- Issue: Summer 2018
- Author: Sarah Wade
- Photographer: Jason Houston
In the Argentinian province of Santiago del Estero, Copo National Park is closing for the day; dust clouds swirl around the lone tour bus lurching over the dirt road to the entrance. Copo—a maze of dry, scrappy forests and grasslands in the country’s rural north—receives barely 200 tourists a year. Only one group came on this hot April Sunday. But they’re not the only people here.
A white truck appears in the road. The park vehicle accompanying the bus switches on a flashing blue light and several staff jump out, signaling the truck to stop. A man climbs out of the cab: He’s been asked to show the contents of a cooler sitting in the truck bed. Lifting the lid, he pulls out what looks like a dirty brown bocce ball. A crack opens in its surface, revealing clawed feet and a pointy, furiously twitching nose. It’s a tatú bola, a southern three-banded armadillo. Three other live armadillos are pulled from the container, along with a dead tatú peludo, or large hairy armadillo. Its luckier companions scuttle into the forest as soon as they’re set on the ground.
Eliana Alzogaray—a 30-year-old ranger sporting a French braid and pink nail polish— gives the men a warning. “This happens all the time,” she says as they drive away. Yesterday, park staff caught a group with nine armadillos. “This park is 450 square miles, and there are just four rangers and a few firefighters to protect it,” she says. “It’s a really important landscape, but we don’t have the resources we need. This place is forgotten.”
The forest's best hopes
Although Alzogaray was talking about Copo, she might as well have been describing the larger ecoregion it belongs to. The Gran Chaco, as it’s called, is the largest South American forest you’ve never heard of. Stretching 386,000 square miles across Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay—an area bigger than France—it’s second only to the Amazon in size.
That forest—along with the grasslands, lowlands, and wetlands the Chaco also contains—shelters some of the strangest-looking creatures you can imagine. Shaggy giant ant-eaters that resemble walking feather dusters. Maned wolves with fox-like fur and stilt-like legs. Ten species of armadillo, all of which look like crustaceans crossed with mice. Tube-nosed tapirs and golden-furred jaguars. And that’s just within the Mammalia class. In all, some 3,500 bird species, 220 reptile and amphibian species, and 150 mammal species live in and migrate through this huge biome.
But not enough people are talking about the Chaco. “It’s a lesser forest in the public eye,” says Manuel Marcello Jaramillo, director general of Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina (or Vida Silvestre), WWF’s primary conservation partner in the country. “It’s an obscure forest. A forest that unfortunately hasn’t seemed as important to people as the Atlantic or Patagonian forests,” he says.
While the Chaco has largely gone unnoticed, however, it hasn’t gone untouched. Soaring global demand for beef, the world’s biggest agricultural driver of tropical deforestation, and soy, the second biggest, has pushed cattle ranching and soy farming into some of South America’s most vulnerable forests.
The Chaco’s low profile and scant legal protections have made it a particularly easy target. Between 1976 and 2011, 28.9 million acres of native forests and grasslands in the region were converted. Argentina alone lost close to a fourth of its Chaco forests during that period.
Native plants and animals aren’t the only victims of that conversion. Millions of people live in the Chaco, including indigenous tribes and rural communities whose livelihoods hinge on its natural resources. Like the Amazon, the Chaco also stores massive amounts of carbon; every acre uprooted means another acre’s worth of carbon loosed into the atmosphere. And its forests and grasslands sponge up huge quantities of rain. Pull them up, and you take away the land’s ability to hold water. “Floods are becoming more common and more severe in Argentina,” Jaramillo says. “In this moment, 11 million acres of Argentina’s main agricultural area are under water.”
Because the market forces driving these trends extend far beyond South America, WWF is tackling them on a global scale—including through the Collaboration for Forests and Agriculture. The initiative, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, was created to help some of the biggest global players source only deforestation-free beef and soy.
