By Mark Johnson
This huge yet little-known South American wilderness is under threat. But plans to turn it into a sustainable tourism hub will help protect its people and wildlife.
In the far north of Argentina lies a vast and extremely hot lowland known as the Gran Chaco. Were you to find yourself in it, as I did, you might kayak across a lily-filled lagoon and stumble into a solitary mansion peeking out above an endless sea of green.
It was here, at Estancia La Fidelidad, that eccentric rancher Manuel Roseo lived until 2011, when he was brutally murdered by criminals hoping to take his large (and little-touched) property. Thanks to the quick actions of Argentinian conservationists, provincial officials and the federal government, that tragedy had a silver lining with the birth of a new national park that could just shine a light on a forgotten South American wilderness.
El Impenetrable national park opened to the public in August 2017, following a telenovela’s worth of drama that included not only Roseo’s murder but the hunt for his missing heirs and a long legal battle to expropriate his land. At 128,000 hectares, it’s now the largest national park in northern Argentina and a beacon of hope for the entire Gran Chaco, which fans out into Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil (where it is connected to the Pantanal region) and is South America’s second-largest forest ecosystem after the Amazon.
While the Amazon has become a rallying cry for environmentalists, the bulbous silk floss trees, towering cacti and bushy bramble of the Chaco are disappearing in relative silence. Never as well-known – or as protected – as the Amazon, the Chaco is fast becoming the domain of cattle ranches and soya farms.
Things are looking up in a swath of forest in southern Germany, thanks to innovative funding from the European Union for a project that aims to help policymakers better understand how the forest’s ecosystems work.
The ECOPOTENTIAL project uses satellite images for ecosystem modelling in 25 Protected Areas in Europe (as well as Kenya, the Caribbean and Israel) to address climate change and other threats to ecosystems. In the Bavarian forest, the images and mathematical models of ecosystems, or “Earth Observation tools”, are helping to assess the impact of climate change and pollution, and shape national protection policies.
UN Environment is one of many partners supporting the 2015-2019 ECOPOTENTIAL project, funded by the European Union to the tune of 16 million euros.
Within the ECOPOTENTIAL project, Earth Observation tools and “remote sensing”, including by aircraft and drones, are being used to better understand how vegetation is evolving across the park and over time.
Satellite and drone pictures are detecting patterns of dominant plant species, linking habitat characteristics with terrain, and tracking animal movements. The park administration is also carrying out intensive research on tree regeneration, the role of dead wood, and the impact of global warming and extreme climatic events on the future development of these ecosystems.
By Mike Gaworecki
New research provides yet more evidence that granting indigenous and other local communities formal title to their traditional lands can be a boon to efforts to conserve forests.
Deforestation is responsible for as much as 10 percent of total global carbon emissions, which means that finding effective means of keeping forests standing is crucial to global efforts to halt climate change.
Previous studies have found that securing indigenous land rights is a successful path to keeping forests and the carbon sinks they represent intact. A 2016 analysis by the World Resources Institute (WRI) focused on Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia, for instance, determined that tenure-secure indigenous forestlands could help avoid the release of carbon emissions equivalent to taking nine to 12 million passenger vehicles off the road over the next 20 years.
According to another report released last year as part of a collaborative research project by the Woods Hole Research Center, the Rights and Resources Initiative, and WRI, there is a lot of carbon stored on indigenous lands, making increased land titling a significant opportunity for climate mitigation. But the research found that, while indigenous peoples and other local forest communities manage at least 24 percent of the carbon stored above-ground in Earth’s tropical forests, or some 54,546 million metric tons of carbon (MtC), more than 22,000 MtC of that is at risk of deforestation or degradation because it is found in regions where the local communities do not enjoy formal recognition of their claim to the land.
A more recent study not only found that well-trained indigenous technicians are every bit as capable of collecting the necessary data to monitor forest carbon stocks as professionals, but that in some cases, at least, they can do it quicker and cheaper than the professionals.
The efficacy of land titling as a forest protection measure are less clear, however. But now the authors of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) last week say they found that forest clearance is actually reduced by more than three-quarters and forest disturbance by roughly two-thirds over the two-year time span immediately following the granting of land title to an indigenous community.
The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, Inc. (Endowment) today released the 2017 Request for Proposals for the Healthy Watersheds Consortium Grant Program. Additional grant funds are available in 2017-2018 through a new partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Up to $2 million is available for the 2017 Healthy Watershed Consortium grant cycle. NRCS joins the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Endowment as Healthy Watershed Consortium Grant Program funders. The program’s focus is to accelerate the strategic protection of healthy freshwater ecosystems and their watersheds across the country. The deadline for proposals is February 1, 2017 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.