The importance of knowledge of cultural values for dryland ecological restoration: Lessons from Argentine Patagonia

Fernando Farinaccio, Eliane Ceccon and Daniel Pérez, describe the importance of documenting cultural values, in the use of native flora, as a contribution to the restoration of drylands. Fernando is a researcher at the Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems (LARREA), Argentina. Eliane is a researcher at the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research at UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico), Mexico, and Daniel is the scientific director of LARREA.

NB. LARREA belongs to the Faculty of Environmental and Health Sciences of the National University of Comahue, Argentina, where sixteen researchers and collaborators study selection of species for the recovery of sites with severe disturbance, seed-based restoration, interactions between exotic and native species, agroecological systems, and restoration-based education.

The extreme socio-ecological transformation and degradation of vast areas of arid Argentinean Patagonia has its origin in the 1880s when the Argentine government carried out an official program of extermination of all Indigenous Peoples (ignominiously called the “Desert campaign”). The goal was to consolidate political dominance over the coveted territories and to expand livestock production.

As elsewhere, this genocide led to a tragic loss of human lives and the uprooting and dispossession of native inhabitants who had lived in and managed this country for millennia prior to the arrival of the Europeans – most of whom had little or no understanding of the natural dynamics of this arid and semiarid territory or in the lives and cultures of the peoples who lived there.

Aguada San Roque, an isolated rural settlement of 160 inhabitants, extends over an area of 142,000 hectares in an arid basin called “Añelo basin” in northern Patagonia. It is characterized by high altitude variability, from 223 to 2258 meters above sea level, over a linear distance of 50 km. This town is in one of the most arid ecosystems of Argentina called ‘Monte’ (Busso and Fernández 2017). This ecosystem covers 20% (approximately 50 million hectares) of Argentina. The Monte has an annual average temperature of 12°C, with a high thermal amplitude and an annual temperature range from 40°C to −13°C (Coronato et al. 2017). The relationship between precipitation and potential evapotranspiration ranges from 0.05 to 0.5, indicating a strong water deficit.

“Jarillas” (Larrea spp.; Zygophyllaceae; creosote bush, in English) are the shrub species that give the typical appearance of most natural environments of Aguada San Roque. The dominant species of jarilla (L. divaricata, L. cuneifolia, and L. nitida) can reach approximately 2 meters in height when mature. For the attentive eye, it is probable that hybridizations between them have occurred and generated, among others, the striking “dwarf jarilla”(Larrea ameghinoi), that only reaches 20 to 30 cm in height.

Photo 1. Larrea divaricata. Typical of the natural environment around Aguada San Roque, Patagonia Argentina. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 2. “Dwarf Jarilla“ (Larrea ameghinoi).A species present in some areas of the Añelo basin. Its biology and reproduction  are very poorly known, but like all Creosote bush species in southern South America and the arid regions of North America, they have enormous influence on ecosystem functioning. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Despite the aridity of the Añelo Basin, where it rains only 150 mm (6 inches) a year on average, with some years of only 50 mm, the beauty of nature is starkly visible to those who pay attention to details, and its mystery is slowly being revealed through scientific studies of the surprising and wonderful  strategies of plant and animal adaptations to aridity and drought. For example, Grindelia chiloensis (Asteraceae) known as “yellow love” or “honey-eyed” surprises and intrigues with its sticky stems, leaves, and flowers, all bearing so much resin that it is perceptible to the slightest touch. This trait is the result of biochemical efforts to manufacture organic compounds to avoid water loss. Fully 1/3 of the dry weight biomass of individual Grindelia shrubs is made up of these dense resins that allow it to adapt and thrive under the most arid and – importantly – degraded environments.

Photo 3. Detail of the flower of Grindelia chiloensis. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

A species that has probably been benefiting from the advance of wind deposits that multiply due to overgrazing is the “Patagonian lily” (Habranthus jamesonii; Amaryllidaceae). This plant is only noticeably visible in spring, as it develops from bulbs that remain under the sand during periods of unfavorable weather.

Photo 4. Habranthus jamesonii plant and flower in a sandy environment near Aguada San Roque. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

A plant that is almost white in color due to saline exudates is Atriplex lampa; Chenopodiaceae; a member of the widespread arid lands Saltbush genus that rewards the watchful eyes of the desert dwellers (Photo 5). This species has a profuse annual production of fruits with two small bracts that act as ‘wings’(Photo 6).