On the ground, Vida Silvestre has been using a complementary approach for years: engaging directly with ranchers who live and work in the Chaco. That’s because those ranchers and their cattle, surprising as it may seem, are among the forest’s best hopes.
There are more cattle than people in Argentina, one of the world’s biggest beef-producing countries. In the popular imagination, those cattle are always roaming through the Pampas—the vast, open grasslands where the country’s beef production first took off several centuries ago. Head north of the Pampas, though, and you’ll find plenty of ranches in a warmer, wetter, more complicated landscape. Here, boggy rain forests interrupt the grasslands, and the grasslands interrupt wetlands studded with palm trees. This collage forms the eastern stretch of the Gran Chaco, a subregion known, appropriately, as the Humid Chaco.
One sodden morning in April, on a ranch called El Cachapé, three cowboys circle a cattle herd on horseback, whooping periodically. Soon the copper-, black-, and cream-colored mass breaks into a run—or rather, a glorified trot—over the pasture, bellowing and bleating like an out-of-tune brass section. One of the cowboys flings a lasso into the herd; a cow 10 feet ahead of him jerks away from its companions, struggling against the rope around its neck.
“That one has a wound on its tail,” says Santiago Boló Bolaño. “We need to give it some medicine.” Santiago, tall and scarecrow-thin, runs this 5,000-acre cattle ranch in the Humid Chaco with his father, Eduardo.
The roundup on El Cachapé reflects centuries of ranching tradition in the Chaco. What makes this ranch unique is the native landscapes and wildlife it protects. In addition to cattle pastures, there are waist-high grasses that provide habitat for maned wolves, bogs and lagoons frequented by caimans, and dripping rain forests that shelter black howler monkeys.
“When I bought El Cachapé in 1982, I was thinking only of production, of cows,” says Eduardo Boló Bolaño, a stout, genial man with neatly combed white hair. “But over time, I began to appreciate all of this nature around me. And we started getting requests from scientists who wanted to come study the wildlife here.”
One of those requests came from a group of Vida Silvestre biologists, whom Eduardo allowed to survey El Cachapé in the late 1980s. Several years later, Vida Silvestre asked the ranch to become one of the first participants in a network of private wildlife refuges it was creating throughout Argentina. The 4,300-acre refuge now shelters more than 350 mammal, reptile, amphibian, and bird species.
There are few protected areas in the Gran Chaco (Vida Silvestre is advocating for more), and most of the region lies in the hands of private landowners who rely on income from their properties. That’s why Vida Silvestre is working with ranchers like the Boló Bolaños to establish sustainable production models that put the Humid Chaco’s natural abundance to work for them.
Take the grass, for example. Ranchers in the region have increasingly begun using one or two fast-growing nonnative grasses to feed their cattle. But hundreds of native grasses feed the bulk of El Cachapé’s cattle. The Chaco is also famous for its hardwood trees, harvested for everything from furniture to fence posts. El Cachapé includes an 11-acre plantation lined with the seedlings of one such hardwood, the white carob tree. “These trees grow very slowly,” says Santiago. “But in 20 years we’ll earn a lot of money on them—they’re profitable—and they keep the soil healthy.”
The Boló Bolaños have learned much of their approach from Vida Silvestre: Their ranch is one of six the foundation has partnered with to create models of sustainable production in various ecosystems throughout Argentina. In exchange for receiving land management expertise from the foundation, these pilot ranches agree to open their gates to others interested in their methods.
“We’re hoping to make these ranches field centers where other producers, agronomists, and students can learn what we’re doing and take these methods to other places,” says Pablo Preliasco, Vida Silvestre’s coordinator of sustainable ranching. Preliasco is an agronomist who specializes in grassland management and sarcasm—skills he honed while managing a ranch of 40,000 cattle in the province of Corrientes. When he talks, ranchers tend to listen.
