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Americas
30 Mar 2017

Conserving the natural grasslands of South America

As agriculture, forestry, roads and urbanization brought economic development to the vast grasslands of South America, the area of this important ecosystem was reduced by half. Luckily, ranchers and conservationists are joining forces to save these vital lands.

Ranchers take part in the Grasslands Alliance to conserve this unique ecosystem © David Wege
Ranchers take part in the Grasslands Alliance to conserve this unique ecosystem © David Wege
By Miguel Parrilla

As agriculture, forestry, roads and urbanization brought economic development to the vast grasslands of South America, the area of this important ecosystem was reduced by half. Luckily, ranchers and conservationists are joining forces to save these vital lands.

In the Southern Cone of the American continent, there is an area of ​​natural grasslands unique in the world, home to a countless number of species. In the past, these grasslands occupied an area of ​​100 million hectares, ranging from Rio Grande do Sul, Argentina to southern Paraguay and Uruguay.

Today, the remaining 50 million hectares of natural grasslands are home to 540 recorded wild bird species, 12 of which are globally threatened, such as the Saffron-cowled Blackbird Xanthopsar flavus  (Vulnerable), Black-and-White Monjita Xolmis dominicanus (Vulnerable) and Pampas Meadowlark Leistes defilippii (Vulnerable). Among them are species of migratory birds that make long migrations annually, linking the North American prairies with the pampas of South America.

But natural pastures not only provide food and shelter for wildlife. When well managed and conserved, they provide a series of benefits to society. These benefits are known as "ecosystem services", among which we highlight the following:

·         Capturing and storing carbon, reducing the presence of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere which are responsible for climate change;

·         Filtering water and slowly recharging freshwater aquifers, making water available for human consumption or for irrigation;

·         Maintaining populations of predators and pest controllers from agriculture, reducing the use of polluting chemicals;

·         Preserving an ancestral landscape, associated with the culture and traditions of the region;

·         Providing resistance to extreme climatic events like droughts and floods, giving greater stability to livestock production.

Ranchers are essential to carry out grassland conservation © David Wege

The Grasslands Alliance was established with BirdLife’s support in order to conserve these vital ecosystems. Proof of this was the organization of the Second Natural Grassland Tour at the end of 2016, carried out by the Grassland Alliance with the financial support of the US Forest Service. The important meeting put producers, experts and conservationists from different backgrounds in the same room–an opportunity to exchange ideas and best practices.

"The objective of the tour was to know in depth the activities carried out in the region to conserve grasslands and also to involve representatives from other countries in the Americas with a view to increasing cooperation. In fact, we’re hoping to create a hemispheric alliance that includes every South American country”, said Dr. Nicolás Marchand, Grasslands Alliance Regional Coordinator.

"The contributions of the four member countries of the Grassland Alliance (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay) have shown the benefit of conserving grasslands to livestock farmers, but also to wildlife. One of the things we saw both in small and large producers is that proper management of natural grasslands not only can improve production but can also contribute greatly to the adaptation and mitigation to climate change", said Esteban Lasso, Regional Director of the BirdLife Secretariat for the Americas.

“We are seeing how effective this project is. Clear results are being seen, with new ranchers who commit to conserve these precious grasslands. It’s a new development and management model that we find tremendously interesting", said Ramón Martí Montes, Coordinator at SEO/BirdLife (Spanish Partner).

The Bobolink migrates long distances between North and South America © Brian E. Small/AGAMI

"One of the important issues is that producers in the grasslands area are aware of what they have at the regional level, so they recognize that their pastures are important for livestock production. This allows them to better understand the ecological and biological dynamics that their pastures fulfil within the Pampas ecosystem," said Paola Fernández from the Nature Conservancy, Colombia.

"I am very impressed with what they have done here in the region and I hope to be able to take this model to the Chihuahuan desert, to the north of Mexico where we have been working for the conservation of grassland birds for 10 years. I believe that in the coming years, alliances will be more necessary to face climate change and ensure that we continue to capture carbon and to preserve the natural landscape”, said Greg Levandosky, Habitat Programme Manager at the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, US.

Participants all agreed that cattle producers and grassland owners are a central part to the work of the Alliance. The next challenge for BirdLife is to extend these achievements to the entire continent. The first steps have already been taken and the response from other regions who were present on the tour has been very promising.