Photo 5: Atriplex lampa, typical of Monte desert landscapes, with fruits (almost yellow) in spring. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 6: Fruits of Atriplex lampa. Two bracts act as wings, facilitating their flight and dispersal by the wind. Credit: Paul Alvarez.

In very saline and clayey soils of our region, Halophytum ameghinoi (Halophytaceae) is very common. This species accumulates water in its stems and leaves as a strategy to withstand droughts. Their colors vary from intensely red to green tones during the juvenile and adult growth phases (Photo 7).

Photo 7: Juvenile individual of Halophytum ameghinoi. The increase in salty soils due to degradation will probably increase the amount of natural habitat for this species. Credit: Daniel Pérez.

Sadly, Aguada San Roque, like all the neighboring settlements, is seriously affected by long-standing desertification and degradation processes. Recently, the exploitation of large deposits of shale gas and oil, using fracking technology in the geological formation called “Vaca Muerta”, has revitalized economic activity, but also has induced a new and severe wave of environmental damage both underground and on the surface.

Photo 8: The preparation of land for the extraction of hydrocarbons entails a tremendously brutal action that spells disaster for biodiversity, ecosystem ‘health’ and, ultimately, human health and wellbeing. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 9: The action of the goats is not perceived with the same sensation of negative impact as that of the heavy machines engaged in fracking. However, overstocking of domestic livestock also causes irreversible damage. Credit: Daniel Pérez.
Photo 10: Frequent dust storms are one of the consequences of overstocking livestock. Aguada San Roque. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 11: A barchan dune, an example of the intense erosive processes in the vicinity of the Aguada San Roque settlement. These natural processes are exacerbated by overgrazing and intense hydrocarbon extraction activity. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, in this region, it is essential to plan and carry out ecological restoration and rehabilitation projects and programs that take into account the harsh socioeconomic conditions of the local population and include them in the process from the beginning. Fully 24% of the inhabitants – all of whom are of “criollo” origin – live in stark poverty, and more than 30% are illiterate. Life for these people is truly precarious, with little or no easy access to potable water and gas, and only 15% have electricity in their homes. Despite these conditions, the families that live there show an admirable desire to find ways of life that will allow them to continue inhabiting these arid lands.

Photo 12: Irma and Adalberto are owners of more than 9000 hectares of arid lands dedicated to raising goats in the Aguada San Roque area. They were unable to finish their basic studies in school and they have very limited income from the goats that they sell in informal markets. They are typical puesteros, or small scale farmers, of the region. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.
Photo 13: Irma roams the arid lands trying to prevent predators such as pumas (Felis concolor) and foxes (Lycalopex culpaeus) from attacking her goats, while directing and herding them to the few locations that can provide intermittent supplies of forage and water. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Therefore, due to the dire socioeconomic conditions mentioned above, it is necessary to conceive and launch sustainable restoration and rehabilitation projects that in addition to recovering ecological processes and functioning must also offer tangible goods and services to the local human population. In this sense, what we call “productive restoration” may be the most appropriate strategy, since it aims to recover soil productivity and offer products for the local population, along with some of the elements of the structure and function of the pre-disturbance ecosystem. (This is comparable to ecological rehabilitation as the term is used in the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer; SER 2004).

As mentioned, a critical key to successfully developing productive restoration projects in San Roque and other settlements in Argentinean Patagonia is to know and understand the socio-ecological context of the local population, in cultural, educational, health, and socio-economic terms, and also the values that local people assign to native plant species. We carried out surveys and interviews among the local inhabitants and visits to each of their landholdings, which allowed us to evaluate the knowledge and the value that they gave to the local flora, and their interest in cultivating native (and introduced) species in future restoration projects. The ecological attributes of selected species, and their importance for the productive restoration were obtained through a literature review. This review arises as part of Fernando Farinaccio’s PhD work. For more details and information, read his open access paper in Ecosystems and People.

Photo 14: Sometimes family settlements are located in places where there is an outcrop with easy access to groundwater (for example, a natural spring).This settlement recently benefited from government subsidies to improve water storage, allowing them to purchase and install the two water tanks shown here. Credit: Eliane Ceccon.

Local knowledge and use value of the native flora

Puesteros that we interviewed identified a total of 44 multipurpose species, of which 38 were native. Among the most frequently mentioned native species, Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp., were considered by puesteros to have the highest potential and promise to restore and rehabilitate their fields and landholdings. The main reasons were not only ecological, but also the multiple uses of the plants, such as providing high quality fodder for livestock, and firewood for heating and cooking.

