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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.

(CeDRUS)

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.

(Alejandro Briones/Natura International)

  • 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.

(Alejandro Briones)

  • 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.

(Alejandro Briones)

  • 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.

(Alejandro Briones/Natura International)

  • 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.

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.