included in the development of the park, and for them to grow through eco-friendly tourism.

How is the rewilding process going so far?

It is going quite well. It is a long process because there wasn’t any tradition for it in South America and in Argentina, but, for example, we’ve already established two populations of giant anteaters, a species that was until then completely extinct from the province. When I say “established,” I mean that they now have a good size of their own and have started to reproduce, and so we don’t need to release more animals. At the same time, we are establishing our Pampas deer population, and we are now starting to bring in jaguars too. All these efforts have the same goals: to establish a population. Altogether, it is the largest re-wilding effort in the Americas, including the United States!

We are really trying to bring back a big number of species in one eco-system, and it is going well. The biggest evidence of our success is the support we get from the people of Corrientes here in the province; they are supportive and enthusiastic concerning our actions.

The long-term objective is the creation of a park which could bring many tourists, in an environmental-friendly way, correct?

It is not a long-term objective. We have already been doing this as we usually work on three aspects with the parks; we create it, then we bring back all the lost species, and finally, we promote some public access so that visitors can enter the park. We see the parks as a productive area, we do not promote ourselves as doing conservation, because what we are doing is production: we produce naturally. This nature is a part of the economic and social system of our country, so we promote public access and these visitors, in exchange, bring resources from outside, which in turn are a source of jobs and pride for the local people. This is something which is already well in process, we have built around 180 camp grounds, we have improved our roads, marketed and promoted the area… Iberá isn’t just a park, it’s also a tourist destination.

Is it a challenge to create tourist installations, like the roads you were talking about, without damaging the park and disturbing the ecosystem in place?

No, it isn’t too difficult when you have enough space, which we do. You simply need the room: the larger the area, the lesser the impact, because to have a healthy population in a wildlife area, you need space. The Argentine government is currently debating a law which will confirm the Iberá Park as a national park, something that will, in essence, protect it forever – it is really difficult to go back and “undo” a national park. But to go back to your question, the park is 700,000 hectares; it is huge and with that size you can have a lot of people coming in and out, and as long as everyone behaves normally, aware of where they are and what that means, if they don’t bother the animals or throw garbage or stuff like that, the ecosystem thrives.

It is the same process that happened in Africa, for example with the Kruger National Park in South Africa. People go in and out with safari Jeeps and the lions go about their life, they don’t care. Another example can be found in the Yellowstone National Park, the biggest in the world, which has more than four million visitors per year and a thriving wildlife population.

What are the activities offered to tourists in the parks?

All of our activities focus around eco-tourism in a way that it also connects with the local culture. The customers who are coming to these areas are waiting for an authentic experience. You arrive in the park, you want to see condors, anteaters, deer, but you also want to dive in the gaucho culture, for example, to see how they dress, to have authentic and traditional food… It also depends on which park you are talking about since there are activities that are specific to each region. If you take the case of the Patagonia Park, visitors can go and see the Cueva de las Manos, an incredibly unique place that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Overall, it is really a combination of history, tradition and nature that create a big experience.

The Cueva de las Manos (Photo via Jorge Cazenave)

Talking about Patagonia, Fundación Flora y Fauna is trying to build a reserve in Argentina, conjointly to one already existing in Chile. Could you tell us a bit more about this ongoing project?

Yes, this is another project in southern Patagonia, near Los Antiguos. There you have a big plateau (Meseta del Lago Buenos Aires) and in this area is located a Chilean National Park, created thanks to the lands donated by Douglas Tompkins, and this park is called Parque Nacional Patagonia. There is another park with the same name in Argentina which is a bit smaller, and we want to increase its size so that touches its Chilean brother to become a bi-national park. Even if they’re managed separately, the two parks would have one name, one landscape, and a quite incredible size – it would be incredible.

How was the Argentine Patagonia Park created?

The Tompkins Foundation works through different organizations here in the country, organizations like the Conservation Land Trust Argentina and Fundación Flora y Fauna. The land and money were donated through the latter. The donor knew about the work done by the Tompkins, he was a friend of the couple and helped them in other projects, and he really wanted to create this park, and to buy and donate these lands in order to help protect them.

All the land donations that are made to your institution, which are used to create the parks, are later given to the government. How is it to work under the government? Does it make your job easier?

