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ENVIRONMENT-ARGENTINA: Privatise Wetlands to Protect Them?

Marcela Valente* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 20 2008 (IPS) - The vast Esteros del Iberá wetland, in northeast Argentina, is the focus of a controversy pitting conservationist goals against business interests, with private and public entities found on both sides.

The Esteros del Iberá embankment must be demolished within 30 days.  Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Proteger

The Esteros del Iberá embankment must be demolished within 30 days. Credit: Courtesy of Fundación Proteger

These tensions came to the fore earlier this month when the Superior Court of Justice of Corrientes Province ordered the immediate demolition of a 27-kilometre embankment that had been built by forestry companies, without prior environmental impact studies, in the Esteros de Iberá Nature Reserve.

Created in 1983, the reserve covers 13,000 square kilometres, which hold shallow lagoons, marshes, grasslands, jungles and palm forests that are habitat for 125 species of fish, 40 amphibians, 60 reptiles and 344 types of birds.

It is home to the aguará-guazú (Chrysocyon brachyurus), the Guaraní term for the maned wolf, the largest of the South American canids, and to two highly endangered species: the neotropical otter (Lontra longicaudis), and the Pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus).

But about 60 percent of the reserve is in private hands, and 90 percent of that portion is non-floodable land. The owners are ranchers, foresters, and rice growers. The remaining 40 percent is public domain, and water covered.

This has put the farmers and ranchers on the defensive, out of fear that their activities will be restricted, as ecologists call for tighter government controls for this unique, dynamic and fragile area.

On the side of the environmentalists is the Conservation Land Trust (CLT), an organisation founded in 1992 by the U.S. millionaire Douglas Tompkins, who is acquiring land in and around the reserve with the stated goal of donating it to the government and expanding the Iberá protected area.

“They have already acquired 130,000 hectares but it won’t be donated until its preservation is ensured,” biologist Sofía Heinonen, director of CLT’s wetlands conservation project, told Tierramérica. “We hope to do so in less than 20 years,” she added.

Meanwhile, CLT is fomenting activities to raise awareness among the local population and to strengthen the institutions that should be monitoring the reserve. CLT supported the lawsuit that a resident filed in 2005 against the illegal construction of the embankment.

Bruno Leiva, resident of Paraje Yahaveré, denounced the company Forestal Andina for building a one-kilometre wall in the wetlands without first conducting an environmental impact study. The court ordered the wall to be removed, but then came the appeals process – and construction continued in the meantime.

“The zone is very low lying and the embankment makes it so there is either no water at all or that it floods much more than always,” Leiva told Tierramérica. “In the town we are 14 families, and if I hadn’t filed the suit, anyone else would have, because it is closing us in.”

By the time the case reached the Superior Court that issued its ruling this month, the embankment was 27 km long. The Corrientes Institute of Water and Environment (ICAA), with authority to monitor and police in the reserve, never ordered a halt.

“Since 2005 we have been demanding that the ICAA to verify the existence of an environmental impact study for the embankment and it never did,” said Leiva’s attorney Patricia McCormack, who works as a legal consultant for CLT.

As a result, McCormack has also denounced the ICAA functionaries for failure to comply with their oversight duties.

The ruling was applauded by the Argentine foundations Proteger, Vida Silvestre and Environment and Natural Resources, among others.

The attorney is preparing more cases against other embankments built without environmental impact statements, and against rice growers for the contamination their paddies cause the surrounding wetlands.

“They take water from the lagoons without use permits or paying the required fees, and they aren’t subjected to ICAA controls despite utilising chemicals that affect water quality,” she said.

CLT’s strategies have run into resistance from Iberá Patrimony of the Corrientes People, an organisation of agricultural producers who accuse Tompkins of carrying out a foreign takeover of Iberá lands.

“I worked 14 years at the National Parks Administration, and I decided to join CLT because I know the precedent set by Tompkins’s donation for Monte León,” said Heinonen, referring to the 62,000 hectares the U.S. philanthropist purchased and donated in the southern province of Santa Cruz.

“Nothing indicates any hidden intentions in the effort from Tompkins. His conduct was demonstrated in the donation that made possible the Monte León National Park,” said Jorge Cappato, head of the Fundación Proteger, active throughout north-eastern Argentina.

“Agricultural and forestry activity in that region must follow territorial regulations,” Cappato said in a Tierramérica interview.

The problem is that some companies “want to utilise the area to ultimately plant soybeans or eucalyptus inside the reserve, and that can’t be allowed.”

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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