Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance: an initiative for the conservation of the South America´s Southern Cone Grasslands
The grasslands of the Southern Cone of South America form one of the few ecoregions of temperate prairies and savannahs in the world, and are a high global conservation priority. Also known as the “Pampas”, these unique covers approximately a million square kilometers, shared between Argentina (58%), Brazil (18%), Paraguay (4%) and Uruguay (20%). The Pampas ecosystems do not respect political limits and they are closely inter-related in bio-geographic, economic, and cultural terms.
The biodiversity of the region is outstanding, particularly for plant species, many of which are of economic value. 1600 species of vascular plants (including 374 grass species) have been identified in the Argentine Pampas, 2500 (400 grasses) in Uruguay, and 3000 (400 grasses) in Brazil’s grasslands. In terms of vertebrates, just in the Argentine Pampas there are 69 species of mammal, over 400 bird species, 31 reptiles, 23 amphibians, and 49 species of freshwater fish. The Pampas grasslands also have deep cultural roots – as represented by the figure of the “gaucho” (a traditional South American “cowboy”).
The Pampas sustain a human population of 35 million people, representing a population density of 35 people per square kilometer, which is superior to the average population density of the four countries that the region is found within.
Grasslands under threat
As in other grassland ecosystems in the world, the natural grasslands of the Southern Cone have slowly been replaced by intensive agricultural activity; agriculture is a pillar of the economies of the four countries but this activity has led to massive conversion and fragmentation of the natural grasslands with severe impacts on the biodiversity.
Apart from agricultural expansion and intensification, other threats the grasslands are facing include forestry plantations and urbanization. Altogether, these activities have transformed 68% of the region’s grasslands. Erosion as a result of land use change is another worrying factor; it is estimated that 60% of the region’s soils are suffering from this process.
Due to weak state policies and precarious instruments to exercise the conservation of biodiversity in the remaining natural grasslands, the protected natural areas cover less than 2% of the total natural grasslands and 95% of the lands are privately owned, and dedicated to production.
The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance is a regional-scale multi-national approach to conservation of the remaining Pampas grasslands, which through articulating the different sectors, seeks to achieve the sustainable development of the region and promote economic growth and nature conservation. The Alliance coordinates actions between Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, including producers, civil organizations, academia and governments, to secure the conservation of the natural grasslands but also securing the goods and services the grasslands provide and which communities depend upon.
To achieve this, Alliance partners promote coordinated policies, projects and actions to overcome the challenges and to capitalize on opportunities which arise for natural grasslands conservation. The planning and instrumentation of these policies, projects, and actions respond to plural and participative processes which ensure the transparency, representation, and viability of proposed actions.
A bit of history…
The Alliance was launched by the family of organizations dedicated to the conservation of wild birds in the grasslands of the four South American Southern Cone countries. These organizations are Aves Argentinas, Aves Uruguay, SAVE Brazil, and Guyra Paraguay, and they are members of the worldwide partnership of BirdLife International.
The Alliance works and has influence at the national, regional and hemispheric level. At the national level each of the four organizations works closely with producers, producer associations, conservation and research organizations and government bodies. At the regional level, the Alliance works to coordinate and roll-up national efforts, for example to share best practice experiences and build local capacity. And finally, at the hemispheric level the Alliance interacts with international grassland conservation initiatives to build awareness for the need for grassland conservation, and to share experiences and capacity.
Working with local producers
As over 95% of the Pampas grasslands are privately owned, conservation of the remaining natural grasslands depends on producers taking an interest in grasslands conservation. The Alliance’s approach is to work with local producers to develop grassland friendly production techniques which enable them to produce in a financially sustainable way, while at the same time conserving the unique biodiversity of the Pampas grasslands.
In the first stages of the Alliance, producers from the four countries where invited to workshops with local conservationists in order to develop joint approaches to production and grasslands conservation. These early meetings helped create an atmosphere of trust and partnership between producers and conservationists, and were also the basis for collaborations in the following stages of the Alliance.
Traditionally, cattle ranching in the Pampas grasslands has used an extensive, low impact approach. This has facilitated the development and ready adoption of best management practices, which combine traditionally extensive grazing, with management practices that help preserve the unique biodiversity of the grasslands. The Alliance has started developing a range of market, fiscal and credit-based incentives to reward producers adopting these best management practices. The first to be developed has been a “natural grasslands beef” certification scheme, which will be officially launched during 2012. This has been made possible through the development of a natural grasslands beef grassland management protocol, and the trialing of this approach and of the best management practices at pilot sites in each of the four countries. At pilot sites, management practices have been evaluated through regular bird population monitoring, and studies on site fidelity, local movements and habitat preferences of target species.
The Alliance relationship with cattle ranchers and beef producers of natural grasslands is intense and very fruitful. Every year a meeting of cattle ranchers is held in one of the four countries, this is an excellent opportunity for the producers of the region to meet, share experiences and plan the regional activities for the following year. There is also a joint agreement of understanding amongst conservationists and cattle ranchers for the conservation of the habitat.
There is still a lot to do but the future seems bright. Working on the development of government policies is the next priority as without the support from this sector the long term sustainability of the Alliance activities could be compromised.
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Work bulletin on conservation of steppe ecosystems and sustainable use of steppes
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