An Argentina native, Project Manager Carlos Fernandez understands that the vast grasslands of Patagonia are critical for health of the plants and animals – and people – who live there.
In 2008, The Nature Conservancy opened its doors in Argentina to work on the conservation of temperate grasslands in Patagonia. Five years later, we sat down with team leader Carlos Fernandez to talk about their many challenges – and accomplishments.
Carlos: It’s has been a great experience and an honor for me to lead the efforts of a great team of colleagues to open the first office of The Nature Conservancy in Argentina.
Carlos: We really took the time needed to meet and get to know the right partners on the ground to help us both communicate our goals and help us reach them. As a result, people in universities, governments, the private sector and NGOs are more aware of The Nature Conservancy and the grasslands conservation work we’re doing in Argentina. And this has been reflected through cooperative agreements entered with the National Parks Administration, the Argentine National Science Council (CONICET), provincial governments and others.
Have you seen a change in the way Argentines think about their grasslands?
Carlos: One of the persons who better described the way in which Argentines think about their grasslands was Eduardo Halliday from Hill Station Los Pozos Ranch, when he said that in reality most producers of wool or lambs today realize that they are actually producing natural grasslands and that they are being valued for that. The proof that these are not just simple words is the existence of the GRASS Protocol (Grasslands Regeneration Sustainability Standard) in partnership with OVIS XXI, and one of the most positive results so far is that Patagonia Inc. Company is only buying wool from Grasslands producers that are applying the GRASS Protocol. These types of changes have made the balance between conservation and production not only a mere desire but a concrete fact that today can be purchased in stores and seen from space through satellite images.
Where do you hope the project will be five years from now?
Carlos: I would love the Project to be considered a model to be followed in the protection of grasslands worldwide, with 15 million acres under the regulations of GRASS standards, with tools such as the widely applied conservation easments also helping in the conservation of private lands, with a structure of mitigation in the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in Patagonia that applies all the principles of our strategy of Development by Design, and a Network for the Conservation of River Ecosystems of Patagonia that could effectively preserve the most important rivers in the area.
Is it too much asking, or is it too ambitious? Maybe we should just adapt a Margaret Mead’s famous phrase when she said…”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The greatest achievements of TNC´s team in Argentina in the past years are the result of its ceaseless work, the support and work of its Board of Trustees, and an ambitious and realistic strategy.The future poses significant challenges, and there is no doubt that the road ahead will not be easy, but we can see that the foundations for this future are solid, and that the team is already looking into the future and working hard to achieve the goals of the next five years.
The Patagonia Grasslands Conservation Program achievements.
In March 2008, the Conservancy established a project in Argentina to help conserve the country’s southern temperate grasslands. Five years have passed, and the work has paid off in many ways. Below is a summary of some of the most important achievements:
Creation of the Patagonia Trustees Advisory Council
Composed of volunteer leaders of the United States and Argentina, the Patagonia Trustee Advisory Council is made up of 10 members, who each contribute a depth and breadth of conservation and international experience to the activities of the program. The Council meets at least twice per year and has been instrumental in generating conservation strategies, actions and funding based on the council’s significant collective experience.
Conservation Action Planning Workshops
Through Conservation Action Planning (CAP) workshops, our goal is to analyze by 2018 the 11 different ecological regions that make up the Patagonian steppe. To date, three workshops have been conducted, covering four important ecoregions: humid and Dry Magellan Steppes, subandean grasslands district, and occidental district. For each of the workshops, various experts – including TNC and other conservation organizations, academic institutions, agricultural extension services and livestock producers groups – convene to outline a shared conservation vision for the region. The group evaluates ecological, taxonomic, environmental and social factors to define, for example, a grazing pattern that balances production needs with conservation priorities.
Key Partnerships Established to Help in the Conservation of Patagonia Grasslands
As a world wide organization operating in Argentina, it is critical to involve Argentine partners at the local, regional and national levels in our conservation work. Some of the institutions we have created partnerships with include the Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), the National Patagonian Center (CENPAT), the University of Comahue, the Province of Chubut as well as other public agencies such as the National Parks Administration and the Department of Natural Protected Areas of the Province of Neuquén. We have also partnered with civil society organizations: Fundación para Conservación de Tierras Patagónicas, Aves Argentinas and Sociedad Naturalista Andino-Patagónica.
