Returning wildlife transform “wasteland” into wealth-generator
There are many ways to tell a single story. This is true in the case of the Iberá wetlands, but, after a month of listening to different versions of the story, it became clear to me that the majority paint a picture full of hope. Hope for both people and nature.
Let’s begin with the setting and main characters:
- A degraded freshwater ecosystem, similar to the Brazilian Pantanal, missing its most charismatic inhabitants: giant anteaters, tapirs, green-winged macaws and jaguars.
- A few socio-economically deprived communities, adjacent to the wetland, whose subsistence is based on cattle ranching, rice production and forest plantations.
- A local government focussed on enhancing the extractive sector.
- An American conservation philanthropist with a rewilding vision.
We enter this story in 1997 when Douglas Tompkins, founder of The North Face, started buying up old ranch land around the Iberá marshes. Iberá covers 15 % of the Corrientes province in North Eastern Argentina, one of the poorest in the country. Through his NGO Conservation Land Trust (CLT), Tompkins’ vision for the area was to restore nature, reintroduce the above-mentioned species and make his land, plus the core public wetland, into Argentina’s largest national park.
The reaction from local municipalities and provincial governments? You probably guessed it; they thought it was a completely bonkers idea, and rumours flourished that Tomkins was secretly affiliated with the CIA on a sinister quest to ‘green-grab’ Argentinean freshwater resources.
Now, let’s fast-forward two decades to June 2017, when I (after quite a few teeth-rattling hours in different modes of transport) entered this magnificent landscape to conduct key-informant interviews for my MSc dissertation. What I encountered was an area that had experienced an astonishing bounce-back of fauna populations, particularly alligators, marsh deer and the peculiar capybara (imagine a 70 kg cross between a hamster and a hippo).
There was also a steadily increasing ecotourism industry in the four ‘portal villages’ through which one had to pass to access the wetland. In one village, Carlos Pellegrini, an estimated 90% of locals now based their livelihoods on tourism. More surprising still, there was an alliance between the provincial government and CLT, aiming to transform the new Iberá Park into the ‘economic engine’ of Corrientes through ecotourism.
A major shift in attitudes also seemed to have occurred, both toward CLT and also the Iberá itself, which had previously been regarded as an unproductive wasteland. Most people I spoke to seemed to regard the emerging ecotourism as something positive, providing much needed infrastructure and opportunities for people that had previously been excluded from the job market, particularly women and young people. Another frequently mentioned effect was increased local pride of their lands and culture.
- Placing all income-generating activities (such as restaurants and tour offices) in the villages instead of inside the park and integrating culture and traditional practices into the development. This financially and emotionally anchored the project in amongst local people.
- The invention of the ‘production of nature’ concept to describe the Iberá project. It is a way to signal that the park, through ecotourism, will bring explicit economic benefits. This was attractive to the provincial government and is now being incorporated into Argentinean state policy.
- The influence of the animals within the rewilding programme. For example, carefully distributed stories about rescued anteater cubs in local media generated engagement among local people, making them more accepting of the need for the park. The novelty and success of the reintroductions has also generated status for the Corrientes province, now priding itself as a rewilding pioneer. Lastly, the stream of good news (as animals are continuously rescued, released and producing offspring) instilled a sense of progress which facilitated policy change, fundraising and scientific acceptance.
To conclude this story, many challenges remain in Iberá. Just like most other wildlife havens, its future will be determined by the dynamics between rural development and nature conservation. Although rewilding and ecotourism are neither the panacea for the biodiversity crisis nor for poverty alleviation, Iberá has shown us that they can create positive feedback loops and provide us with stories of hope to fuel further conservation optimism.