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By Claudina Gonzalez

There is a lot of talk about sustainable tourism. Public sector plans and programs, private products and enterprises, academic programs and curricula always and without exception include the concept of sustainability. A different discussion is whether this inclusion is merely declaratory or if it is accompanied by good, real, and verifiable practices.

What is certain is that the development of sustainable tourism is a continuous process that requires good planning as well as constant monitoring of its impacts, in order to introduce necessary preventive or corrective measures. Ideally, the tourist experience must be both satisfactory for the traveler and educational, understanding tourism as an opportunity to learn more about the natural and cultural environments, to value them, to protect them and to be able to transmit this message to others.

Each year, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) frames its work agenda with a theme. Recently, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2017 as the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development” to highlight the potential of tourism and its contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That same year, the organization strongly supported the statement “Why Tourism Matters”. The evidence included sustainable tourism’s capacity to generate employment, its contribution to the global Gross Domestic Product, economic growth, promoting understanding between peoples, cultural conservation, the enhancement and conservation of the environment and development in general.

In Argentina, tourism constitutes an extremely dynamic sector of the economy. In 2018, the production of goods and services associated with tourism was 5.7% of GDP. Jobs associated with tourism were 1,269,070, or 6.2% of the total economy, in the sectors of hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, transportation companies for tourism purposes (commercial airlines, tourist trains, fluvial, maritime, automotive); and in the usage of beaches, recreational parks, reserves, museums, convention centers, fairgrounds and other spaces for the reception of visitors and related activities.

Tourism is an activity that is present and dynamic in all regions and, very importantly, it is mostly made up of micro, small and medium-sized companies (practically the entire sector: 99.1%).

Sounds promising, doesn’t it?

However, all this activity must be properly managed. Careful management, respectful of natural and cultural values, is a commitment that must be assumed by governments at different levels, but also by host communities, tourism companies and providers, civil society organizations and, very importantly, the travelers themselves.

With sustainability as a focus, nature can drive a resilient economy in the long term. International organizations such as the Inter-american Development Bank and the World Bank, as well as the World Tourism Organization, reaffirm the value of nature tourism and its role in sustainable development: for poverty alleviation; as a factor for economic growth; as a tool for biodiversity conservation; and in its contribution to the fulfillment of key international agreements and conventions, such as the aforementioned “Agenda 2030”.

Argentina has an amazing endowment of natural resources that, with local and regional distinctiveness, extends throughout the country, forming a natural capital of great wealth and a tourist attraction of enormous potential.

Argentina contains enormous environmental diversity, outstanding for encompassing an almost complete gradient of ecosystems that include lowland subtropical forests, mountain forests, semi-arid subtropical forests, flooded savannas, deserts, humid temperate forests, grasslands, high mountain, marine and polar ecosystems. It contains the Guaraní Aquifer -one of the main subterranean freshwater reservoirs; it has the second-largest number of glaciers of any Latin American country; and is among the 15 countries in the world with the largest ice-covered surface, which makes it one of the main strategic freshwater reserves in the world.

Natural protected areas are an enormous attraction for tourism. According to information from the Federal System of Protected Areas (SiFAP), the country has more than 500 registered protected areas, of different jurisdiction and management, representing 13.29% of the national continental territory, with a total surface area of 36,947,536 hectares. National parks, interjurisdictional marine parks, national reserves, nature reserves and natural monuments, provincial parks, nature reserves, provincial reserves, municipal areas, private areas, wildlife refuges, Ramsar sites, Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage Sites make up some of the country’s main tourist attractions.

This diversity of environments, terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems, with their flora and fauna (vast collections of birds, fish, mammals, plants, amphibians and reptiles, among others), offers the possibility of thinking strategically about nature tourism as the engine of pandemic recovery, laying the groundwork for tourism to consolidate as an essential part of the national economy, framed within a broader agenda of sustainable development.

Nature tourism (including active tourism and ecotourism) was already one of the most developed tourism practices and one of the most in demand globally prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, with a growth rate three times higher than that of tourism in general, according to the UNWTO.

On the demand side, there are several social and demographic factors at the global level that explain this process of seeking nature and open spaces in travel: well-informed consumers with greater environmental awareness, on the one hand; and the densification and growth of cities, with lives marked by confinement in artificial spaces and affected by stressful situations, on the other. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments. This makes urban, artificial spaces routine and, by contrast, contact with nature in leisure time more valuable. In Argentina, the urban population is 92%. Unique and well-preserved natural settings, in contrast to other types of already saturated destinations, appear desirable and are highly motivating for this demand.

The natural scenery and the activities that take place in nature are desirable to tourists seeking transforming and memorable experiences in their travels. In addition to the above attraction factors, several studies point to the benefits of regular contact with natural spaces and the performance of activities in them, with positive impacts on physical and mental health.

From a developmental point of view, and given the enormous comparative advantages in terms of natural resources that characterize Argentina, a truly sustainable practice of nature tourism offers the opportunity to consolidate itself as an economically profitable and viable activity.