Photo 15: A portion of a plantation of Atriplex lampa (a nutritious and palatable native shrub) carried out in 2012 in a degraded area near Aguada San Roque. A recent study has proposed this species as a “framework species” for dryland ecological restoration (Pérez et al. 2019). Credit: Laboratory for the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Arid and Semi-arid Ecosystems, National University of Comahue, Argentina.

Ecological attributes for the reintroduction and reinforcement of populations of the plant species most valued by puesteros

According to studies carried out locally, the most valued species show high and easy germination (with rates of >60%) and are relatively easy to propagate in plant nurseries (see Farinaccio et al. 2021). In addition, some of them have shown high success in terms of survival and growth in field experiments (>70%) (see Pérez et al. 2019; 2020). These species are attractive because they are food sources for vertebrates and invertebrates, and also offer thermal refuge and nest sites for seed dispersers (Farinaccio et al. 2021).

Characteristics of puesteros‘ home gardens

Home gardens are traditional agroforestry systems supporting subsistence of poor rural families, and they are usually located near people’s homes. These home garden shave also been the cradle for selection, domestication, diversification, and conservation of elements of flora and fauna, and the preservation of cultural values. In the puestero’s home gardens, a total of 44 species were identified, of which 85% were exotic, and used to obtain forest products (from afforestation), 47% for shade and other amenities, and only 40% to obtain forage, food, and medicine.

Photo 16. Puesteros often use exotic trees in their home gardens. The most frequently used species are Eucalyptus spp., Populus spp., and Tamarix ramosissima, all of which are used for shade and wind breaks. Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.
Photo 17. In some home gardens, small areas marked off with wooden or iron fences are used for the production of fruit trees, medicinal species, and forage (A). The cultivation of species for food consumption is also carried out (B), and in some cases, these species are protected from inclement weather (e.g., intense winds, and extreme low and high temperatures), through the construction of small greenhouses (C). Credit: Fernando Farinaccio.

Conclusions

The socio-ecological, economic, and cultural contexts of the Aguada San Roque community showed an unfavorable well-being panorama. Likewise, the extensive livestock production system, on which all puesteros’ depend for their subsistence, added to the intense hydrocarbon activity (fracking), have triggered an irreversible desertification process. In this context, local people recognize a low percentage of useful native species and prefer to use a large proportion of exotic species.Similar results have been documented in other studies in drylands of Argentina and the world. The low results regarding the use of native species by the local inhabitants, and the preference in the use of exotic species, show a loss of traditional ecological knowledge, which could be a consequence of the above-mentioned historical occupation of arid Argentinean Patagonia. However, they expressed motivation and interest in sharing their historical practices with restoration actions with multipurpose native species. Beyond this unfavorable panorama, the puesteros expressed motivation and interest in carrying out restoration and rehabilitation actions with multipurpose native species. The three species most frequently mentioned by the puesteros (Prosopis flexuosa var. depressa, Atriplex lampa, and Larrea spp.), were all successfully established in ongoing restoration pilot studies.

This study proposes that the interpretation of the historical, social, cultural, and ecological reality of local people is fundamental before undertaking ecological restoration and rehabilitation programs. “Top down” programs may not be successful if the local inhabitants’ needs, desires, and proposals are not taken into account. A restoration-based education program can help implement these projects successfully. The program may promote the strengthening of local capacities and the rescue of traditional knowledge; increase collective learning, to ultimately restore the historical links between local people and the native, natural ecosystem.

References cited and additional reading

Busso, C.A., O.A. Fernández. 2017. Arid and semi-arid rangelands of Argentina. In: Gaur, M.K., V.R. Squires, editors. Climate variability impacts on land use and livelihoods in drylands. New York: Springer InternationalPublishing; p. 261–291.

Coronato, A., E. Mazzoni, M. Vázquez, F. Coronato. 2017. Patagonia: una síntesis de su geografía física. Santa Cruz (Argentina): Editorial de la Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral. ISBN 978-987-3714-40-5.

Farinaccio, F.M., E. Ceccon, D.R. Pérez. 2021. Starting points for the restoration of desertified drylands: puesteros’ cultural values in the use of native flora. J Ecosystem & People. 17:476-490. https://doi.org/10.1080/26395916.2021.1968035

Pérez, D.R., F.M. Farinaccio, J. Aronson. 2019. Towards a Dryland Framework Species Approach. Research in progress in the Monte Austral of Argentina. J. Arid Environments 161:1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaridenv.2018.09.001.