Or at least that’s the case one morning in a concrete building 30 minutes from El Cachapé. Fifty ranchers, agronomists, and researchers are here for a grassland management workshop organized by the Instituto Nacional de Tecnología Agropecuaria (INTA)—“the USDA of Argentina,” Preliasco says. He’s the last presenter of the morning, and clicks through slides about native vegetation, controlled burns, and cattle nutrition as a rooster screeches intermittently from the yard. By the end, he’s peppering the presentation with jokes, all of which land well. “Pablo talks in a way that people here understand,” Santiago says later.
The Boló Bolaños are past needing convincing. That evening, after days of heavy rain, the wetlands have spilled into surrounding roads and fields, turning the landscape into a giant shattered mirror. Flocks of white egrets and black cormorants swarm around the green islands in a lagoon, like an Escher drawing startled to life, as a ñacurutú—Argentina’s largest owl—hoots from a nearby wood.
“It’s full of wonders,” Santiago says of the landscape. “And it’s valuable to us. If you value the forest, you’ll think twice about knocking it down.”
Cows under the trees
“Forest” takes on a dramatically different meaning several hours west of El Cachapé. Far drier, denser woods proliferate, and you can see purple-green cacti growing among the hardwood trees and bushes. There’s a reason Spanish conquistadors named this forest The Impenetrable. Every plant seems made to entangle or impale: cacti with finger-length needles, fangy thorn bushes, vines that snatch at hair and clothing.
Pablo Poncio strides through that chaos without getting a scratch. It helps that he’s carrying his machete. This is part of his father’s ranch, a 6,300-acre farm that raises Brangus cows—a tough crossbreed of Brahman and Angus. As ranch manager, the younger Poncio spends hours traversing these forests to check on the cattle.
The ranch—called La Media Legua—lies within the Semi-Arid Chaco, the Gran Chaco’s central subregion. There are no wetlands here, and few grasslands; trees dominate the terrain. “When we bought this land 15 years ago, it was completely covered in trees,” says Poncio, a muscular, serious guy who wears a gold chain under his button-down shirt.
Seventy percent of that forest cover is still standing, in part to comply with a national law that requires each province to protect a percentage of its native forests. But the Poncios left more trees standing than required because of the ranching model they use. Called Forest Management Integrated with Ranching (the name in Spanish is Manejo de Bosque con Ganadería Integrada, or MBGI), it’s a technique that boils down to grazing cows in native forests. The Poncios learned MBGI techniques from an agronomist not long after they purchased the land. “There were few textbooks or written resources at the time,” Poncio says, “so it took a lot of trial and error to learn. But it’s been very profitable.”
At La Media Legua, cattle graze amid twisty old trees that link arms over a thick mat of grass; here and there a cactus pokes up like an abstract sculpture. But the picture’s more complicated than it looks. “These grasses are an African species that was refined by ranchers in Australia,” Poncio says. “The native grasses wouldn’t tolerate all this shade.” (Preliasco adds that the species isn’t hardy enough to invade the region’s denser virgin forests, so it’s easy to contain.)
Nearby, a massive piece of equipment called a rolo is planting those African grasses. From its body, which resembles a backhoe, the machine drags a blade-studded iron wheel that crushes all vegetation in its path, while hoses hanging from its cab spit out grass seeds. The driver’s job is to steer so that the wheel spares every tree, along with a portion of the native undergrowth, from death by rolo. The thing looks made for a Marvel villain.
Optics aside, Poncio says the technique helps ranchers who want to leave their trees standing. The rolo and African grasses allow the forest to stay largely intact while his father’s cows get plenty of food and shade. And La Media Legua, at the end of the day, generates almost 100 pounds of beef per acre—comparable to the output of pasture-based ranching in the area.
At the regional level, Marcelo Navall, who directs INTA’s Agricultural Research Station in Santiago del Estero, sees MBGI as a rare middle ground for two competing priorities: protecting native forests and generating jobs and income. The station has been honing the MBGI method for 30 years. “Under the forest law, almost 50 million acres of the Gran Chaco are designated for sustainable activities,” Navall says. “People can use that land to produce, but they have to use it sustainably. And we see this model, which we’ve been developing for years, as a way to do that.”
