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The Global importance of the Southern Cone Grasslands

The grassland of the Southern Cone of South America is one of the few ecosystems of temperate prairies and savannahs in the world, and is recognized as a conservation priority in the neo-tropics. Also known as the “pampas”, they cover an area of approximately a million square kilometres, shared by four nations integrated into the Mercosur Treaty: Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina.

These grasslands are composed of four eco-regions (WWF 2001)

(a) The Semi-Arid Pampa
(b) The Wet Pampa
(c) The Mesopotamian Savannah
(d) The Uruguayan Savannah. (In Brazil these lands are usually called “Campos Sulinos”)

These eco-regions do not respect political limits and they are closely inter-related in bio-geographic, economic, and social terms.

 

The greatest proportion of the grasslands is in Argentina 60%), Uruguay and Brazil 18% and 18% respectively, and Paraguay with 4%.
 

 

The region possesses an outstanding biological diversity particularly noteworthy in vegetable species, many of which have economic value for humanity. For example, some 1.600 species of vascular plants (including 374 grass species) have been identified in the Argentine pampas, 2.500 (400 grasses) in Uruguay, and 3.000 (400 grasses) in Brazil’s Campos Sulinos.

The diversity of vertebrates is also high. For example, 69 species of mammals (belonging to 17 families and 19 genera) 211 bird species, 31 reptiles, 23 amphibians, and 49 species of continental fish have been recorded in the Argentine pampas. On the other hand, there are deep cultural roots gathered together in the figure of the “gaucho” (a man bound to the traditional cattle activities of the pampas.)

 

The Regional Context

The Southern Cone grasslands also sustain a human population of 35 million inhabitants representing a population density of 35 people per square kilometre, which is superior to the average population density of each of these countries. However, the rural population is considerably inferior given that great cities like Porto Alegre, Buenos Aires, Montevideo and Rosario are hosts to over 55% of the population and another 30% is distributed in towns with more than 30.000 inhabitants.

The richest and most economically active areas are in the central-south of the region, always related to soils that are the most adaptable for the development of agriculture (cash crops), while the poorer and more marginal soils found in the northern regions are destined almost exclusively to extensive cattle-breeding, where the wetlands or the rock outcroppings impede agricultural development.

This last point demonstrates the great relationship between the socio/economic aspects and the conservation of biodiversity, since the agricultural development of this region replaces the natural grassland with systems of intensive cropping, which in turn affects the biodiversity.

 

Grasslands in trouble

As is habitual in other temperate prairie ecosystems, these have been replaced by intensive agricultural activity; itself a pillar of the economies of the countries in question, but this has also meant a profound transformation and fragmentation of these grasslands, with a severe impact on biodiversity. These activities, together with more recent forestations and the urbanization of large sectors, have transformed 68% of the region’s grasslands.

Furthermore, it is estimated that 60% of the region’s soils are suffering from a process of active erosion. Between 1970 and 1999, the region has lost 23 million tons of nutrients: 45.6% attributable to soy-bean, 28% to wheat, and 26% to maize.

The governments of the region have shown weak state policies, little initiative, and precarious instruments to exercise the conservation of biodiversity in the remaining natural grasslands, and consequently, the protected natural areas make up less than 2% of the total area. Furthermore, there is very little margin for future development of these areas, due to the fact that more than 95% of the lands are privately owned, and dedicated to production.

However, from within the Project of Alliances for the Grasslands of the Southern Cone we are trying an articulated strategy with different governmental and non-governmental sectors, to achieve a sustainable development of agriculture and forestation, and to continually promote social development, economic growth and nature conservation, together with the provision of environmental goods and services.

To achieve this we must push coordinated policies, projects and actions to overcome these challenges and to capitalize on opportunities, which may arise. The planning and instrumentation of these policies, projects, and actions must respond to plural and participative processes which insure the transparency, representability, and viability of proposed actions.

 

Top 10 reasons to protect the pampas grasslands of the Southern Cone:

  1. The pampas are one of the most important temperate grassland biomes worldwide.
  2. Certain species will only survive if a significant portion of grasslands are preserved.
  3. Livestock and the livelihoods of family farmers depend on the health of natural grasslands
  4. The region’s cultural heritage is deeply connected to the landscape of the pampas
  5. Well preserved grasslands create a healthy soil reserve that can control the quality and quantity of water flow, support habitats and species, and store carbon.
  6. Tonnes of carbon are captured in soils and roots, but released into the atmosphere when grasslands are replaced or damaged.
  7. Natural grasslands continue to decline at an alarming rate due to changes in land use.
  8. Well-managed grasslands are able to offer a comparable income to growing crops, but are also more stable and predictable.
  9. Grasslands provide resilience and the capacity to adjust to global climate change.
  10. Natural grasslands preserve water, purify the air and offer a landscape that people appreciate and even pay to see.