Pérez, D.R., C. Pilustrelli, F.M. Farinaccio, G. Sabino, J. Aronson. 2020. Evaluating success of various restorative interventions through drone- and field-collected data, using six putative framework species in Argentinian Patagonia. Restoration Ecology. 28:44-53. https:// doi: 10.1111/rec.13025.

SER (Society for Ecological Restoration International Science & Policy Working Group). 2004. The SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration.https://www.ser-rrc.org/resource/the-ser-international-primer-on/.

Virtual field trip to the Guajira desert and the Serranía de Macuira in northern Colombia

James and Thibaud Aronson describe the natural and cultural context of a little-known area of northern Colombia, home to the Wayuu people and a microcosm of arid lands worldwide.

Colombia is one of the world’s seventeen megadiverse countries.  In a few hours of travel, one can go from the sweltering Amazonian lowlands to the snow-capped peaks of the Andes. It even has a true desert, a small peninsula called la Guajira, shared with Venezuela, which constitutes the northernmost point of South America.

For most of the last 50 years, the Guajira was notoriously dangerous, principally because of drug trafficking, but things have improved in recent years. We traveled there last month, shortly after the first big rains the region had received in several years. ​ And we found that it’s a poignant example of the plight of drylands globally and their peoples.

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The Guajira peninsula, in northern Colombia, including the authors’ itinerary.

Our trip actually began in Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903. While much smaller, Panama is also a country of contrasts. Much of the Pacific coast used to be covered in seasonally dry tropical forest, and some fragments persist today in and around Panama City itself, while the forests of the Caribbean slope, a mere 50 km away, are much wetter. A curious switch occurs near the Colombian border, where the wet forests then extend down the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador – the famous Chocó-Darien rainforest, one of the wettest and most diverse tropical forests on Earth.

Meanwhile, the seasonally dry forests continue along the 1,000 km long Caribbean coast of Colombia and give way to semi-desert and then true desert (annual rainfall < 250 mm), lined by a coast with mangrove forests, and a series of lagoons and bays where flamingos and ibises add a shock of color.

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Mangroves in Bahia Hundita, Alta Guajira, showing desert woodland with tree cacti (Stenocereus griseus) and various legume trees growing on the sandstone bluffs in the background.

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Roseate spoonbills, great egrets, and a white ibis sharing a coastal wetland near Uribia.

As if this wasn’t enough contrast, halfway along the Caribbean coast rises the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Colombia’s tallest mountain range, reaching 5,700 meters (18,700 feet) above sea level at the highest peak. It takes only about two hours to drive from its foothills, where toucans and monkeys chatter in the majestic trees, to Riohacha, the gateway to the desert.

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A brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus) hanging by one arm in a Cecropia tree in Tayrona National Park, at the base of the Santa Marta mountains.

Alta Guajira’s desert trees and woodlands

The Alta Guajira is arid indeed, but it hosts trees, remarkable both in their exuberant diversity and their abundance, considering the high temperatures and meager rainfall. We saw what we consider true desert canopies, such as we have described in other posts. However, no desert flora exists in isolation, and indeed the kinship to the ecosystem type known as Seasonal Dry Tropical Forest (SDTF; see map above) seems to be strong.

The dominant trees of the Guajira are species of Prosopis, Caesalpinia, Vachellia (formerly part of Acacia s.l.), Parkinsonia and other legume genera, accompanied by Bursera, Capparis relatives, Bignoniaceae, and other species common in the dry forests of Central and South America, and 3 kinds of tree cacti (Stenocereus, Pilocereus, and Pereskia), growing close together, often covered in climbing vines. In particular, it was interesting to see bona fide desert woodlands dominated by two well-known legume trees, Prosopis juliflora and Vachellia farnesiana, which are widespread and often strongly invasive in other parts of the world, but not here! Fascinating biogeographical and ecological questions abound in this poorly explored region, many of which are relevant to conservation and restoration.

Regarding  landscape ecology in the region, the vegetation is curiously like a patchwork, alternating between dense desert woodlands, nearly pure tree cacti stands, sometimes with a dense grass cover, and sometimes not, and frequent saline flats where nothing grows. In our opinion, the human element, namely land and resource use history, is paramount to understanding what one sees when travelling here and trying to ‘read’ the landscapes.

