Gaucho (cowboy of the Argentine grasslands) herding sheep on a horse
Grassland cattle Gaucho (cowboy of the Argentine grasslands) herding sheep on a horse © 2008 Bridget Besaw


Wool: Patagonia's White Gold

TNC is spreading sustainable wool production in Patagonia.

By Philip Przybyszewski

In the land where the long, wild grasses dance in the strong gusts at the southern end of the world, there live some of the hardiest and historically iconic people of South America.

For centuries, men and women of Argentinian Patagonia have made their living off “white gold,” the poetically accurate term for the wool of the hundreds of thousands of sheep grazing across these plains. The history of this land is incredibly rich in terms of species, but one crucial piece of the Patagonian puzzle is that of the humans raising livestock on these rolling fields. Morning by morning, hundreds of sheep trod along and feast upon the grasses that they’ve always enjoyed, closely guarded by the people whose ancestors once protected their flock years ago. This traditional way of life goes unending for the generations of ranchers who inhabit this beautiful space, even as massive swaths of formerly pristine Patagonian fields run dry and fall victim to desertification of extreme proportions.

These ranchers, the human symbol of the Patagonian plain, now come to Fortín Chacabuco for crucial help in grazing their flocks sustainably, and ensuring that their way of life does not disappear with the grasses as the dry desert creeps ever further. Patagonia’s biggest existential threat, overgrazing, is Gwen Hulsegge’s primary objective at the educational center in Fortín Chacabuco: sustainable grazing projects are not only adapted here, but proliferated across the lands beyond the protected zones of the estancia and large conservation easements. The unique power invested in Fortín Chacabuco goes much further than that of any standard protected area: it is the diffusion of sustainable ideology between progress, preventing overgrazing and defending against the oncoming tide of desertification, and the traditional way of the people of Argentine Patagonia.

The Fenton family including Mrs. Fenton, great grandmother and her grandchildren standing in the headquarters of Estancia Monte Dinero, Rio Gallegos, Argentina
Recently cut wool Wool to be spread out and inspect and folded for sale © Nick Hall