Dispute in northern Argentina confronts US Magnates
by Sandra Weiss
A statue could not be carved more beautiful. The caiman sits motionless on the riverbank, his throat wide open, and invites to be photographed. His pointed teeth are only two arm lengths away. Seemingly unmoved, three cute capybaras graze a little way behind him. The boat with the enthusiastically snapping tourists glides silently past the animals and makes its way deeper into the idyll of the Iberá Swamps, the second largest wetland in South America. Rays, swamp deer, hundreds of bird species and picture book sunsets - the nature park in the north of Argentina is one of the hidden paradises of the South American country. This was not always the case.
"The government has told us that we can no longer hunt and has given us lessons on environmental protection and ecotourism".
Domingo Cabrera of Colonia Pellegrini, who now works as a boatman, still remembers well how as a young man he tended cows here and in his spare time hunted beavers, caimans and capybaras to sell their fur, skin and meat.
„It didn't pay much, just enough to feed and clothe my 12 children," says the 65-year-old, almost toothless man with weather-beaten skin. "And from year to year it became more and more difficult to find animals. Sometimes we would go on a two or three week search to catch a dozen caimans. Jaguars were already gone by then, and many of my mates went away, into town, because there was hardly anything left to catch.”
In the mid 1980s the swamps, whose name comes from the Guaraní language and translates as "Shining Water", were placed under nature protection - and Cabrera's life changed abruptly. "The government told us that we could no longer hunt and gave us lessons on environmental protection and ecotourism," he recalls.
„Nobody wants to hunt anymore.
We all make a living from tourism now," says Cabrera proudly.
For this ordinary man, who had only gone to school for a few years and for decades had been living a hard life as a day labourer, this was a challenge. But today Cabrera is glad that he got involved: "Pellegrini was a dying place because there were hardly any animals left.”
"As a result of the project, they came back and suddenly I saw the animals up close that used to run away from me. I really enjoyed that. I don't enjoy hunting anymore and I sold the shotgun a long time ago.
The job as a tourist guide brought enough to improve his little house and to open a workshop where one of his sons now makes handicrafts for sale. A second one works as a tourist guide; the others live on the outside. Electricity and water supplies were brought to Pellegrini, small hostels and guesthouses, convenience shops, one restaurant or another were built. Some 30 young people from the village now work as tourist guides. "None of them want to hunt anymore. We all live from tourism now,” says Cabrera proudly.
But a sword of Damocles hovers over the idyll, as Leslie Cook, the administrator of the Hacienda Rincón del Socorro, explains. The tall, athletic young man actually comes from the capital Buenos Aires, but has been living with his family as a manager at the hacienda on the edge of the protected area for several years.
The 150,000 hectare ecological luxury resort was created by the US entrepreneur Douglas Tompkins, who died in 2015. In the 1990s, he sold his brands such as Esprit and North Face, and dedicated himself to environmental protection. Particularly in South America, he bought huge estates and created private sanctuaries. He often met resistance from the local population and local politicians, who saw nature as a resource to be exploited. But in Iberá he had a completely different opponent: the financial speculator George Soros.
“The ten existing small rice farms in the buffer zone are already draining our water, although this is actually forbidden".
Soros owned the 14,000 hectare, very profitable rice farm Doña Marina and had permission to tap the Paraná River to irrigate it. But Soros had much bigger plans. In 2009 he announced together with local entrepreneurs the creation of another 18,000 hectare farm near the natural park. Together with the Argentine company Copra S.A., owned by the influential Clarín Group, Soros' Adecoagro also wanted to grow rice there. The investors promised 1400 jobs - and the governor of the poverty-stricken region was delighted. Part of the $55 million investment was a dam on the Ayui River. A forest was to be flooded for this purpose.
Environmentalists feared that the pesticides and fertilizers used on the rice farm would be released and disposed of via the extensive water system in the protected area, while the fresh water supply would be in danger. "The ten small rice farms in the buffer zone are already draining our water, even though this is actually forbidden," Cook says angrily. The chemicals pollute the water and destroy the ecological balance. At the edge of the wetland, one can see the effects of rice cultivation after five or six years: A desolate wasteland.
Tompkins' foundation, Conservation Land Trust, took not only the current rice farmers to court, but also Soros’ major project. And made enemies. They called him a land speculator and colonialist with sinister intentions. His project had devalued their land, they criticized. A tug-of-war began: local politicians granted special permits, and the courts rescinded them. Then Soros withdrew from the consortium in 2011 - allegedly because the leftist/nationalist Argentinean government had threatened not to grant him any more export licenses for his other agricultural goods. Since then, the environmentalists have been hoping that the regional government will finally talk in plain language and draw up the land use plan to which it was condemned decades ago.