In the land of the Patagones
When the Portuguese explorer Magellan landed in 1521 on the southern coast of what is now Argentina, the people living there were Tehuelche Indians.
The Tehuelche tended to be tall, at least compared to Europeans of the time, and Magellan took them to be a race of giants. He called them “Patagones,” after the frightening, dog-headed character Patagon in a chivalric novel of the day. The legend that giants bestrode the land henceforth called Patagonia would persist in Europe for centuries.
The actual Tehuelche had far more prosaic lives than myth would have it. They survived the cold and arid conditions in Patagonia as nomads, traveling hundreds of kilometers hunting guanaco that thrived on the shrubs and tuft grasses. Vast and inhospitable, Patagonia stretches across more than 1,500 kilometers, most of it cold, windswept, and dry. Within these generally harsh conditions, however, Patagonia hosts a mosaic of 11 different biozones, including arid scrub, grasslands, scrub forests, and humid zones called mallines. Both the forest and the Patagonian steppe represent unique biomes. This variety of terrain and climate has led to a diversity of species, many found only here. Patagonia has six endemic plant genera, usually represented by only a few species. The birds and mammals are also diverse, including an endemic plover, a burrowing parrot, Darwin’s rhea, an endemic opossum, four endemic rodents called Tuco-tucos (similar to pocket gophers), and the curious Patagonian hare, a monogamous rodent of ancient South American origin.
Patagonia resisted permanent settlement until the late 19th century, when both Chile and Argentina encouraged immigration to the area. Since then, the region has offered hard lessons in the consequences of overgrazing, but, more recently has provided a lesson in how sustainable land management can provide a foundation for both rural livelihoods and environmental protection, with global implications.
The 19th century settlers in Patagonia brought their animals with them, and by 1910 the region had more than 20 million sheep, though still relatively few people. The settlers also brought with them from Europe and more humid parts of South America their assumptions about how to raise livestock. They added animals to their herds based on what they thought the land could support, but without a clear understanding of the limits and characteristics of the new environment.
For a time, the flocks of sheep and the smaller herds of cattle brought prosperity as the production of wool and meat boomed. By the 1950s, however, the damage had begun to mount. As the flocks and herds grew, they exceeded the availability and capacity of the local ecosystems, degrading them to the point of permanent damage. Overgrazing led to the loss of native grasses and eventually to erosion, as Patagonia’s relentless winds blew away the dry and sandy soil.
As more livestock concentrated into remaining areas of quality pasture, a downward spiral of land degradation ensued. With a reduction in ecosystem productivity, historical management strategies were no longer appropriate, threatening the remaining resource and making the breeders more vulnerable to fluctuations in the market. With lowered profitability and increased degradation, the majority of the small-scale, subsistence farms fell into conditions of extreme poverty.
Patagonian sheep herds have declined to 8 million head in the last decade with almost 12 to 18 percent of the breeders abandoning their ranches, causing up to a 47 percent reduction in rural employment in the Patagonian provinces with significant environmental and social effects. While sheeprearing once provided significant inputs to regional incomes, it now represents only one percent of the region’s GDP.
The loss of Patagonia’s native grasslands also means the release of significant quantities of CO2. Overgrazing causes a transition from steppe ecosystems to shrubland, with the loss of more than nine tons of carbon per hectare. Restoring the range conditions across Patagonia could avoid the emission of more than 50 million tons of carbon.
The comfortable assumption has long been that simply reducing the amount of livestock or abandoning ranches altogether would reduce pressure on the land and lead to the recovery of the ecosystem. In Patagonia, however, decades of rest have not resulted in recovery nor improved the physical and biological aspects of these fragile rangelands. Scientists now understand that most vegetation and soil transitions are irreversible. Almost 12 percent of Patagonian territory — 10 million hectares, roughly the size of Egypt — has passed the point of no return and will never recover.
The flip side of that grim statistic is that most of the degraded land in Patagonia — 85 percent by one estimate — can still be saved through sensible and scientifically validated management. Studies on changes in plant composition associated with grazing in Patagonia show that the number of species can be maintained or even rise slightly with moderate or intermittent levels of interventions, but not when this disturbance or the grazing systems are intense or permanent. Thus, moderate grazing seems not to endanger species composition while intense grazing does.
The GEF and UNDP are working with the Government of Argentina to spread the adoption of range management technologies that will both sustain production and maintain the diversity and function of the local ecosystems. Under the mandate to improve the management of drylands through the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), GEF and UNDP focused on restoring the integrity, stability and functions of the rangeland ecosystems of Patagonia. The goal is to keep Patagonia’s unique species and habitats, spectacular grasslands, and human communities resilient and sustainable.
The range management technologies being applied in Patagonia fall under the broad heading of sustainable land management, or SLM. SLM innovations include measures to increase the productivity of agricultural and forestry lands (e.g. soil quality, vegetative cover), maintain ecosystem services (e.g. carbon sequestration, water availability, erosion and flood control, drought mitigation), and protect genetic resources (e.g. crops, livestock, wildlife).
By harnessing synergies and linkages between components within production landscapes, SLM can generate multiple global environmental and livelihood benefits. On the one hand, it addresses the often conflicting objectives of intensified economic and social development, while maintaining and enhancing ecological and global life-support functions of land resources. On the other, it reconciles environmental issues with economic and social development by improving the policy, planning, and management of lands. As the foundation of sustainable agriculture and land use, SLM clearly plays an important role in poverty alleviation.
