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.