Effects of political instability on nature conservation: the case of Argentina

In this blog, Maria Daniela Rivarola, Daniel Simberloff and Christy Leppanen foreground the unstable real world context of nature protection initiatives, as explored in their article in Environment and History (Fast Track, November 2019),History of Protected Areas in Argentina: A Seesaw of Shifting Priorities and Policies in a Developing Country’

What does nature do for us? Do we need nature? Do we need to protect it?  These questions have been around for quite a long time, but while the answers might seem clear for a segment of society, nature has frequently been forgotten or undervalued by those making decisions.  The trajectory of establishment and management of protected areas in Argentina exemplifies the varying and fluctuating attitudes of both the public and governments towards the importance and role of nature in people’s lives and the national self-image.

The creation of protected areas has had a variety of goals through the ages – religious obligation in many cultures, hunting preserves for the entitled in others, and the like. But in the nineteenth century, the goal of ‘nature protection’ began to be articulated and formalised, leading to a movement focused on biodiversity conservation, in which protected areas play a key role.  Nowadays, almost every nation has at least one protected area, although the number, sizes, locations and management of protected areas are globally insufficient. The rate of biodiversity loss continues to be alarming, and this loss has led to increased and broader focus on protected areas. However, little attention has been paid to their origin: the policy-making process. Societies for almost all of humanity are organised such that few people make the decisions, while the rest enjoy or suffer the consequences. While there might be disagreements regarding some details or aspects of reserving sites for the protection of biodiversity, many would imagine that anyone in power would share a basic view that conserving nature and protecting biodiversity are important. Sadly, this is often not the case.

In our article ‘History of Protected Areas in Argentina: A Seesaw of Shifting Priorities and Policies in a Developing Country’, we explore this process of establishing and managing protected areas using as an example the first Latin American country that set land aside to protect it. The twentieth century for many countries meant relatively tempestuous and even violent periods during which democratically elected governments were interrupted by military regimes. Argentina is one such nation. While many historical and sociological studies have focused on the impact of this political trajectory on society, its effects on nature conservation have been largely disregarded.

Political framework
Figure 1. Succession of democratic government (green) interrupted by military regimes (red) over the 20thcentury in Argentina. Presidents rarely last for a full term, and were frequently replaced (vertical black lines). Protected areas created are indicated with black bars.

The first two national parks in Latin America were officially designated as such by the Argentinian government in 1934, and the main stated goal was conservation. However, development of the concept that these two areas would be officially regulated and ‘protected’ had begun at the turn of the century, and in both cases the initial underlying concern was establishing these areas as Argentinian. Both were near international borders –Nahuel Huapi in Patagonia bordering Chile, and Iguazú adjacent to Brazil.

Figure 2. Puerto Blest, first land set aside with the goal of protection, later declared Nahuel Huapi National Park. Photo credit: María Daniela Rivarola.
Figure 3. Iguazú National Park, in the border with Brazil. Photo credit: Dr. María Noel Serra.

As part of the goal of populating the area with Argentinians, the area that became Nahuel Huapi National Park saw substantial European settlement, the introduction of livestock and agriculture, prescribed burns, commercial felling of trees, hunting, fishing, and both deliberate and unintentional introduction of non-native species. Although the 1934 law establishing national parks aimed ostensibly at conservation, there were some weaknesses –not least that the parks directorate was partly responsible for its own budget through timber sales and lease or sale of lands, and it could assign lands for settlement, agriculture and grazing within the ‘protected’ area.

cattle grazing
Figure 4. Cattle grazing in Puerto Manzano, later Nahuel Huapi National Park, 1918. Source: Archivo Visual Patagónico.


Estancia San Ramón de la Compañía Comercial y Ganadera Chile-Argentina, Foto Carlos Foresti, Ca. 1908 (Álbum Cía. Comercial y Ganadera Chile-Argentina)
Figure 5. Sheep production (1908) in an area later declared Nahuel Huapi National Park. Source: Archivo Visual Patagónico.
Aserradero y carpintería de Bariloche, Actual Puerto San Carlos, Autor Jerman Wiederhold Ca. 1910
Figure 6. Sawmill and carpentry in Bariloche, 1910. Area later declared Nahuel Huapi National Park. Source: Archivo Visual Patagónico.