In addition, nature tourism tends to generate longer average stays and higher spending by travelers. The increase in the length of stay and expenditure variables can be explained, in part, by the variety of recreational activities that natural areas support. The greater the diversity of activities offered by a destination, the more attractive and interesting that area will be and, therefore, justify an extension of the stay with the consequent associated spending.

Sustainable nature tourism is, in turn, a vehicle for social development. This sector requires hiring local entrepreneurs and guides, and stimulates the development of tourism businesses (travel agencies, transportation, lodging, food, handicrafts, recreational and complementary activities), thus enabling the diversification of the productive matrix and the generation of local employment in many of the regional economies and communities that, in some cases are very neglected, and do not have the possibility of developing other productive activities.

At the same time, by including educational aspects and nature interpretation, it raises awareness among both locals and travelers about the importance of conserving natural environments, helping to minimize negative impacts on the environment.

In short, sustainable tourism (according to the UNWTO) is “tourism that takes full account of current and future economic, social and environmental impacts to meet the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

With the exception of a minority of natural protected areas created and devoted exclusively to scientific research, monitoring and environmental conservation, most natural areas conceive, along with the conservation function, a social function provided by the public use of these spaces, taking into account their recreational and educational tourism value.

In the generation of new protected areas as well as the proper management of existing ones, tourism can be considered a compatible activity, which requires providing destinations with appropriate infrastructure that prioritizes the planning and conservation dimensions in the public use of these spaces, and that enables access to and allows for visitation and enjoyment of natural destinations that are perceived as valuable but are still emerging.

There is an opportunity in the development of nature tourism. But also, and inseparably, there is a duty: to include sustainability in the daily activities.

Mar Chiquita Lagoon, a saltwater body of water located northeast of Cordoba and southeast of Santiago del Estero, is home to the largest clutch of Chilean flamingos in Latin America in the 2020-2021 breeding season.
Local conservation experts indicate that in recent months more than 300,000 individuals were counted and seven clutches of Chilean flamingos were observed. Flamingo censuses in Mar Chiquita began to be carried out by park ranger and member of the High Andean Flamingo Conservation Group (GCFA) Pablo Michelutti, and continue to this day.
The flights to count the birds are carried out at two times of the year, during the summer and winter. Three organizations collaborate to carry out the censuses: the GCFA, Natura International and the Cordoba Secretariat of Environment.

(Lucila Castro / Natura International)

The Mar Chiquita Lagoon and the Dulce River marshes, in addition to being the habitat and breeding place of the Chilean flamingo, are a migration point for the Andean flamingo (or great flamingo) and the Puna flamingo (also called the small flamingo), which is why three species of flamingos of the six existing in the world can be observed in the area. On the other hand, there are approximately 380 species of resident and migratory birds in the area, making the wetland one of the richest in the world in terms of biodiversity.
An adult Chilean flamingo can reach an average length of 100 centimeters, and has long legs and a curved beak, adapted for foraging in the muddy lagoon. They are born with grayish, brownish or white plumage. When they reach maturity, the feathers take on pink tones because the flamingos feed on algae and crustaceans native to the area, which contain pigments. Depending on where they live and the species they feed on, the pinkish hue of the flamingos’ feathers can vary in intensity.

(Yanina Druetta / Natura International)

How the censuses are carried out

The Mar Chiquita Lagoon and the marshes of the Dulce River extend over almost one million hectares in northeastern Cordoba and southeastern Santiago del Estero. Aerial surveys are the only viable way, for the moment, to estimate bird populations in such extensive wetlands.

During the flight, a census taker goes to each side of the plane to carry out the photographic survey. Together with the gauging methodology, these images are processed in software and are useful to directly count the number of individuals and which species inhabit the wetland.

Courtship and nesting

Some years, with the arrival of September and the increase in temperature, flamingos congregate in the wetland to begin courtship. There, flamingos of reproductive age gather in groups and perform a dance to attract mates. When they succeed, they mate.

(Yanina Druetta / Natura International)

If the process is successful, the flamingo couple builds a nest on the banks of the Mar Chiquita Lagoon, where a single egg is deposited. From there, the couple protects the egg until the chick hatches.
It is of great importance to generate instances of conservation in the sector. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Chilean flamingos are almost threatened, and their population trend is decreasing.
Flamingos are very sensitive birds. If frightened, they abandon the nests en masse, leave the site and leave the eggs and hatchlings to drift away. It is very important not to disturb them so that they can reproduce normally.

(Matías Michelutti)

A promise of conservation

The future Ansenuza National Park is nearing its creation. When it is established, the nearly one million hectares between the lagoon and the marshes will be protected under a legal framework, which will contribute to the conservation of these species.
Once the park is created, economic activities can be carried out around it in a sustainable manner, without affecting the local flora and fauna. In addition, with the new protected area, there will be new personnel and a specific budget dedicated to preserving the wetland.
To achieve the creation of Ansenuza National Park, environmental training and education of all the stakeholders involved in the establishment process is essential. In addition, it is necessary to develop agreements that will lead to the changes in land use necessary to create the area.

