Land Use and Biodiversity Patterns on Chacras in Northeast Argentina
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The Province of Misiones located in northeast Argentina, harbours the country’s only remaining subtropical forest, vast untarnished natural expanses and many plantations. Here a locally focused, family owned and operated, sustainable land use system referred to as “chacra” plays an important role in maintaining the biodiversity of the region. Chacras focus on the family house and farmland but often include tree rows, plantations, water sources and secondary forests. The secondary forests are a source of fuel and combined with the rivers and ponds, which are host to a broad spectrum of habitats. They typically surround fields that contain the staple of mandioca and other wide variety of produce, and form a mosaic-like biodiverse environment in chacras. The chacras of Misiones lie between urban areas and a nature preserve and serve as a buffer zone to both. There are significant challenges involved in achieving a steady income based on the current distribution of agricultural products. However, in order to maintain wide variety of benefits of chacras, it is necessary for farmers to continue managing and cultivating the land. In addition, it is important for landowners, together with governmental bodies, researchers, and other stakeholders, to recognize that chacras are important for maintaining biodiversity and sustainability in the surrounding preserves.
Chacras, nature preserve, family owned, mosaic-like environment, buffer zone
Mr. Mitsuhiko Toda is a Senior Research Scientist of Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC). His academic specialty is animal ecology and herpetology. He is interested in ecology of alien reptiles and amphibians in Japan. .He has been involved in the work on the Satoyama Initiative Projects, Alien Species Issue Research and Examination Project on Ogasawara Islands, and others. Mr. Ginzo Aoyama is a Corporate Executive Officer of Japan Wildlife Research Center (JWRC). His academic specialty is forest ecology. He worked in Ministry of the Environment, Japan, from 1974 to 2007, and involved in the management of National Parks and Nature Restoration Projects. He has engages in the work on developing the Coral Reef Conservation Action Plan and the Satoyama Initiative Projects since he joined JWRC.
1. Overview of the area and survey
1.1 The natural environment of Argentina
Argentina has an area of 2,780,000 square kilometres, placing it as the second largest country in Latin America and eighth in the world. It extends about 3,800 kilometres from north to south, and has climates ranging from subtropical to polar. It is an agricultural nation, with beef cattle, wheat, corn, and soybeans among its major products. Much of the population is concentrated in the north, and conversely the south has a lower population density. Most of the country has been developed as farmland, with forests now only covering about ten percent of the country.
1.2 The natural environment of Misiones
The province of Misiones, which occupies an area of about 30,000 square kilometres, is located in the northeast of Argentina and protrudes out in a peninsular shape, flanked by the neighbouring countries of Brazil to the east and Paraguay to the west. Climatically it is subtropical. The northern part of the province harbours the country’s only remaining subtropical forest (the Selva Paranaense). At about 70 percent, forest cover is higher in Misiones than any other province. In addition to vast untarnished natural expanses, one can also see many plantations. In the northern part of Misiones, the cultivation of yerba mate ( Ilex paguariensis), which is used to prepare the traditional mate drink, is quite popular.
Nature reserves and other protected parkland make up approximately a third of the province. At the northernmost point of the province are the famed Iguazú Falls. The falls and the surrounding areas are part of Iguazú National Park.
1.3 Survey methods
The survey that formed the basis for this report was conducted between the 18th and 25th of November, 2009, and targeted mainly the province of Misiones, but also included Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires and the state of Paraná in Brazil. Members of the government of the Argentine Republic, the provincial government of Misiones, the town of Andresito, and people at the Argentine Natural History Museum and the Argentinean office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) were interviewed. In addition, field surveys were conducted during which landowners and National Park officials in the Cabure-i area of Andresito, Misiones were asked about the history of farming methods and land use in the region, and the issues they currently face. Furthermore, visits were made to Paraná, Brazil, which has similar climatic and topographical characteristics as Andresito but little forestland and very different patterns of land use. On-site surveys were performed by Ginzo Aoyama and Mitsuhiko Toda of the Japan Wildlife Research Center.
Figure 2. Map of the chacra(top) and a cross section ( bottom) (JWRC)
2. Survey results
A chacra refers to a farm-centred land use paradigm commonly seen in Argentina in which land is broken up into plots according to purpose, which results in a kind of mosaic pattern when seen from above. A chacra is basically a piece of land owned and managed by a single family. The focus of a chacra is the family house and farmland, but chacras often have secondary forests or tree rows, plantations, natural sources of running water, etc. In its narrowest sense, the word “chacra” means “farm”, but it connotes not large-scale farming operations, but rather the distinctive mosaic-patterned small farms interspersed with secondary forests and other such features.
2.2 The history of the development of chacras and their present status
Until around the turn of the last century, in the region where the borders of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay intersect, there existed a vast primeval forest called Selva Paranaense. The bulk of the primeval forest, however, was subsequently lost, becoming a victim of the pressures to develop farmland. Now only a 60,000 hectare tract, located mostly in Misiones, Argentina remains. (Information from the Iguazú National Park Visitors’ Center).
Picture 2. The house in the chacra (Photo by JWRC)
2.3 The sustainable use of land in chacras
2.3.1. The structure and composition of chacras
One family manages and maintains one chacra. Typically, chacras in Misiones are nearly square-shaped, spanning 250 metres on each side, consist of about six hectares and contain a secondary forest, farmland, and farmhouse.. Chacras in the town of Andresito are generally larger than those of other areas, with single families occupying lands of about 15 hectares.
