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ARGENTINA: Auctioned Nature Reserve Saved from Destruction

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 15 2005 (IPS) - After 20 months of an intense campaign by environmentalists, indigenous groups and local residents, authorities in the northwestern Argentine province of Salta have decided to cancel the sale of part of a nature reserve to agribusiness interests.

Through an agreement by the National Park Administration and the Salta provincial government, the Pizarro nature reserve, which in an unprecedented move had been stripped of its legal status as a protected area last year and seen part of its territory auctioned off to agribusiness firms, recovered its protected status Friday.

And under the accord, the Wichí indigenous group living in the reserve will be granted community title deeds to their lands.

“We are really excited by this agreement,” Juan Casavelos, with Greenpeace Argentina’s Biodiversity Campaign, told IPS. The international environmental watchdog was the most active participant in the effort to save the reserve. “We are leaving Pizarro, but we are going to follow the situation there centimetre by centimetre to makes sure that the agreement is put into effect.”

The conflict broke out in February 2004, when the government of Salta introduced a bill in the provincial legislature to auction off part of the 25,000-hectare Pizarro reserve, which is home to 3,000 peasant farmers and Wichís. The legislators approved the bill and ordered the auction to go ahead.

Environmental, social and religious groups, as well as academic institutions, backed the local residents’ protests against the law that declassified the area as a nature reserve, a status it had been given by a 1995 provincial law to protect the 25,000-hectare area.

This relatively tiny fraction of the “Chaco serrano” woodlands leading up to the foothills of the Andes mountains had been set aside to protect tree species like the ‘quebracho blanco’ (Aspidosperma quebracho-blanco), ‘quebracho colorado’ (Schinopsis quebracho-colorado), ‘palo amarillo’ (Aloysia gratísima) and ‘urundel’ (Astronium urundeuva).

Some of the vulnerable animal species inhabiting the reserve are the turquoise-fronted parrot (Amazona aestiva); two types of armadillo, the ‘tatú carreta’ (Priodontes maximus) and ‘quirquincho’ (Tolypeutes mataco); the jaguar (Panthera onca); the capuchin monkey (Cebus apella); the southern tarandua (an ant-eater, Tamandua teradactyla); and the capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), the world’s largest rodent.

The provincial authorities argued that the reserve is already degraded. But experts at the public National University in Salta said that was not true. And Carlos Ordoñez, a local resident of Pizarro, told IPS that there are large forested areas where access is impossible, which means that the alleged level of deterioration could not possibly exist.

Pizarro is home to small farmers whose forebears lived on the land. They need many hectares to eke out a bare living with their small herds of scrawny cattle and subsistence crops. Most of them live in extreme poverty, with neither piped water nor sewage services.

In June 2004, despite the protests, the government began to auction off the land to large agribusiness firms, which planned to clear the forests to plant soybeans, now the main export crop grown by large landholders and exporters in Argentina since the 1990s.

Greenpeace set up a camp in Pizarro and held constant protests and demonstrations along with the local residents in an attempt to keep the bulldozers from clearing the land.

The effort was also backed by other local and international environmental organisations. The Environment and Natural Resources Foundation took legal action in Buenos Aires to block the destruction of the forest.

But it was not until this month, when a group of personalities from the worlds of sports and arts spoke to President Néstor Kirchner to ask him to protect the reserve, that the government intervened, and an agreement was reached in just two weeks.

Renowned Argentine film and television actor Ricardo Darín made an unexpected call for support for the Pizarro reserve on football legend Diego Maradona’s new talk show, which already has the highest ratings in Argentina.

The representatives of the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources and the directors of the National Park Administration had said they were unable to take action because the reserve belonged to the province of Salta rather than the national government.

But after Darín’s appearance on the programme, and Maradona’s own offer of help, the president, who on Oct. 23 faces the first legislative elections of his term, met with the delegation of artists, environmentalists and indigenous activists in his office and promised to come up with a solution.

On Friday, the agreement in Salta was signed by the same governor who had ordered the sale of the land, Juan Carlos Romero.

Greenpeace sources commented to IPS that the governor did not appear to be pleased with the accord, but accepted it nonetheless. Under the agreement, the provincial government handed jurisdiction of the reserve park to the National Park Administration.

The area does not coincide exactly with the old limits of the reserve, because some of the area auctioned off had already been cleared of forest. The reserve is now a national park.

Of the 22,000 hectares that were recovered, 2,000 will be set aside for the common use of the Wichí indigenous community, which depends on hunting and the gathering of food in the forests for a living. In addition, 800 hectares will be granted as community property through a collective land title.

To make up for the difference in size with the original reserve and compensate for the land that had already been cleared, a private farm bordering the protected area, whose land has a similar ecosystem, promised to maintain another 3,000 hectares of forestland in reserve.

“That is a clear signal from a government that has been in constant conflict with its indigenous communities,” Greenpeace’s Casavelos said.

In a conversation with IPS, Beatriz Ponce, who lives in Pizarro, said she is pleased but cautious. “Let’s pray to God that this is real. The government of Salta fought hard to get into that land because there are many economic interests at stake.”

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