By Sofía Dottori Fontanarrosa

Mining activity is a type of production of extensive consumption of non-renewable natural resources. Due to its extractive essence, it implies the modification of the topography where it is developed. Depending on the type of deposit, mining operations can be metalliferous, non-metalliferous or application rocks, and according to the size of the project, the scale ranges from small-scale mining to mega-mining. The latter involves irreversible environmental and landscape damage.

In Argentina, 90% of mining is produced in open-pit mines and consists mainly of gold, silver and copper. Metalliferous deposits constitute the group with the largest share in the total value of production with 73.1%, followed by application rocks with 23.2% and finally non-metalliferous deposits with 3.7%. According to the World Bank, in recent years mining has not reached 1% of GDP. Besides, it currently represents 0.6% and generates less than 1% of the registered work in the country.

Open pit mining (Pixabay)

Surface mining is quite different from traditional mining, which is predominantly underground. This historical transition from one model to the other is based on the progressive global depletion of metals in high-grade veins, so that, as the concentration of the mineral contained in the rocks decreases, mining by underground mining is no longer profitable. Currently, more than 60% of the world’s mining is open-pit and applies leaching or flotation processing techniques to extract the minerals disseminated in the bearer rock.

All mining activities use explosives (usually AN/FO – a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel) that cause mountain blasting and allow the pull out of considerable volumes of rock, resulting in the formation of the ‘open pit’. A single undertaking can cover up to 1000 hectares, remove to 300,000 tons of rock are removed per day, 100 tons of explosives are used and 100,000 liters of fuel and highly toxic chemicals (cyanide, mercury, sulfuric acid, xanthate, among others) are emitted into the environment in liquid or gaseous form.

Open pit mining (Pixabay)

The process generates enormous amounts of waste and effluents. More than 95% of the extracted rock becomes waste as it has no minerals of economic interest. To extract one gram of gold, up to 4 tons of debris are produced and approximately 1000 liters of water are used.

The dimensions of mega-mining and its waste are enormous. The open pit alone can measure more than 1.5 kilometers in diameter and up to 1 kilometer deep, the mine waste tips can extend over hundreds of hectares, and the tailings dams (dams for the storage of solids left over from ore processing) represent imminent health threats that deserve rigorous monitoring. These footprints are known as ‘environmental liabilities’ and are evidence of the impact that mining has on the environment.

Native flora and fauna do not escape the ecosystem imbalance. The deforestation of forest areas and soil degradation wipe out the invaluable capacity of these sinks to absorb greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change. Edaphic soil cover is thus dislodged and replaced by parched, infertile and impermeable soil. This disturbance leads to the annihilation of habitats, the inability of water infiltration, the alteration of the natural drainage system and undermines the agricultural and livestock potential that the area has to offer.

Negative impacts come in all directions. From noise from blasting, crushing and grinding, to surface and groundwater bodies contaminated by uncontrolled spills.

Acid lake polluted by open-pit mining (Pixabay)

The use of explosives increases nitrate and ammonium concentrations, which triggers eutrophication of the aquatic environment. The suspension of particulate material reduces the texture of the substrate and attenuates the penetration of solar radiation, essential for the development of biota. On the other hand, in those areas covered by stagnant water, pathogens multiply, a sanitary risk for the entire environment.

In almost all of these types of projects, the companies in charge benefit from tax laws and demand subsidies from local governments for the provision of energy and water needed to operate. However, their royalties do not match the magnitude of the revenues obtained. The promise of economic growth is a discourse that is skillfully used to legitimize the activity.

The monopolization of mining leaves no room for the prosperity of other regional industries, such as fishing, agriculture and tourism. At times, disputes over land use rights trigger heated socio-political conflicts, especially in sectors where cultural heritage is perversely violated. The destruction of the earth’s crust, the overexploitation of finite resources, the immeasurable generation of hazardous and pathogenic industrial waste, question the ethics with which these practices are defended.

Open pit mining (Pixabay)

Protected areas are the light for the sustainability of the physical environment. They are not a lucrative activity but a holistic balm on all components of nature. They are altruistic spaces for the well-being of biodiversity, where ecological processes and human development coexist in a fair and balanced symbiosis. These geographically defined areas, protected by a constitutional legal framework, are the right instrument for the long-term conservation of ecosystem services.

That is why mining and protected areas are absolutely incomparable, as one is at the antipode of the other. While abusive and uncontrolled mining is the desecration of the planet’s geological treasures, protected areas are the gateway to resilience, sustainability and a harmonious connection with the Earth. To protect our natural resources is to reserve the abundance that future generations also deserve.

“We do not inherit land from our fathers, we borrow it from our children.”

– Indian proverb –