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URUGUAY: Environmental Partners

Daniela Estrada and Danilo Valladares

ROCHA, Uruguay, May 28 2010 (IPS) - A wide range of strategies are being followed in the southeastern Uruguayan province of Rocha to counteract the environmental damages of activities like soy cultivation, plantation forestry and tourism. But challenges abound.

Pindo palm nursery in Rocha, Uruguay. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

Pindo palm nursery in Rocha, Uruguay. Credit: Daniela Estrada/IPS

Local and national authorities, farmers, fishing communities, tour operators and local residents of Rocha are all working together with international bodies to protect key natural areas through the sustainable use of resources in the Atlantic coastal province in this small South American country wedged between Argentina and Brazil.

The aim is to strengthen the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP), set up in 2000, and on implementing projects financed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) Small Grants Programme.

The project reinforcing SNAP — which depends on Uruguay’s Ministry of Housing, Land Planning and the Environment — is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) with funding from GEF.

GEF was created in 1991 by the World Bank but was restructured in 1994 and became a permanent, separate institution that currently brings together 181 countries. It is the world’s largest environmental fund, a partnership with the private sector, civil society organisations and 10 international agencies.

Four of the seven national protected areas in Uruguay are in Rocha: the Cabo Polonio National Park, the Rocha Lagoon Protected Landscape, the Santa Teresa National Park, and Cerro Verde e Islas de la Coronilla. Four other areas are currently in the process of becoming national parks, and seven more have been proposed.

Uruguay’s big environmental problem “is the transformation of the country’s main ecosystem, temperate grasslands,” due to the spread of soybean crops and plantation forests of pine and eucalyptus, Laura García, technical coordinator of the “project for strengthening the implementation” of SNAP, told IPS.

“Soy cultivation is not regulated in the least,” said García. “Over the past five or six years, the companies involved in soy production have been coming in and offering high rents to lease land, which they don’t even buy, and then they leave the soil depleted,” she added.

Gerardo Ebia, director of the non-governmental Programme for the Protection of Biodiversity and Development, which coordinates the environmental actions of the different actors involved in Rocha, told IPS that in Uruguay, “soy cultivation has expanded from a few thousand hectares in the 1990s to 600,000 hectares today.”

In the specific case of the Rocha Lagoon, the greatest threats are “pressure to build tourism infrastructure along the shores of the lake, the modification and fragmentation of natural systems by agriculture, and the irrational use of areas along the rivers,” Ebia said.

The shallow coastal lagoon that has a surface area of 72 sq km is home to more than 200 species of migratory and native birds, including gulls, herons, plovers and terns and endangered species like the coscoroba swan, the world’s smallest swan.

But SNAP covers less than one percent of the national territory in this country of 3.3 million people.

Perhaps the best-known protected area in Rocha is the Cabo Polonio National Park, where a small fishing village only accessible by horseback or four-wheel-drive vehicles is set among shifting sand dunes up to 20 metres high and colonies of southern sea lions.

But preservation of natural areas in this country of rolling plains and low hills is complicated by the fact that 90 percent of land in Uruguay is in private hands.

“This is a huge challenge for conservation: getting the private sector involved at the same time that public policies are being implemented to bolster production, including agribusiness,” said García.

To prevent the protected areas from becoming isolated “islands,” the “new minister of Livestock, Agriculture and Fisheries, Tabaré Aguerre, is working on designing conservation measures, but in collaboration with farmers and other productive sectors themselves,” she said.

One of the efforts undertaken to safeguard threatened ecosystems is a project by the non-governmental Grupo Palmar, which has received support from GEF’s Small Grants Programme to save the slow-growing Pindo palm tree (Butiá capitata), which is native to Uruguay and southern Brazil.

“This palm tree has a major problem regenerating itself,” Sandra Bazzani, national coordinator of the Small Grants Programme in Uruguay, told IPS. “We have 70,000 hectares of Butiá palm, but they are all fully grown trees, because the livestock in that cattle-ranching area eats the young sprouts.

“Although GEF has financed efforts in the area for years, and studies have been carried out, it’s very difficult to convince the cattle-ranchers to keep the livestock away from the trees,” she said.

“A system in which the pasture lands are compatible with protection of the palm trees has not yet been achieved,” she added.

The Grupo Palmar received 17,000 dollars from the GEF in 2006 to build an information centre for visitors, a nursery, and a small park of Pindo palm trees in Rocha.

“The fruit of the palm trees is used to make jams, preserved fruits, liquor and sweet-and-sour sauces, and the palm fronds are used to make baskets,” Bazzani said. “The idea is to help people understand that if we preserve the species, it can be a source of income.”

The Small Grants Programme’s worldwide budget will be between 300 and 350 million dollars for the 2010-2014 period, not including local co-financing, the Programme’s global manager Delfin Ganapin told IPS.

The budget was confirmed at the Fourth GEF Assembly held this week in the resort town of Punta del Este, sometimes described as the St. Tropez of Uruguay.

A total of 1.2 million dollars in Small Grants Programme funds have gone so far towards financing 59 projects in Uruguay, Bazzani explained.

Strengthening national systems of protected areas and adopting more environmentally-friendly practices by farmers and other producers are enormous challenges throughout Latin America, Helen Negret, UNDP regional technical adviser on biodiversity and land degradation for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS.

At the tenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, to be held in Japan next October, the UNDP will present a study on the financial sustainability of national systems of protected areas in 20 countries in this region, and another on the economic value of biodiversity.

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