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Mixed patch of tree cacti and spiny legume trees with a surprising amount of grass understory. Elsewhere under similar stands, for no clear reason, there is no grass cover at all.

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A track of the Alta Guajira, near Nazareth, at the base of the Macuira hills where the notorious Prosopis juliflora, known in Colombia as Trupillo, is so exuberant and long-lived it forms a natural tunnel above this track.

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Prosopis juliflora colonizes newly exposed beach dunes, in areas where the shoreline is receding. Here, at Camarones, it occurs alongside Calotropis procera, a woody weed of the Apocynaceae known in English as giant milkweed, and familiar throughout the Caribbean islands, the Middle East and drylands of Africa. It survives because of its toxic milky latex where most other plants get eaten out by livestock.

Other standouts are the beautiful Palo de Brasil, Haematoxylum brasiletto, with its unusual fluted trunks and Pereskia guamacho, an enigmatic ‘primitive’ tree cactus with true leaves and one of the most exquisite tasting fruits we know. This is one of the least well-known but most intriguing of all desert trees to our minds.

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Typical landscape of the northern Guajira desert woodlands, with an even-aged stand of one of the several neotropical legume trees known as Brazilwood: Haematoxylum brasiletto, or Palo de Brasil in Spanish.

Despite those common names, this species is in fact only found wild along Caribbean coastlines from Colombia and Venezeula, all the way north to both coasts of Mexico. The scientific name is thus a misnomer. The most famous Brazilwood tree is another legume, Paubrasilia echinata (= Caesalpinia echinata) that once grew abundantly along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, as a large tree with a massive trunk, reaching up to 15 meters tall. Today, it’s almost entirely gone in the wild, and mostly planted in gardens and along roadsides. It was prized for the bright red dye obtained from the resin that oozes from cut branches or trunks. The dye was widely used by textile weavers in the Americas and Europe in the 17th-19th centuries. The tree also provided the wood of choice for high quality bows for stringed instruments and was widely used for furniture making as well. So important was its economic value that the country was named after it, originally Terra do Brasil (Land of the Brazilwood), later shortened to Brazil. Recently it was designated as sole member of a new genus, as part of a comprehensive revision of the entire genus Caesalpinia, carried out by an international team of experts.

It’s curious that H. brasiletto bears the same common name as P. echinata, since the two trees are nothing alike, apart from their red sap and heartwood. Little literature exists for H. brasiletto, and we are embarking on some detective work to shed some light on this puzzle. We go into detail as these are both relatively fast-growing trees with great economic as well as ecological value. They would both be excellent candidates for inclusion in ecological restoration work and are both in dire need of conservation efforts.

Wayuu: Alta Guajira’s Indigenous People

This desert also hosts a fairly large human population. The Guajira is the home of the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest surviving Indigenous group and, along with the Navajo, one of the last desert-dwelling peoples in the New World. These fiercely independent people, organized in 17 matrilineal clans, were never subjugated by the Spanish, and even today the Guajira region functions mostly in isolation from the rest of the country. As we were heading well off the beaten track, we needed a guide, a 4 x 4 jeep in good condition, and a skilled driver to navigate the meandering and unmarked desert paths.

Despite an ancient history of human presence, and some periods of intensive exploitation and intervention (such as a pearl harvesting boom that took place soon after European explorers arrived), the ecological condition of the region at the landscape scale is remarkably good. Indeed, apart from the salt works in the small town of Manaure, which produce two thirds of Colombia’s salt, and El Cerrejón, South America’s largest open-pit coal mine, in the south of the Guajira, there is no major industry.

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Typical traditional salt works at Manaure worked by hand by local men and women just as they have for generations.

And the isolated people who dwell here – fishermen, shepherds, and weavers – are right out of a Gabriel García Márquez story. Indeed the author, most famous for One Hundred Years of Solitude, grew up on Colombia’s northern coast, speaking both Spanish and the Wayuu language, Wayuunaiki. As we traveled deeper into the desert, we traversed small settlements with simple houses made of wood and yards surrounded by tree cacti hedges.

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The Wayuu village of Boca de Camarones, in the south of the Guajira peninsula, showing the living hedgerows of columnar cacti produced from tall stanchions. In the background, surrounding the homes, are Trupillos, and good specimens of Dividivi Libidibia coriaria (formerly called Caesalpinia coriaria).