First Biodiversity Map of the Patagonian Steppe
Working with the Argentine National Parks Administration, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and almost 70 researchers and technicians, together we identified and mapped more than 500 biodiversity components that require special attention for biological value as well as their role within the Patagonian grasslands ecosystems. Each component was assigned a conservation goal; then, using special software, teams analyzed geographic distributions and identified areas of importance for biodiversity. The analysis yielded two results: priority areas (sites that together ensure 100 percent compliance with conservation goals) and irreplaceable areas, which correspond to those sites that cannot be replaced by others in a different location. The maps have been published in a book available for public use.
Creation of the First Land Trust in Patagonia
The Nature Conservancy in Patagonia supported a local non-profit, Fundación Neuquén para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, as it transformed into an organization with bylaws, management structure and conservation land trust operating standards that correspond to those upheld by the Land Trust Alliance. The organization, renamed Fundación para Conservación de Tierras Patagónicas, was awarded institutional grants oriented toward institutional strengthening worth $150,000.
Creation of the First Conservation Easements in Patagonia
Given that more than 80 percent of land in Patagonia is under private ownership, we are working in partnership with ranch owners across the region to promote conservation through the implementation of conservation easements. To date, one conservation easement has been implemented in Argentina, in Lagunas de Epu Lauquen, province of Neuquén ; and our goal is to replicate this conservation tool throughout Patagonia. In conjunction with Fundación para Conservación de Tierras Patagónicas, a key local conservation partner in Argentina's private lands conservation strategy, we are in the process of creating two pilot conservation easements in the the area of Somoncura, northern Patagonia.
Development of Sustainable Grazing Standard
The Patagonia Grassland Regeneration and Sustainability Standard (GRASS) is one of the results of the groundbreaking collaboration between the private sector (Patagonia, inc.), the Nature Conservancy and ranchers’ network OVIS XXI. The goal is to produce wool and meat in a manner that maintains and restores the health of Patagonia’s temperate grasslands. The Standard incorporates conservation science, planning and monitoring into the management plans of wool producers, to encourage voluntary and widespread adoption of a production model aimed at maintaining and restoring the health of the Patagonian grasslands in the context of a working landscape.
Creation of Sustainable Grasslands program with Patagonia Inc. and Rancher Network OVIS XXI
The pioneering alliance between The Nature Conservancy, world-renowned outdoor clothing company Patagonia Inc. and Argentinean ranchers’ network OVIS XXI to apply the GRASS (Grasslands Regeneration and Sustainability Standard) sustainable grazing standard in 15 million acres of Patagonian grasslands by 2018 is making sound progress. Launched toward the end of 2011, GRASS provides a certified method of sustainable grassland management, aiming at achieving conservation goals and ensuring that thousands of sheep graze without destroying this unique ecosystem. Through this standard, native grasslands will be regenerated and restored. Producers are encouraged to adopt these conservation-friendly standards through financial incentives compensating their efforts to safeguard the lands and waters they own while continuing with the production of wool and meat. The first payments were made mid-year 2012 with $80,000 distributed among 19 producers that together own more than half a million acres in the provinces of Santa Cruz and Chubut. The compensation fund is made up of resources provided at a 50/50 proportion by Patagonia Inc. and the Conservancy.
Network for the Conservation of River Ecosystems of Patagonia
The Nature Conservancy and Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) launched a freshwater and institutional network aimed at promoting the conservation of Patagonia’s rivers. The first of its kind in Patagonia, the Network for the Conservation of River Ecosystems of Patagonia is part of the Natural Capital Project created by Stanford University, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the University of Minnesota. The network is made up of representatives from provincial government agencies, universities, research centers and conservation non-profits, 3 universities, 3 research centers, Argentina’s national park service, and 10 water and freshwater resource management agencies from three provinces. The new network will apply science and technical capabilities to safeguard the health of key freshwater resources.
Adoption of the Conservancy’s Global Development by Design Approach
We are introducing the Conservancy’s Development by Design approach to ensure that development and infrastructure initiatives are compatible with the conservation of lands and waters. Our aim is to help governments and companies incorporate a mitigation hierarchy methodology (avoid/ mitigate/ compensate) in the key biodiversity areas where infrastructure planning is proposed in order to make better decisions about where to develop – and where not to.