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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.

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.

By Biol. Agustina Di Pauli

Today more than ever it is clear that we live in a dystopia. Every day, thousands of hectares of forests are deforested and burned, water and air are increasingly polluted, entire peoples are forced to migrate because of the devastation caused by mining companies and the advance of the agricultural frontier, children are dying for lack of access to drinking water, species are disappearing.

The fragmentation and simplification of ecosystems increase the spread of pathogens and the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases, such as the COVID-19 virus, which added to the scourge of the pandemic. Perhaps the first of many to come? How many more will it take to react to the global challenges that nature so clearly manifests?

There is no more time, matters such as the environmental crisis, the right to a healthy environment, and food sovereignty deserve a structural discussion. There is an urgent need to adopt an integrated approach to conservation management and to abandon obsolete models, try new approaches and be creative to keep pace with global changes.
There has always been a duality between production and conservation; today the challenge is to generate new integral paradigms, where production does not imply continuing to lose ecosystems, and conservation does not imply leaving people out.

Among the ideas that still prevail is that the development of societies is only possible through extractivist and short-term models and that preserving ecosystems is a whim of a conservationist elite with privileges. So, if there are poor people, we try to grow at any cost to give them something, instead of distributing the much that a few already have. Time has corroborated that these models, which favor exponential growth, only generate more poverty and that the environmental crisis only deepens pre-existing social inequalities.

The implementation of sustainable development alternatives in production processes probably takes a little longer than traditional models, but they project a more beneficial impact in the long term and not just for a few. The latter is what makes the difference, generating equity and consequently more prosperous societies.

One of the fundamental tools as a strategy to respond to the challenges of wildlife conservation, poverty reduction, mitigation, and adaptation to climate change are protected areas (PAs). But it happens that when we talk about PAs, we automatically think of true gardens of Eden where everything is intact and intangible, places without people where human presence is forbidden or detrimental. Something quite distant from the real use of the land on the planet and the way of inhabiting it.

In principle, it is necessary to reconnect with the original meaning of PAs as sources of natural biodiversity, but also as very important sites of social, cultural, and economic value; model sites for research and knowledge generation; ideal spaces for environmental education; buffer and regulation zones; sources of ecosystem services; places for entertainment and appreciation; the potentialities are infinite. Looking at it another way, without PA, the temperature of the planet would be even hotter and thousands of species would have been lost.

It is then necessary to rethink the relationship between PAs and society where, beyond researchers, technicians, and disseminators, it is the local communities that benefit from nature conservation. In this way, biodiversity conservation objectives will be favored almost spontaneously.

Properly managed, PAs can finance themselves and, even better, be engines of local development because they generate tourism-based economies. Therefore, PAs constitute real planning spaces where constructive dialogues can be generated with governments, indigenous peoples, local inhabitants, universities, and municipalities, intending to achieve, true policies of social inclusion, conservation, and sustainability through legitimate participatory processes. To achieve this ambitious goal, we must demand the strengthening of all those strategies that provide real opportunities for environmental protection, accompanied by activities that allow a more comprehensive, sustainable, and harmonious local development with the environment.

Without falling into naivety or utopia, we are aware of the chain of complicity and corruption that allows plundering and we also know that trying to change this is particularly difficult in Latin America and the Caribbean, places where murders of socio-environmental leaders abound. This being so, the option is to move as a bloc, as a people. But for this to happen, society, which today involuntarily accompanies the crises, must also become part of the struggle; and this is possible by improving the participation of local communities in PA management and implementing economic projects that provide the necessary technical proposals that allow producers to carry out sustainable activities and native communities to create their bio-businesses.

The latter is another essential issue when talking about conservation: the importance of indigenous peoples. There is growing evidence that ancestral knowledge and sustainable traditional techniques still preserved by many communities contribute to the protection of biological and cultural diversity. Since their conception, native communities have been preserving certain territories as “sacred sites” where no hunting should take place to allow the reproduction of animals and respect their natural cycles. In a certain way, these sites represent biodiversity hotspots, where the communities themselves play the role of guardians of their community territories and, in this way, could be thought of as small PAs intrinsic to a cosmovision.

A 2019 Science Advances study, conducted in more than 600 PAs in 34 countries, evidenced how PAs provide economic and health benefits to adjacent populations, especially impacting children’s health. The results showed that tourism implied direct benefits in terms of employment generation, improved infrastructure, and greater institutional presence in the area, especially in PAs with multiple-use areas, since they allowed sustainable access to natural resources. Besides, the environmental health of these areas resulted in better water and air quality, greater provision of ecosystem services, and functioned as important flood buffer zones.

There is strong evidence to suggest that investing in PA creation and nature tourism brings real benefits to local communities. An example of this in Argentina is the Iberá Project in the province of Corrientes, where one of the most striking transformations was that of some hunters who abandoned that custom and are now PA park rangers. Iberá is a clear example that no matter how long it takes to get it right, it pays to learn by doing.