Ecotourism revitalizing wetlands in northeastern Argentina

By Javier Castro Bugarin

Uruguay River, Argentina, Feb 2 (EFE).- The sound of the launch is camouflaged by the slow and calm lapping of the waves. The herons take flight, the dragonflies dart here and there, the ants crawl up your legs, run around on your skin and bite you. There are no other humans around, just the boat, the crew and the wetland.

This is the atmosphere around the Dolores, San Genaro and Campichuelo islands, located in the lower Uruguay River in northeastern Argentina, a region of some 2,600 hectares (about 6,500 acres), wild and almost unknown, but which is now slated to become a provincial park and a new epicenter for sustainable tourism.

“In this area, there was a lot of economic movement but, due to cost questions, it became unfeasible. The idea is that here there are going to be jobs in ecotourism,” Emiliano Ezcurra, the director of the Banco de Bosques, the executive entity for the “Green Islands and Canals of the Uruguay River” project, told EFE.

The initiative was presented within the framework of World Wetlands Day, which is being celebrated on Thursday. These territories, characterized by being completely or partially submerged, are key zones in halting climate change since they warn of flooding, retain greenhouse gases and serve as the habitat for uncounted numbers of native species.

In Argentina, these ecosystems represent about 21 percent of the national territory and Congress is still analyzing a wetlands bill that would allow them to be safeguarded.

After half an hour of navigating through the inhospitable creeks and canals, a visitor comes to San Genaro Island. A pathway leads to the first of three shelters set up there so far. The pristine natural setting is noteworthy, with green trees and bushes extending as far as the eye can see.

Although motorized boats are still being used to get to the islands, the idea is for only kayaks to be allowed to traverse these waters, an experience that is intended to introduce future visitors to this ecosystem via responsible leisure activities.

“We’re doing something similar to what was done at the Perito Moreno Park (in southern Argentina), but here instead of having paths that go from shelter to shelter, we go from shelter to shelter via kayak,” said Ezcurra regarding the water journeys that more than 2,000 children from the area have already enjoyed.

During the trips around the wetlands, on foot or by canoe, observers can delight in seeing native animals, especially birds: Cocoi herons, medium-sized kingfisher, magpies and others, which abound on the islands and in the surrounding forests.

It is an environment rich in textures, colors and sounds that also welcomes less desirable flora, so-called “exotic invaders” like the thornless honey locust tree, mulberry bushes and ash trees, all of which are being combatted each weekend by a group of volunteers.

“Here, we’re seeking to develop with nature, not against nature. We have to work with the exotics within the natural framework, but the conservation situation is good. We have the credentials in terms of biodiversity to be a good provincial park,” Ezcurra said.

Like the Perito Moreno Park, Green Islands and Canals of the Uruguay River was financed by Gilbert Butler, a US philanthropist whose foundation pushes forward with conservation initiatives and public use infrastructure.

Butler bought six islands in the Uruguay River – the three above-mentioned islands on the Argentine side of the watercourse and three others on the Uruguayan side – to establish this protected area around them and provide them with shelters and pathways, all with the aim of returning them to their respective countries and creating a “big binational park.”

“I think that the binational component is the most outstanding characteristic of the project. This place was the scenario for an environmental conflict between Uruguay and Argentina and today we can ensure that it’s all preserved, with appropriate legal elements and with real and concrete jobs for the community,” Ezcurra said.

The Banco de Bosques director was alluding to the installation 15 years ago of a cellulose plant on the Uruguay River near Fray Bentos, Uruguay, and Gualeguaychu, Argentina, just 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the islands.

“Argentina had never taken anyone to the International Court (of Justice) at The Hague and we did it with a brother country … (Both countries) continue working on the river’s administrative committee, bilateral relations have been mended quite a lot and even the Uruguayan president (Luis Lacalle Pou) went paddling with us ,” Ezcurra recalled.

Conserving the wild fauna and flora and creating jobs in ecotourism will not be the only things that this river park will repair, however. The links between two neighboring countries with more similarities than differences will also grow stronger.

EFE jcb/bp

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