By Alejandro Briones
Productive diversification is of utmost importance to improve the quality of life and economy of communities living in protected areas, without damaging the ecosystem. This is achieved by encouraging and empowering activities that are adapted to management guidelines that guarantee environmental, economic, and social sustainability.
To identify the various activities that can be promoted in a territory, initially a socio-environmental study should be conducted that focuses on the use of natural resources: how are they obtained, the history of that exploitation, eventual use (whether for self-consumption or sale), social organization, and obstacles or conflicts, among other analyses.
The study allows us to know the context and the background of technical interventions, as well as to inform the joint social work that is deployed: in this instance the relationship generated between the technicians and the residents is key. This relationship is built through individual and group interviews, workshops where the inhabitants are the protagonists (in short, they are the ones who will or will not conserve the territory), and where the technicians only act as facilitators.
During these meetings, discussions elaborate the community’s environment, markets, and lifestyle relationship maps, among other group dynamics. Another technique that complements the workshops or interviews is participant observation: being able to live in the communities and observe residents’ daily activities gives us the chance to observe other relationships between people and nature.
Following are examples of productive activities carried out by the inhabitants of different protected areas or potential areas to be protected that, if well managed, are compatible with environmental conservation:
- Livestock: The problem with this activity is that it is generally carried out without any planning or sales strategy. They have cattle as capital and sell them when they need the money and/or for self-consumption. As a consequence of this, the land has a high animal load, with resulting overgrazing and degradation of the ecosystem. In many cases, the cattle are old individuals that cannot be sold because there is no market for them. It is important to work together to develop a management plan, analyze the market and strengthen the marketing chain.
It is also important, first, to carry out a study on the carrying capacity of the territory to define the maximum amount of livestock that can be supported in that area without affecting the attributes of the ecosystem and, based on that, to evaluate the best strategies.
By carrying out good planning and a livestock rotation system, among other good practices, it is possible to conserve ecosystems by integrating livestock farming. In this scenario, the main market demand is for calves, which is favorable for the environment since they are sold a few months after weaning, limiting their time grazing on the land.
- Activities associated with livestock raising: In addition, livestock raising can support various complementary activities that can be promoted to eventually reduce the animal load and improve the family economy. These include leather handicrafts (ties, saddles, instruments, etc.) and cheese production. These activities can be strengthened mainly with training in packaging and sales, searching for stable markets, marketing, etc. They can also be complemented with training in food handling, and sustainability certifications, among other possibilities.
- Beekeeping: This activity is carried out by many communities, mainly for self-consumption and without any management. Usually, they go out to collect honey from hives installed in the hollows of some trees. Many times, the beekeepers have to cut down the tree in order to extract the honey. Therefore, there is room for improvement with training, installation of boxes, using an extraction room, and other actions.
The sale and packaging of honey is also very important, since it is generally sold in used containers (bottles and/or jars) that have not been properly sterilized, which reduces the price and lowers the quality of the product. In addition, if good management is implemented, it is possible to obtain by-products that fetch a higher price than honey, such as propolis, pollen and wax. Beekeeping also improves pollination and therefore the production of local fruits.
- Tourism: This is one of the main sustainable activities associated with protected areas and there is a lot of information about it. It is important to encourage not only ecotourism or hiking but also rural tourism or community tourism, where visitors can interact with the communities, learn and become involved in their way of life. This is fundamental for valuing the culture of the people who live in protected areas.
Another strategy is to develop research tourism. There are many researchers from different parts of the world who are dedicated to studying certain species found within the protected area, and they can pay the communities in exchange for lodging, food, and other services.
- Fruits of the forest: There are various native plant species with edible fruits. Unfortunately, as a result of marketing, we have become accustomed to exotic fruits, leaving aside our native fruits. Beyond direct consumption of the fruits, there are also remarkable derivatives, such as carob flour, chañar rice, and sweet willow, among many others. One can look for ways to open new markets and promote these products.
There are also many forage species. For example, the communities of the Chaco collect the fruits of the carob tree and store them to feed livestock in critical times. This is an important native species to prioritize for restoration, since the carob tree was historically cut for timber and continues to be harvested. It is a key species in various ecosystems and is often found along the banks of watering holes.
- Wood: The harvesting of wood for firewood, posts for fences, or house construction is an activity that, if not carried out under proper management and control, can lead to degradation of the ecosystem. For this to be a sustainable activity, it is essential to carry out a forest inventory and mapping that allows us to know the structure of the forest as a whole, of each species in particular, and their distribution. From this, it is possible to plan how many individuals of each species can be cut annually so as not to affect the attributes of the forest, establish the sites where they can be extracted each year, and promote the use of dead wood, among other practices that guarantee the survival of the forest in perpetuity.
- Medicinal plants: Almost all of our ecosystems have medicinal plants that communities use. Many communities raise the need to not lose that custom and to be able to preserve that knowledge for future generations. Also, some people take these plants to the central markets and sell them in small bags or handfuls. One can add value to medicinal plants by packing them, registering them, and doing research on the specific components of plants by relating ancestral knowledge to the scientist in order to enhance their use and therefore their market.
- Craftwork in wood, native plant fibers, and leather: It is usual among the inhabitants of protected areas to make handicrafts with different materials from the area, which in all cases are handmade without damaging the ecosystem, so it is another very feasible activity to promote and market, as a way to bring capital into the economic system of the territory.
- Agroecology: Most families in rural areas have their orchard and/or farm, or had it at some point and, for various reasons, abandoned it. Most of them have been turned away from their traditional forms of production and encouraged to carry out new practices that incorporate the use of chemical fertilizers, insecticides, and other compounds that damage the soil and generate dependence on these products. To solve this problem, it is important to raise awareness about ecological agriculture and to achieve some type of organic certification, among other strategies.
The activities that can be promoted or strengthened in a specific area to conserve ecosystem services are diverse, and many are directly or indirectly related to each other. Proper management is key to ensuring the sustainability of the territory.
Diversifying production and services makes it possible, to improve family economies and their quality of life, reduce risks to market changes, adapt to local biophysical conditions, make efficient use of locally available resources, avoid land degradation with consequent desertification, reduce the impact on the environment and even improve the ecosystem. In conclusion, it is a strategy that guarantees the adaptation and resilience of communities to climate and market changes and guarantees the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of a territory.
Engineer in Natural Resources and Environment. At Natura International, Alejandro accompanies participatory processes for the creation of protected areas. His main interests are to generate a positive impact on the environment and to improve the quality of life of the communities. He is an expert in conducting biodiversity surveys and in formulating and implementing management and conservation plans for native forests with a participatory approach. Since 2016 he has presided over the NGO CeDRUS (Center for Sustainable Rural and Urban Development).