Feature Story

Conserving the cold sea river: Civil society and government working together in Patagonia

October 26, 2016

Punta Tombo
"One of the most valuable contributions of the GEF-supported work on the coast of Patagonia was the emphasis on community participation. Stakeholder involvement in project design and implementation was instrumental in developing a culture of community contribution to biodiversity conservation, commitment to project objectives, transparency in project execution and shared responsibility of project outcomes. "

“In 1988, William Conway, then General Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society, wrote a chapter in a popular book under the title “A Cold Sea River”. In it, he described the spectacular concentrations of wildlife on the coast of Patagonia in Southern Argentina – including the Magellanic penguins, southern elephant seals, South American sea lions and southern right whales – and he wrote about the mighty Falklands-Malvinas marine current, the ‘cold sea river,’ that is the lifeblood of the Southwest Atlantic ecosystem that nourishes this rich biological diversity. He also discussed emerging threats from poorly controlled commercial fishing, oil pollution at sea, increased human disturbance of breeding colonies of wildlife on land, and the urgent need for improved coastal management.

This powerful vision gripped my imagination and found expression in the three projects that I directed for the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fundación Patagonia Natural, in partnership with the Government of Argentina, on the coast of Patagonia between 1993 and 2014.

When the first project began, fewer than 15,000 people visited the penguin reserve at Punta Tombo – today, it receives over 100,000 visitors. Fewer than 7,000 people went whale watching each season in Peninsula Valdes in the early 1990s, whereas more than 100,000 go whale watching today. In 1996, tourism generated an estimated fifty million dollars on the coast of Patagonia – twenty years later, tourism generates three times this much. Over 41,000 Magellanic penguins were becoming oiled at sea and dying each year in the 1980s and early 1990s, as tankers dumped their oily waste off the coast of Argentina. Today, oil tankers still sail this coast, but finding an oiled penguin onshore is rare. In 1992, there were an estimated 4,000 southern right whales in the Peninsula Valdes population, but today this figure is greater than 10,000. We believe that these changes have resulted, in substantial measure, from the combined impacts of three projects implemented over 12 years in coastal Patagonia.

All three projects were training powerhouses, not only for thousands of fisheries observers, wardens, guides, reporters, school teachers, postgraduate students, government officials and the many community stakeholders that took part in the courses we organized, but also for the project consultants that led these courses – and many of them subsequently took up management positions in government. Examples of this include the Presidency of the National Parks Service, Under-secretary of the Environment of Argentina, Minister of the Environment of Chubut, Minister of Tourism of Chubut and the Director of Conservation of Chubut. This has meant that the project objectives, and the protection of coastal biodiversity in Patagonia, live on through their efforts.

One of the most valuable contributions of the GEF-supported work on the coast of Patagonia was the emphasis on community participation. Stakeholder involvement in project design and implementation was instrumental in developing a culture of community contribution to biodiversity conservation, commitment to project objectives, transparency in project execution and shared responsibility of project outcomes. One activity stands out in my mind because of the scale of involvement of the community and the success it achieved for coastal biodiversity – this was the “Coastal Census”. Every few years, on the same carefully-chosen day early in Spring, more than four thousand volunteers walked a combined distance of over two thousand kilometers along the beaches – a distance equating to half the seaboard of Argentina – counting oiled penguins and gathering information on beach garbage. People in every town on the coast of Argentina took part in these walks, the events received nation-wide publicity and volunteers came from all over the country. This effort helped raise public awareness of pollution to an extraordinary level and, in turn, this helped improve waste management by ships at sea. Beach clean-ups on the coast of Argentina continue to the present day, and still engage thousands of volunteers.

Project activities were evenly shared between men and women, although women outnumbered men among the thousands of teachers that the projects reached out to, and men were more numerous than women onboard the many fishing vessels we worked with. The projects trained women as well as men to become fisheries observers and it became well-known that when women observers sailed on fishing vessels, the fishermen onboard were much better behaved! The fisheries observer programs developed by the project were adopted by the five coastal provinces of Argentina, and are now a requirement in the industry. Likewise, mechanisms introduced through the projects for involving communities in government decision-making, have become an established part of institutional culture: the use of public hearings on environmental matters, the right of public access to government information, and similar tools, are still in common use today throughout the region.

I believe it was community participation that produced the greatest changes in coastal management practices and that has kept project objectives alive even today, beyond the end of the projects themselves.”

DR GUILLERMO HARRIS  was born in Neuquén, Patagonia. He served as President of Fundación Patagonia Natural (an implementing partner in UNDP-supported projects) between 1989 and 2014, has worked as a researcher of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) since 1981, and has been the Director of their Argentina Programme since 2001. A qualified veterinarian, he is also a lecturer, wildlife writer and artist.

The Patagonian coastal zone of Argentina, which extends for 1,500 miles from Rio Negro to the Beagle Channel, looks out over one of the world’s richest and most productive marine ecosystems. As described by Guillermo Harris, this region supports globally important biodiversity, including an especially rich fauna. This stretch of coastline, and the associated marine environment, is also of great significance to the Argentinian economy, supporting both a growing tourism industry and important artisanal and commercial fisheries – fisheries being one of Argentina’s most dynamic economic sectors. However, intensive overfishing caused degradation of the fisheries biomass, putting the main species harvested near biological collapse. This, and other negative environmental impacts of human activities, triggered numerous social and economic crises.

Over a period of 21 years, UNDP has facilitated the investment of GEF resources in three successive projects led by the Argentinian government, working in partnership with local and international NGOs and members of the public, to secure the biodiversity of coastal Patagonia. Starting in 1993, the first project sought to provide the necessary tools for identifying important areas for conservation and achieving sustainable use of natural resources, paying particular attention to the needs and interests of local communities. The resulting Patagonian Coastal Zone Management Plan incorporated the establishment of coastal protected areas, sustainable fisheries, responsible tourism and prevention of pollution from shipping.

In 1999, a second project was initiated to consolidate and implement the coastal zone management program for the protection of biodiversity. This project worked to improve the quality of life of local communities who depend on coastal resources, while conserving biodiversity and maintaining the productivity of Patagonia’s coastal ecosystems. Its objectives were achieved by ensuring that national, provincial and local stakeholders were able to effectively manage and plan resource use in the context of integrated coastal zone management. The project also worked to secure the establishment of new protected areas, with budget and personnel for their management. The further expansion and strengthening of the coastal protected area system was achieved through a third project which ran from 2010 to 2014, and which focused on coordination between protected areas under different institutions and jurisdictions (Municipal, State, Federal), increasing protection beyond breeding colonies on shore, and extending them out to sea to conserve foraging and migration routes beyond the high tide mark.

The combined effect of these projects has been to safeguard Patagonia’s coastal and marine ecosystems, in support of economic growth and building sustainable communities.

This story was originally published in "Voices of Impact: Speaking for the Global Commons" by UNDP in 2016.