This third caesalpinoid legume tree, closely related to the two Brazilwoods mentioned above, is the source of another lovely red dye, derived in this case from its pods. Until recently, there was an annual festival in Camarones, in honor of this formerly major economic plant product. The tree was also used as an important source of tannins. Like Paubrasilia echinata, it deserves more ethnobotanical and biogeographical studies.

Here, as in many other arid lands, goats and sheep are important for the Wayuu people, as a source of food and social currency. For example bride price during arranged weddings, and gifts for guests attending vigils of important elders and healers, are paid to this day in heads of live goats or sheep. Historically, mules and donkeys were very common as well, but now they are increasingly replaced by motorcycles.

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Small children following a flock of desert-hardy sheep in Boca de Camarones. The peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta are visible in the background.

Crown jewel of the Alta Guajira

The crown jewel of this desert, its best kept secret, is the Serranía de la Macuira, a small mountain range (serranía meaning “small sierra” in Spanish) in the northeast of the peninsula. This miniature sky island is almost impossibly lush, thanks to moisture-bearing clouds that shroud its upper reaches. They feed streams that flow year-round, and sustain many kinds of trees that grow to well over 10 meters tall.

As one climbs the slopes of the Macuira, the humidity dramatically increases and the parched lowlands, with their desert woodlands, blend perceptibly into a seasonally dry tropical forest reminiscent of those we had seen in Panama. A little-known fact: seasonally dry tropical forests are the most endangered of all tropical forest types, and those in La Guajira are worthy of much greater research, conservation, and restoration.

Climbing higher still, the mid- and upper ranges of the Macuira seem like another world. Most astonishing of all, there is apparently an abrupt transition above 550 meters, and the higher reaches are covered in true cloud forest, with mosses, epiphytic orchids, tree ferns, and dozens of tree species that otherwise occur hundreds of kilometers away! This is probably the only place in the world where cloud forest is found less than 5 km from true desert. Fortunately – from a conservation point of view, but unfortunately for us – the upper peaks of all three peaks of the Macuira are sacred to the Wayuu, and completely off-limits, to native people and visitors alike. Try as we might, we were unable to get permission to hike up there.

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Seasonally dry tropical forest on the northeastern facing slope of the Macuira, where precipitation is much higher than in the surrounding lowlands occupied by desert woodlands.

Even though the whole Macuira is officially protected as a national park, the reality is more complicated. While walking inside the park, we encountered recently cut trees, the ubiquitous goats, and even a Wayuu man hunting birds with a slingshot in broad daylight. The beautiful continuous tree canopy covering most of the slopes stands in stark contrast to the severely eroded, nearly bare hilltops, on which stand small Wayuu homesteads. Still, the presence of clear ecotones speaks to mostly healthy landscapes.

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The severe erosion around a small Wayuu farm inside the Macuira National Park.

Alta Guajira’s ecological future

The pressures on the Guajira’s ecosystem health include a large mine (El Cerrejón, mentioned above), overgrazing by domestic livestock, and stark poverty facing the native people and more recent immigrants. But there are positive factors as well. There are progressive laws in Colombia related to ecological restoration. Moreover, since 2012, Colombia has a National Restoration and Rehabilitation Plan (pdf), as well as a Law of Remediation, which imposes large environmental offset payments from large-scale development projects (like hydroelectric dams) to underwrite conservation and restoration work. Moreover, the national park system, within its network of 56 protected areas, harbors populations of almost half of the 102 Indigenous peoples in the country, and in the case of Macuira, this is clearly not just a paper park idea.

Still, the national park (25,000 ha in size; officially designated in 1977), operates with a skeleton staff attempting to carry out an ambitious management plan (pdf) despite an insufficient budget. Staff and volunteers provide short tours to day-visitors, and maintain some fenced-off livestock exclosure plots, where they are studying natural regeneration. Daily interaction with the Wayuu living in the park appear to be harmonious, and indeed there is a clear sense that part of the Park’s mission is to restore and protect the Wayuu people’s natural and cultural heritage. Recently, the Instituto Humboldt, Colombia’s stellar national research institute, has established permanent plots in the Macuira range as part of a series of 17 plots including all the tropical dry forest types in Colombia. In the Macuira, this work is done in collaboration with botanists from the Universidad de Antioquia, in Medellin. Furthermore, researchers at Kew, the Smithsonian Institute, and many conservation NGOs are all developing collaborations with the Colombian government to explore and help the country move forward with green development.  The Missouri Botanical Garden also has long-standing MoUs for joint research with 3 different institutions in Colombia, with bright prospects for deepening cooperation in the future.