During a drive farther west, along the road to Santiago del Estero Province, field after field of soy rushes by, a muted yellow blur punctuated by the occasional tree. “All of this, all these fields, used to be forest,” Preliasco says. “When you see this, you understand why we are trying to put cows under the trees.”
As disposable incomes have risen around the world in recent decades, so has the demand for animal protein, and meat producers have increasingly turned to crops like soy as a quick way to fatten chickens, cows, and pigs for hungrier markets. Soy, in turn, has exploded like fireworks through South America, elbowing less-profitable crops out of existing fields and driving the conversion of native landscapes. Between 1990 and 2010, the land used for soy across the continent ballooned from 42 million to 114 million acres. The transformation that boom has wrought on the continent’s agriculture system has been so dramatic that it’s earned its own noun: sojización, literally “soyification.”
Argentina’s soyification began in the Pampas, the country’s most fertile region, before fanning out to poorer but still productive lands like those in the Semi-Arid Chaco. “It doesn’t bother me to see soy in areas that have already been converted,” Preliasco says. “What bothers me is that it keeps advancing. Once you clear a forest or grassland and put soy there, it’s irreversible. That habitat is gone forever. And with it you lose all the services it provides—carbon fixation, maintenance of salts in the soil, flood prevention.”
You also lose land that could generate food and income for local communities in some of the country’s poorest provinces. Soy provides little of either: Three-fourths of the world’s annual soybean crop becomes livestock feed, and most of what’s grown in Argentina is shipped to foreign markets. And since the process of harvesting all those beans is highly mechanized, the crop requires only a handful of annual seasonal farmworkers.
At a ranch called Estancia Puma, those social implications have been taken to heart. The ranch covers almost 100,000 acres in Santiago del Estero, half of which are forested, thanks to the MBGI ranching method. Miguel Zeballos knows each acre pretty well by now: He’s been working at the ranch for 38 years, and while he’s technically retired, he still rides his horse out to check on the cattle just for the heck of it. “It’s good work,” Zeballos says. “Two of my sons work here, too.”
The Zeballos men are three of 40 year-round employees at Estancia Puma. “Including their families, this ranch supports 125 people,” says ranch manager Pedro Tomás Dragell. “It would be just as profitable to replace this ranch with soy fields. But that would only require three jobs, and those jobs only last three months. It’s important to give work to people here.”
Ranger Eliana Alzogaray has practical reasons for sharing that opinion: The region’s high poverty levels make her job in Copo National Park harder. “Many times, the hunters we catch tell me they hunt because they don’t have anything to eat,” she says. “If these people had more job opportunities, they wouldn’t be coming into a national park for food.”
A shot at survival
If there’s one clear lesson from the armadillo poachers, the Boló Bolaños, and Pablo Poncio, it’s that the nature-for-nature’s-sake vein of conservation wouldn’t last a day in the Gran Chaco. This forest and its creatures are beautiful, in their own boggy, dusty, scaly, bushy, prickly kind of way. But no degree of beauty will save it. It’s too useful to the people who live in and around it.
The only way to give the Chaco a long-term shot at survival, says Alzogaray, is to make it useful in different ways.
“I understand that production is necessary. We need to eat, right?” she says as she wades through a field of tall grasses in Copo National Park. “But there’s only one planet, and we have to take care of it, and we shouldn’t just limit that work to a ranger. It should also be the work of a producer who knows how to produce sustainably.”
While Vida Silvestre works to help the Chaco’s ranchers toward that sustainability, Alzogaray has her work cut out for her protecting Copo. She says she could probably work in one of the country’s better-known parks—somewhere with more personnel and resources, like Iguazú National Park. “But I want to stay here,” she says. “There is so much work to do here for the animals, for the flora, for the community. I want to help the Chaco. I like the challenge.”