Local Knowledge: Ecological Issues in the Iberá

The Iberá ecosystem is delicate. The ecological foundation set up by US entrepreneurs-turned-conservationists Douglas and Kristine Tompkins has bought large tracts of private land and proposes to donate them to the Corrientes government, if it puts them and the existing Iberá reserve under the control of the Argentine government as a national park.

What seemed a straightforward act of ecological philanthropy became a hot potato, pitting landowners, agribusiness and politicians against each other. But locals seem to be slowly coming around to the idea as they see the potential benefits.

Check out www.theconservationlandtrust.org and www.proyectoibera.org for more information. The late Douglas Tompkins had this to say:

Why was there so much opposition to begin with?

Conservation encounters opposition wherever it is. Not one national park was created in the US without drawn-out battles with locals. Conservation is a political act and when it has to do with what one does with land then you are treading in hot political territory. A local cultural shift takes time and you also have to do your part well.

And now?

The opposition has virtually disappeared today. In fact, there is a conservation/tourism fever seizing the province from the political leadership and all through the entire profile of society. It is like suddenly everyone woke up.

What's the deal with the Guaraní aquifer?

The Guaraní aquifer is a nonissue. It’s massive, somewhere around 1.2 million sq km. Iberá is a mere 1.3 million hectares of that. One percent. A shallow surface wetland with little to do with the deep aquifer. The Iberá’s importance as a water source is also overestimated. The Paraná passes more water than the whole Iberá under the Corrientes–Resistencia bridge every 18 hours.

What are the dangers to the ecosystem?

The industrial rice plantations and the big industrial tree plantations of even-aged exotic monocultures. Then on top of that you have arrogant fools who flout laws and build dike-like roads for dozens of kilometers disrupting the hydrology. Those are the big three threats to the wetlands. Some bad grazing practices exist, but they are mild in comparison.

What's your message to Iberá’s people?

The formation of a national park would bring benefits to the entire area and province, help biodiversity conservation and be a point of pride for locals. And of course a big economic development component with the advent of lots of tourism. It would be the largest national park in Argentina, the province would benefit by the tourism and the nation would pay the costs for operating the park, a kind of double win for the province and its citizens.

Life goes on as usual for everyone, it is only the 560,000 hectares of provincial land, coupled with 175,000 hectares of foundation land that would constitute a national park. Beyond that all landowners just continue on. Zero change for them. The only thing that will change is the value of their land will go up.

The reintroduction of giant anteaters?

This project is already an unqualified success. We have two established populations with lots of animals in the wild, reproducing nicely and healthily. One of the most successful things we have ever done in conservation. We are very happy about it. The pampa deer has been really successful too, with an established population growing at 25% annually. We have also started reintroducing peccaries and macaws, the latter extinct for more than a century. Our biggest and most exciting challenge is jaguars; we've started breeding them too.

Thanks also to Carolina Morgado and Ignacio Jiménez Pérez.

Feature: Wildlife of Esteros del Iberá

The lakes and esteros (lagoons) of Parque Esteros del Iberá are shallow, fed only by rainwater, and thick with vegetation, which accumulates to form embalsados (floating islands); this fertile habitat is home to a stunning array of life. Sinister black caimans bask in the sun while capybaras feed around them. Other mammals include the beautiful orange-colored marsh deer, howler monkeys (officially the world’s noisiest animal), the rare maned wolf, coypu, otters and several species of bat.

The birdlife is simply extraordinary; there are some 350 species present in the reserve, including colorful kingfishers, delicate hummingbirds, parrots, spoonbills, kites, vultures, several species of egret and heron, cormorants, ducks, cardinals and the plump southern screamer, which would really light up Big Uncle Bob’s eyes at a Christmas roast.