To give readers a better idea of how land is used on chacras, we shall illustrate one example of a chacra in Andresito’s Cabure-i area, which was part of the current survey (picture 1 & 2). The overall land area of this chacra is 15 hectares, which is in line with the average for the town of Andresito. The farmhouse is located near farmland, and the entirety is surrounded by secondary forest/tree-line formations. In the northern part of this chacra are located a stream and ponds. The farmland yields rich harvests of mandioca plants ( Manihot esculenta, or cassava). Mandioca are often cultivated in savanna-type climates, and although it does not occupy a substantial part of Argentina’s agricultural products, it is commonly seen in the markets of Andresito, which is characterized by a subtropical climate. These mandioca can be harvested a mere two months after planting. Two varieties (white and black mandioca) are grown on this farm, in addition to a wide variety of produce, including citric fruits, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions.
The secondary forests surrounding the fields are not used much, except occasionally as fuel. The pond at the north end of the chacra is currently not being used, but there are future plans to cultivate carp, tilapia, pacú ( Piaractus mesopotamicus, freshwater fish in the characid family), or other fish.
2.3.2 The labor that maintains the chacras
The 15-hectare chacra introduced here is managed by the landowner, who happens to be a woman. She sometimes pays residents of Andresito to work on her farm. Most other chacras are managed and maintained exclusively by family members or with the help of a few outside workers.
Table 1. The biodiversity of chacras
2.3.3 The biodiversity of chacras
While they cannot compare with primeval forests, these chacras, with their diverse mosaic-like environments, do ensure a high level of biodiversity. Between farmland and secondary forests are hedge-like rows of trees that serve as excellent habitats for species of butterflies and lizards. Within the secondary forests, which are as tall as about 15 metres (though they include species of trees that can grow to a maximum of 40 metres), one can observe stratified structures consisting of overstoreys, understoreys, and shrub layers that offer a broad spectrum of habitats. Many chacras have natural sources of water such as streams and ponds, which double as crucial habitats for frogs, freshwater turtles, etc.
The creatures most prominent in the Cabure-i area of Andresito are listed in table 1 (Information obtained from a Iguazú National Park coordinator).
Picture 5. Example of a creature inhabiting the chacra (butterfly: Dynamae sp.) (Photo by JWRC)
3. Issues and new initiatives
3.1 Purchases by large corporations and the decline of mosaic-patterned land use
In the state of Paraná, Brazil, there exist vast fields dedicated to growing soybeans alone. The town of Andresito has also begun to feel the effects of land acquisitions by major corporations as well as the advent of the single-crop farming of yerba mate and other crops. There are concerns that chacras and their unique style of mosaic-patterned land use may rapidly be lost. In addition to domestic Argentinean companies, foreign companies are beginning to acquire land. In order to prevent further corporate land acquisition, it is important for landowners to gain sufficient income from the operation of their chacras.
3.2 The economic life of chacra farmers
In Andresito, a much larger land surface is allocated per family than the average land acreage per family in Misiones as a whole, which has perpetuated the diversity of products grown there. In the past, there were instances of illegal logging operations in Iguazú National Park and the nature preserves around it. To address this problem, projects were implemented by both JICA and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo, or AECID). The goal of these projects was to treat areas around preserves as buffer zones and improve the economic conditions of the people living in these areas, thereby eliminating illegal logging and creating sustainable relationships between area residents and the preserves.
The biggest challenge in fostering self-sustaining and economically independent lifestyles for area residents is developing and expanding sales routes for agricultural products derived from chacras. A union was established in the Cabure-i area that supplies the neighbouring Iguazú region, a major tourist destination, with processed mandioca, green leafy vegetables, and other products. The government of the Argentine Republic has also set aside a budget for federally employed rangers to consult and liaise on agricultural issues. These efforts have made it possible to address these challenges through a union framework, which would not have been feasible on an individual farm/family level.
For mandioca and green leafy vegetables which are not normally suited for transportation over long distances, initiatives were designed by the union to deliver these products to Iguazú, a much-visited point of consumption, and achieve a steady chain of distribution. The union has also invited agricultural specialists to lead seminars for farmers, teaching them about distribution mechanisms and processing methods.
3.3 Sustaining chacras into the future
The chacras of Misiones lie between an urban area and a nature preserve and serve as a buffer zone for both. It can also be said that these chacras are a model of a sustainable yet practical paradigm of land usage in the sense that they allow for sustained agriculture yet at the same time maintain the integrity of regional biodiversity. Furthermore, this region is relatively flat, temperate, and moist, making it ideal as farmland. In the neighbouring Brazilian state of Paraná, many forests have already been razed, to be replaced by immense soybean fields. During the interviews conducted for this report, some scientists predicted that the chacras of Misiones will similarly be sacrificed over a very short period of time.
In order to preserve the picturesque presence of chacras, it is necessary for farmers to remain and continue to managing and cultivating their land. The most significant challenge is achieving a steady distribution of agricultural products from the chacras and the income they generate. In addition, it is important for landowners themselves, together with governmental bodies, researchers, and other stakeholders, to recognize that chacras may be just as important as the surrounding wildlife preserves for maintaining biodiversity, and that they are of great significance in terms of their aesthetic contribution to the unique landscape of the country. Based upon this fundamental recognition, these sectors should come together to work at preserving these exquisite landscapes for future generations.
This study was commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment, Japan.
Lorena Lopes and Hugo Camara, 2007. Paths through Misiones Jungle. Ministry of ecology, renewable natural resources and tourism, Government of the province of Misiones.