Combating desertification in Patagonia highlights how investing in sustainable land management generates not just local benefits but global ones as well, including reducing the risk of carbon emission from loss of vegetation and erosion, protecting important biodiversity, and demonstrating the links between ecosystem rehabilitation and economic development. When the project began in 2003, the GEF had relatively little investment in land degradation, but since then that focal area has grown into an important part of the GEF portfolio.
Ranching remains important to both the economy and culture of Argentina, so the GEF and UNDP developed this project in the spirit of demonstrating how sustainable land management can work for livestock producers. Two key aspects were engaging ranchers in making decisions about the project and creating incentives so they would see the value of investing in land management.
Today, several thousand herders in Patagonia still maintain a nomadic existence, much like the Tehuelche of centuries ago. They move their small herds from summer pastures in the Andean highlands to lowland grazing in the winter. But much of their traditional pastoral knowledge is outdated due to historic demographic and economic changes. The number of herders has grown, but the ownership of more and more land has been concentrated in a few wealthy and powerful owners. While most of the sheep farmers in Patagonia have small flocks, most of the land is under the control of mediumand large-scale producers, those with flocks of over 2,000 head. These producers control more than 80 percent of Patagonia’s land. The largest producers, just three percent of the total, control more than half the land. The largest ranches, located in the southernmost states of Tierra del Fuego and Santa Cruz, can have 20,000 head of sheep and cattle. Many of the owners of these modern facilities, with full border fences, paddocks, windmills and comfortable houses, actually live in Buenos Aires.
Over centuries, small herders lost their access to the rangeland they once used, to the point where their traditional livestock management was no longer feasible in a greatly reduced area. Most sheep farmers in the region thus maintain small herds of cattle and sheep, operating on private property or on legally consigned lands, mostly without subdivisions and often without fencing that would enable them to better divide their management time and energy, protect sensitive areas, or protect their ewes during lambing.
They maintain one-room clay houses for their families, often without floors or access to electricity and gas. The typical family will have about six or seven members whose access to health care is limited due to a lack of hospitals in the rural zones. The rural road infrastructure is an earth road impassable in winter. Horseback is the main mode of transportation, with public transportation being used only periodically. They generally exist outside of the cash economy, bartering for goods and services, and selling their labor in their spare time to generate cash. Illiteracy is estimated at 70 percent. They are frequently of native origin and rely heavily on family labor for tending flocks. This group uses mostly local breeds with little application of range management techniques.
Given these conditions among both the poor and wealthy producers, it is not surprising that only three percent of breeders, covering about two million hectares of land, had adopted SLM practices when the GEF/UNDP project began. A number of factors explain this low percentage: the strong traditional component of sheep production; the weaknesses of the extension services; the disperse nature of the smallscale producers; the negative impact of incentives without sustainable management requirements; the lack of a common vision on SLM between institutions, programs and projects; and the negative economic results that prevented farmers from seeking technical advice.
The GEF/UNDP project focuses on activities that will lead to broader-scale adoption of improved land management practices. The modified approach will improve the quality and quantity of production, increase financial returns, enhance the economic sustainability of the farms, and reduce poverty. Other causes of land degradation and desertification such as oil, mining, introduced species and firewood collection, have less widespread impacts and will be addressed in other sustainable management programs but using the network, information exchange opportunities, and consciousness raising aspects of this program as a platform for development.
All grazing systems in Patagonia are extensive; sheep and other livestock range over large areas in search of fodder, in contrast to intensive systems that concentrate the animals in smaller areas with better grazing. While many countries promote intensive grazing over 100-500 hectares or even less, in Patagonia few producers operate on anything less than 2,000 hectares.
Even over such large areas, relatively inexpensive infrastructure such as electric fencing of meadows and lambing shelters allow for forage deferment for a better nutrition of ewes at lambing and better protection from climatic conditions and from predators. That helps more lambs to survive, which increases profitability and generates a surplus for sale. Range management is improved because meadows are rested and animals better distributed over the land. Using SLM, breeders reduce the uncertainty of production and obtain 18 to 33 percent higher net income compared to those using traditional management.
Recognizing that Patagonian ecosystems are easily damaged by overgrazing, these practices conform to the extensive nature of the production systems in Patagonia and to the needs of the ecosystem by providing management guidelines that are adaptable to the situation of the individual producer and to the characteristics of the local ecosystem. These practices involve objective range forage evaluation, stocking adjustments based on range and weather conditions, better protection of ewes and lambs at critical times, and other good production practices that have enabled breeders increase their net income by 18-22 percent in comparison with traditional management.
Increase in production stems from reduced mortality and improved individual animal performance. That, in turn, increases the number and quality of animals and the wool available for sale. These breeders were able to produce enough financial and non-financial returns to meet the expectations of quality and way of life of their families. Properly managed rangelands with continuous or seasonal grazing are very different from the overstocked and under-managed systems characteristic of the baseline circumstances.
Sustainable land management is not a panacea. Even with optimal forage allocation, some farms do not achieve enough financial return to be economically sustainable. In these cases, SLM needs to be combined with other productive alternatives such as agro-tourism, a well-developed activity in Patagonia with nearly 100 ranches offering tourism services that rely on Patagonia’s natural and cultural assets and employ family labor. Other alternatives such as rearing of native wildlife like guanacos or rhea, while still in their infancy, may be options for alternative development in the long term.