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ARGENTINA: Turning Wasteland into Woodland

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 18 2010 (IPS) - In Santiago del Estero, one of the Argentine provinces hit hardest by deforestation and desertification, an oasis of native tree species is being created to restore the soil and entice back farmers who were forced to leave their land.

“It’s not easy, it’s very costly and takes time, but it’s possible to rehabilitate degraded land,” Sonia Ramírez, head of the reforestation project underway around the village of Colonia El Simbolar, tells IPS.

In that area, 1,150 km northwest of Buenos Aires, the project built a greenhouse for the Argentine Mesquite (Prosopis alba), a native tree, and has planted some 1,900 hectares of trees, which are now around two metres tall.

The initial plan was to plant 3,000 hectares, but the project organisers scaled back their expectations to 2,000 hectares, which means the effort is nearing it goal.

Some 100 farmers who had abandoned their land, where they once grew cotton, soybeans, fruit and vegetables, are taking part in the programme. “Eighty percent of them are small farmers who were no longer able to survive on their land,” Ramírez explains.

She says the work involves growing the seedlings, preparing the soil, and planting and caring for the young trees. So far, the organic matter in the soil has shown “excellent recuperation,” she adds.

Figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) show that Argentina, where 75 percent of the land is arid, semi-arid or dry sub-humid, is the country most heavily affected by land degradation in the region, mainly due to the encroachment of the agricultural frontier on forests.

In Santiago del Estero, at the heart of Argentina’s northern region, the expansion of monoculture crops has occurred at the expense of native ground cover.

Forests in Argentina have shrunk from 6.6 million hectares in 1992 to 5.6 million today, according to government reports.

Santiago del Estero, originally a forested region, is now a semi-arid, desertified area from which thousands of small farmers have fled, even at the cost of abandoning their land.

The project in Colonia El Simbolar, whose full title is “reforestation to combat desertification, mitigate climate change, and protect biodiversity – environmental youth groups”, emerged in early 2006.

The idea is to fight climate change by sequestering carbon dioxide in the soil and trees and protect biological diversity by replanting native tree species, while improving living conditions for local communities and putting into practice synergy among the three main United Nations conventions on the environment: the treaties on climate change, desertification and biodiversity.

A member of the secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification told IPS that the pioneering project could serve as a prototype for efforts to fight severe desertification in others parts of Latin America and in the rest of the world.

The initiative has the financial and technical support of the government of Italy, Argentina’s Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainable Development, provincial authorities, the University of Tuscia in Italy and the Catholic University of Santiago del Estero.

The project is being implemented by the Grupo Ambiental para el Desarrollo (GADE – Environmental Group for Development), a non-governmental organisation based in Santiago del Estero where Ramírez works, and the Fundación del Sur (Foundation of the South) in Buenos Aires.

Local farmers, some of whom own small plots that have basically turned into wasteland, work in the greenhouse, take training courses in improved management techniques for fragile soil, and plant and take care of the new trees.

Juan Luis Mérega, director of the Fundación del Sur, explains to IPS that Santiago del Estero was chosen “because it is an area that has suffered heavily from deforestation, which has been severely aggravated in the last few years by the expansion of soy.”

Soy is Argentina’s leading export crop, and genetically modified soy now covers half of Argentina’s farmland.

The crop has flourished in the fertile, humid pampas of west-central Argentina. But it also grows well in arid soil that was previously protected by native forest – although the resultant deterioration of the soil is virtually irreversible.

“The medium-sized and large farmers taking part in the project loaned it marginal land while they continue to work their other land, and the participating small farmers depend on subsidies from the government,” he explains.

Mérega says the deterioration of the soil “is not easy to turn around.

“The degradation can be seen at a glance, because the soil turns white from the salt (from irrigation water), which destroys its fertility. But it’s remarkable how well the trees are growing,” he says.

The project is a candidate to qualify for the Clean Development Mechanism, which was created by the Kyoto Protocol and allows polluters in one country to earn credits by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in another, Mérega says.

The project organisers hope it will help sequester 324,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the space of 20 years. But before then, the participating farmers will benefit from sales of wood.

“When the trees are seven years old (in 2013), they’ll have to be thinned, and the farmers will have the chance then to sell what is cut down,” he adds.

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