Governments have advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes management suffers due to the changes, since the foundation, or private organizations in general, tend to have less bureaucracy involved, for example. But the advantage to this is obvious, and was obvious to Douglas Tompkins from the start: while the specific government will change, the concept of having a government will stick around forever. Foundations come and go, and you never know what they could become, whereas with a government you become a national park, which in our experience from the last 120 years means being protected forever. Yes, management can be a bit better or a bit worse, but a park created by law is here to stay.

Moreover, every foundation has values, and among ours, you can find the fact that we believe in the government. NGOs should support them, not compete with them. The foundation never planned to keep the donated lands offered by Tompkins or by others.

When the lands were donated to the Argentine government, controversies arose around alleged clauses included in the contract – the idea that the donated lands would be taken away from the government if the foundation’s ideas and project weren’t respected.

Pardon my language, but that’s bullshit. There is no contract that stipulates that whatsoever: the donor just gave the money to Fundación Flora y Fauna, and then this foundation made arrangements with the national government. We already donated land in other parts of Argentina, such as in Iberá, and the only condition we put forward is that it needs to be declared a national park. Once that condition is respected, we trust the government: there is no contract filled with fine print that nobody can follow. We want to donate the land, we want to protect the local wildlife and its ecosystem – what would be the point of that?

I see. The controversy is also growing as some local communities in Patagonia are apparently raising up against the project, as they are afraid it would go against the local economy and the agricultural activities.

Yes, I see what you are talking about now. Right now, this is quite the sensitive topic in Patagonia, but the truth is that the largest part of the communities there are really happy about our project as it improves tourism. The controversy rises from the landowners, who are panicking because they don’t want to lose areas for livestock. There is a lot of speculation about what the park would mean, a game about who owns what, but the communities overall are totally pro-park because it means more jobs.

It was the same in Iberá, 12 years ago, and it has been the same in every park of the world. In a way, it is normal because when you talk about a change in land use, people feel threatened, so it is important to communicate on the fact that we are developing, not just conserving, that there will be productivity and diversification, and that this will benefit everyone in the end. Change is always difficult for those who are stuck in their old ways.

A big park, like the one we created in Iberá, offers new opportunities and a new kind of development, but it does not close the other ones. You can still have cows or sheep on your own land, nobody will forbid that. We are just using private donations to improve the environmental areas and to develop tourism; we are creating a change to find alternatives for the region.

El Condor Pasa… (Photo via Miguel Coranti)

What role do you play, if any, when the government starts debating a law to make one of these parks a national park?

It depends on each case. In Iberá last year, it was difficult because it was an electoral year, but in the end it went smoothly, we passed the Senate and the law is now in front of the congressmen’s desk. In Patagonia, we fear the controversies that you mentioned, but we remain hopeful that the good that our project has to offer will end up succeeding in the end.

Do you think these controversies are also caused because the land-buyers are foreigners?

Definitely. In general, in Latin America – more than in Europe, and way more than in the United States – people don’t believe that someone rich is going to use something that is private in order to make it a public good. They have only seen public goods becoming private for someone’s own interests and not the other way around, especially with foreigners. That explains their fear and it’s understandable, we understand them. A huge majority of our donors are from the United States, where there is a real culture of philanthropy, but in Latin America, that way of doing things is practically nonexistent. This, plus the anti-American feeling that one could say exists in this country right now, explains all the controversies there are.

How do you explain that the Patagonia project raised more controversies than the one in Iberá?

I think it all depends on the political timing. In Patagonia, the central government was eager to make it happen, things moved fast. That might have caused for the people in Santa Cruz to feel scared or threatened by these quick changes. In Iberá, we had to build it bottom up; we started by talking by the municipality, then we had to debate with the province, the region, and finally the national government. In Patagonia, the central government wants to have the jurisdiction on the lands which could add to the existing park soon, and so this causes fear. What is very often left unsaid, but is also quite obvious, is that the government’s jurisdiction will only apply to those lands that are purchased: If you have a ranch there and you don’t sell it to us, it will never be a national park – it’s that simple.

What other projects are you working on at the moment?

Really, our development always fluctuates depending on the donors: if we want to buy more lands, we need people who want to donate their resources. Right now, one of our main focus is to help the Argentine government to create two new National Marine Parks, within the sea, where there are zones which aren’t protected at all.

Source: The Bubble

By Antoine Latran

To learn more about Douglas Tompkins:

Laguna Blanca: Farming as if Nature Mattered (Hardcover)


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