Like many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Wayuu are at a crossroads. Their language and some of their traditions are still alive and well, but others have already faded. There are few legal sources of income in the harsh desert, the ancestral Wayuu land. How will they manage in the future? What can they do to adapt?  Some, like our guide, José Luis, are trying to change mentalities, but they clearly need more help.  As throughout Colombia, there is clear and urgent need to build on the alpha-level studies already underway, and move onto applied ecology, agroforestry and land management programs, including community-based restoration programs and ecotourism in conjunction with the national parks.

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Our Wayuu guide José Luis Pushaina Epiayu (on the right) and Macuira park ranger Ricardo Brito Baez-Uriana (on the left), talking about birds with a local Wayuu family.

South Africa 1. Restoring natural and social capital in Namaqualand

James and Thibaud Aronson post the third of four photo essays on their recent field trip to Namibia and South Africa.

As soon as we crossed over the border from southern Namibia into northwestern South Africa, it was clear that we were looking at a whole different story. We were now in the driest part of South Africa and one of the most sparsely populated. Also, Namaqualand – a winter-rainfall desert of ca. 50,000 km2 – is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world. The area is well known to tourists for the few weeks in August-September (the southern winter), when hundreds of plant species, benefiting from the winter rains, put on an incredible floral display and tapestry of textures and colors, down below your ankles.

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A rich community of toe-high succulents endemic to saline quartz patches . This photo was taken at Douse The Glim, not far south of Garies in southern Namaqualand. Many endemics of the Mesembs (Mesembryanthemaceae) occur here, including the sunken “Silver skin”, Argyroderma delaetii,  Cephalophyllum spissum, and “Redbeads”, Sarcocornia xerophila, a cousin of the cosmopolitan Salicornias. Identification of plants: Sue Milton and Richard Cowling, both of whom we will meet in the next blog post.

 

 

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Argyroderma delaetii, a dwarf, sunken ‘silver skin’, of a genus restricted to the Western Cape, South Africa, in the Knersvlakte Nature Reserve . This photo was taken by Sue Milton in 2014, a much wetter year  than 2016.

All in all, apart from natural history buffs, botanists, and conservationists, not much attention is paid to this poor, rural area. In a nutshell, the rapidly exploitable resources that could be had – copper, timber, and the like – are now long gone. What is left is – to speak bluntly – a lot of poverty and a lot of land degradation. And a lot of biodiversity: indeed the Succulent Karoo region of Namaqualand and southern Namibia is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world.

We met with some of the people making a difference there, working with South Africa’s most iconic environmental program, the Working for-family of government-funded programs, working together to restore natural capital and social capital at the same time.

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Sheep grazing on  abandoned crop land in Namaqualand, near Leliefontein.

The Western Cape, South Africa has had a tradition of rather damaging sheep farming for centuries. But the country as a whole has also had a proud tradition of nature conservation for over a century, which is a lot more than most countries can boast.

However, what is  even rarer is that ecological restoration has been part of the national vocabulary for a generation. A game-changing initiative that moved the country to the next level was a government program launched in 1995, called Working for Water, or WfW.

South Africa was faced with two metaphorical birds. On the one hand, approximately half of its population lived (and unfortunately still does) in poverty. On the other, several invasive non-native tree species had taken over many of the country’s waterways, outcompeting native species, choking river beds, and draining the water tables.

Working for Water was the stone. Every year it hires some of the country’s poorest people –  38,000 in 2015 –  in rural areas in all nine provinces and employs them to remove those noxious woody species. Since its inception, the program has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and provided desirable jobs near home each year. The benefits to people are in fact multiple. Workers are provided with both an income and on-the-job training and capacity-building, with some going on to start their own companies, providing ecological restoration services to private landowners. They also acquire an esprit de corps  and pride in their achievements.

With the same ‘stone’, over 2 million hectares, mostly along water courses, have been cleared of invasive trees and water supply has been notably increased for the associated communities. Finally, the large amounts of timber and vegetable biomass harvested from the invasive trees are used to produce eco-furniture, which is then sold to help finance the program. Research is under way to find methods for producing biofuel from the woody weeds as well as to improve the ecological impact of the effort.