In 1940, the Convention on Nature Protection and Wild Life Preservation in the Western Hemisphere was promulgated in Washington, DC, and 19 nations, including Argentina, had signed it by 1941. The stated goal was to preserve natural habitats with their flora and fauna, and the convention urged the rapid establishment of new protected areas and defined four categories in terms of degree of protection. Argentina has heeded this call, with 48 protected areas covering 15 million hectares created at various times up to 2019. This amassing of protected areas occurred in fits and starts through a sequence of 35 different presidents and their administrations –some military and some democratically elected –between 1932 and 2019. In addition, regulations for managing the reserves varied greatly between administrations. In general, but with exceptions, democratic administrations favoured establishment of protected areas and an emphasis on protecting species and their habitats, while tourism and other uses were facilitated by military regimes.

Public awareness of conservation issues and loss of biodiversity grew in Argentina as in the rest of the world, and a signal event was the founding, in 1972, of a non-governmental organization, Fundación Vide Silvestre Argentina, that subsequently publicised conservation issues, pressured the government, and spurred the creation of several protected areas. Other NGOs were established with missions related to conservation, especially environmental education of schoolchildren and raising public awareness of environmental problems. Scientists interested in conservation and environmental issues have also increasingly made their voices heard with respect to protected area establishment and management. In general, the arc of conserving biodiversity and the role of protected areas in aiding this conservation has been in a good direction, but with various persistent or recrudescing problems. A key factor that must be borne in mind is that, even today, over thirty per cent of Argentina’s population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. Thus, any action that either uses economic resources or limits exploitation of natural resources engenders some degree of opposition, even if the long-term outcome would be a net benefit to the human population as a whole as well as to the environment.

One ongoing problem is a chronic shortage of the necessary resources and especially staff for the administration of the national parks system to perform its functions adequately. They are charged with managing fifteen million hectares –much in remote areas –in the face of many threats, such as resource extraction, fires and pollution. This is an enormous charge for an agency of a government struggling to raise the standard of living of a large fraction of its population. Another ongoing issue is ambiguity in the rights and duties of indigenous people residing in protected areas. A 1985 law specified that indigenous cultures were to be respected and their populations not dispossessed of their traditional lands by virtue of protected area designation. However, this law was to be applied consistent with a 1980 law on protected areas that prioritises nature conservation and maintenance of lands in a wild state. Given the apparent incompatibility of the directives of these two laws, conflicts have been treated on a case-by-case basis, and several parks, beginning in 2000, have evolved a co-management approach that favours sustainable development. This approach, in turn, has generated disagreements on which activities are, in fact, sustainable. A third problem, certainly not unique to Argentina, is that political appointees in charge of national parks administration and of resource agencies often have little knowledge of conservation issues and sometimes have different main agendas (e.g. various sorts of development or resource extraction), even though the local administration and on-the-ground personnel may have the best intentions and work hard with limited resources. Corruption at high levels has also occasionally thwarted achievement of the conservation objectives of protected areas in Argentina.

Our detailed consideration of the tortuous path in Argentina by which protected areas were created, their conservation-related goals increasingly established, and management in service towards those goals gradually improved led us to believe that a nation’s physical, biological and sociopolitical idiosyncrasies will determine the path by which a protected area system develops in any nation. An adequate theoretical framework for such this development will require detailed analysis of this trajectory, similar to ours for Argentina, in at least several other nations.

However, several features of the Argentinian history, mutatis mutandis, will likely apply in many cases. Most important is the fact that scientists and a vanguard of committed conservationists cannot alone bring about substantial growth of an effective system of protected areas. Other societal sectors must at least to some extent recognise their own stakes in establishing and maintaining such a system. In Argentina, some politicians and military officials became engaged, but the establishment and growth of conservation and environmental NGOs created an ongoing momentum that kept the arc trending in a positive direction. This fact emphasises the important role social scientists will play in developing protected areas and other pillars of conservation. This role will be especially important in mediating conflicts in developing nations between the conservation role of protected areas and economic development to alleviate poverty in the short term. A related feature that is likely to arise in any nation is that economic self-interest will be an occasional threat, in that uses for a protected area other than conservation can always be envisioned that would enrich some individuals or societal sectors. Some government officials who control protected areas may simply believe that short-term economic development properly trumps conservation of natural resources. However, corruption may play a role and is rife in many countries in all spheres of governance. Finally, regulations to favour conservation in protected areas must be enforced, lest they become ‘paper parks’.



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