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The small town of Garies, southern Namaqualand. The riverbed is completely dry, but there is enough moisture in the soil to support what may look like natural riparian vegetation. In fact, not a single tree is native. Instead they are Mesquites (Prosopis hybrids) from South America, Salt cedars (Tamarix hybrids), and Australian Wattles (Acacia karroo,  A. cyclops).

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The Australian wattle (Acacia cyclops), one of the worst invasive trees in various habitat types in South Africa.

WfW now oversees over 300 projects across South Africa, and its success has led to the establishment by successive government administrations of several other programs, such as Working on Fire, Working for Wetlands, and Working for Woodlands. The goals are ambitious and together this ‘family’ of Working for- programs exemplifies the emerging understanding that ecological restoration can be a bridge-builder between long-term conservation efforts, and sustainable socio-economic development goals. At a time when protected areas are menaced worldwide by dubious government cop-outs on protected areas, South Africa is a refreshing exception that deserves praise and celebration.

Thanks to introductions set up by our friend Dr. Christo Marais, the number 2 man of WfW, we had a chance to talk to Ronnie Newman, Amanda Bourne, and Halycone Muller from Conservation South Africa (CSA), who work in Namaqualand on restoration projects, in close liaison with SAN Parks (the body that governs South African national parks), and through financing of Working for Wetlands.

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From left to right, Amanda Bourne, Ronnie Newman, and Halcyone Muller at CSA offices in Springbok.

SAN Parks and CSA use funding from a new programme under WFW called Land User Incentive Programme, to hire people to restore degraded rangelands.  CSA and SAN Parks are thus implementing agents for Working for Wetlands in this arrangement, something new in the history of the Working for- programs. The focus of this trio here in Namaqualand is to repair erosion gullies, called “dongas” in southern Africa. These are very often a result of over-stocking and overgrazing by domestic livestock and get continually worse if left unattended. Thanks to this government-funded effort,  workers build beautiful gabions and other structures to slow water flowing downhill, catch sediments and eventually fill the gullies. Most of the gabions are made with metal baskets, or simply dry stones carefully assembled by skilled workers to make low but sturdy walls. However, in some cases, larger gabions are made out of concrete. As Amanda Bourne put it,  “this is about supporting the people who live and work on the land to restore and better manage it.  They are paid at a supplementary rate to undertake restoration on their own land, which will directly benefit their other (mostly agricultural but not only) activities.”

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Working for Wetlands workers building a series of stone retaining walls, near Kamieskroon. In small rivulets like this one the metal baskets of typical gabions are not easy to use and are not deemed cost-effective.

A week later, in Cape Town, we met up with Christo Marais, and with Sarah Frazee, the head of CSA. She told us that they aim at working at critical spots upstream of water points of importance to local communities whose livelihoods are largely dependent on sheep grazing. CSA also provides veterinary services at no cost to participating farmers, and tries to persuade them to reduce their herds and flocks to avoid over-stocking, especially in drought years like the current one. As Sarah put it, 80% of the biodiversity in Namaqualand is associated with wetlands, which makes focusing on their restoration important from a conservation perspective. But, as more broadly throughout South Africa, public-private efforts like this one can effectively address biodiversity, water supply, land erosion, as well as poverty and related social issues at the same time.

From a classical economics perspective, however, ecological restoration work in arid lands is slow, and often hard to justify, since the value of the land for production purposes is so low. However, not just here in the Western Cape, but throughout South Africa, the multiple goals of the Working for- program are being pushed forward and steadily refined.

There has been frequent criticism of the programs and not without cause. In particular, monitoring has not been implemented as well as could have been hoped, though the program has continually improved since its inception, both scientifically and in terms of its impact on ecosystems and people. It will be a long battle to achieve all of its goals, but despite its flaws, it remains one of the absolute best examples worldwide of programs that combine restoration of social and natural capital.

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Six months after the building of the stone walls near Lileifontein, complemented by brushpacking to help build up organic matter, things are looking pretty good.

We close with a mention of the fabled triple bottom line – the holy grail of progressive governments. How to achieve social, ecological, and economic benefits with a single program? Next steps in improving the work of the Working for- programs, according to  Christo Marais, should include: 1) still greater investments in education, capacity-building and outreach to bring all of South Africa’s society on board with the restoration movement, and 2) galvanizing private investment in restoration. The introduction of implementing agencies like SAN Parks and CSA should help with both.

In our next two blogposts, we will report on what some private landowners and three wonderful NGOs, including RENU KARROO and F.O.S.T.E.R. are doing in the Nama Karroo and Thickets biomes.