1 Incorporating high conservation value grasslands into the FSC agenda. An important and urgent change in the current global environmental context. The case of the Iberá region in Corrientes, Argentina. Temperate grasslands are one of the most altered biomes on the planet and the most threatened in most of the countries where they are found. 1 This biome, which once covered 8% of the earth's surface, has been reduced to less than a half of its original size, and only 4% receive some form of legal protection. These grasslands home to extraordinary assemblages of wildlife have largely been fragmented, urbanized and degraded, replaced with land dedicated to intensive agriculture and with pasture land, and, in recent decades, increasingly overtaken by massive forest plantations. After cradling the needs of humankind for centuries, temperate grasslands are now the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. However, some natural grassland areas are still intact, presenting us with a golden opportunity to ensure their conservation and responsible use. These include the Campos and Malezales and the Esteros del Iberá ecoregions in north-eastern Argentina. 1,2,3,4 As part of a land use planning strategy that can take into account the interconnectedness of economic, ecological and social factors, simple common sense suggests that the ecoregions with the greatest density of ecological services should be treated especially carefully, as should areas that contribute to maintaining the stability of larger regions. 5,6 In these systems, planning should promote a multi-functional use of the space to ensure the co-existence of diverse agricultural activities as well as the range of other essential services provided by natural environments that maintain the environmental health of the area: job creation and population balance in rural areas; natural purification of air and freshwater sources; maintenance of the landscape and wildlife habitat; control of the causes and effects of global warming; flood control; preservation of historical and cultural heritage; recreation and nature tourism; and the supply of food and raw materials to meet the needs of the domestic market. 5 Such a strategy must necessarily be taken on as a collective project by an organized society. The task force required to take on this challenge should include all interest groups (economic, social, cultural, environmental), land users, the scientific/technological community, and, critically, the committed participation of governmental authorities. In order to be able to streamline viable and effective strategies, this interaction should be driven by the best available scientific and technical knowledge and by the relevant traditional knowledge in each area. Experience in Argentina suggests that it is not easy to translate this ideal situation into practice. Only recently have there been attempts to organize discussions to conduct territorial management within the framework of national laws. In some cases, the authorities responsible for adapting and applying these laws at the provincial level have employed a range of arguments to interpret this perspective as a "deterrent to development," and the result has been that sectors tied to environmental conservation and science and technology have not seen their contributions reflected in the outcomes or have been directly excluded from the discussion. 7 At the same time, this endorsement by the government has strengthened the industrial sector s production-based arguments for continuing its unrestricted march through natural environments, including those with recognized conservation value. 7 In this context, incorporating policies related to high conservation value grasslands into the FSC agenda could have an important impact on the future of these environments. This is because, due to the impossibility of certifying plantations on land cleared after 1994 and the strong restrictions and requirements related to high conservation value forests set out in the FSC P&C, among other issues, several timber companies have shifted their focus to natural grassland areas. As a result, the grasslands in the Campos and Malezales ecoregions and the Esteros del Iberá wetlands in Argentina are being quickly and massively transformed into forest plantations of exotic species. This process is driven by the prevalence of production policies that frequently stand in opposition to conservation policies, as these are areas of limited suitability for traditional agriculture and thus have low relative market value (significantly increasing the economic cost-benefit relationship) and, essentially, because a part of society fails to recognize the environmental cost that this transformation entails. 87 Currently, the majority of the main companies involved in this transformation at a large scale require FSC certification. Therefore, increasing the certification requirements as a function of rational ecological assessments adapted to the particularities of these ecosystems, thereby imposing considerable restrictions on obtaining FSC certification in areas covered by high conservation value grasslands, could mean that these companies will decide to concentrate their activities
2 in less environmentally sensitive areas. This would open up the possibility of multi-functional development in the few rural spaces associated with the scarce natural high conservation value grasslands that still remain in the country. The Iberá region marshes and grasslands Several investigations have analyzed the eco-environmental vulnerability of Argentina's ecoregions. 5,6 In these cases, the concept of vulnerability is tied to the relative availability of ecological services, because the ecosystems that most offer these services are most vulnerable to losing them in the case of human intervention or a natural disaster. 8 These studies conclude that the Esteros del Iberá ecoregion, along with the Atlantic Forest and Paraná Delta ecoregions (numbers 7, 8 and 10 in Figure 1), currently comprise the greatest supply of ecological services in Argentinean territory (Figure 2). Figure 1. Ecoregions in Argentina. Source: Administración de Parques Nacionales (1998)
3 Figure 2. Average value ( ) of ecological services in Argentinean territory according to values estimated by Costanza et al. (1997). Source: Carreño and Viglizzo (2007) The Esteros del Iberá wetland ecoregion is the largest wetland system in Argentina, located on the paleo-fluvial fan that spans the Iberá, Batel-Batelito and Santa Lucía marshes, as well as the flooded grasslands in the north-western sector of the Aguapey basin 9 (Figure 3). The ecoregion includes marshes, lagoons, swamps and streams connected through different water courses, as well as terrestrial grasslands, palm groves and forests of different phytogeographical lineages. This macro-wetland landscape pattern and origin, the chemistry of its waters, its high levels of plant and animal species richness, its relatively pristine state and its biogeographical position make it a unique system in the Americas and one of the most diverse warm-weather wetland in the biosphere. 10 At the same time, it is one of the country's main sources of clean water and home to more than 1,600 species of vascular plants, more than a thousand plankton species and some 615 vertebrate species (close to 10% of all recorded species in aquatic environments in the biosphere), including 13 species of mammals, 5 reptiles, 1 amphibian and 25 bird species either globally or locally endangered or vulnerable to extinction. 10,11,12,13,14,15,16 It can thus be considered a key biodiversity site or a "hotspot. In 1983, the Provincial Iberá Nature Reserve was created by provincial law with the objective of conserving "the natural resources, the main physiographic characteristics, the scenic beauty and the ecosystems" of the most representative and best preserved water basin in this ecoregion. Employing a conservation approach to natural resources that is tied to economic and social development, the Iberá Reserve is made up of some 800,000 hectares of private land used for a range of production activities and some 500,000 hectares of provincial state land intended strictly for conservation purposes, the latter forming part of the largest provincial park in the country (Figure 3). In 2007, the importance of conserving the Reserve was made a priority with Article 65 of the Provincial Constitution, which declares it "strategic, natural and cultural heritage of the Province of Corrientes for the purpose of its preservation, conservation and defense," and establishes the need to pass regulations to further its protection, leaving no doubt about the importance of the Iberá to the people of Corrientes. It is also of fundamental importance to maintain the ecological connectivity between this Provincial Reserve and the Santa Lucía marshes in order to preserve the environments that make up the Mburucuyá National Park (Figure 3), a national protected area covering 17,660 hectares, including grasslands, yatay palm groves and Chaco forests that are not found inside the Iberá Reserve. It was established in 2001 with National Law 25,447, when the Pedersen family donated the lands to the state to preserve their environments, which Troels Pederson himself had studied for years as a distinguished botanist.
4 Later, in 2002, a sector of the wetlands was declared a Ramsar site ; that is, it was included in the list of Wetlands of International Importance in the framework of the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971), of which Argentina is a member country. This "grants it the prestige of international recognition and reflects the government s commitment to take the measures necessary to ensure the maintenance of its ecological characteristics. 6 Though the Ramsar site spans 24,550 hectares surrounding Iberá Lake 17 (see Figure 3), since the country has signed the Convention and, in particular, because of the Ramsar concept of "rational use, 18 the country's commitments apply to all the wetlands and water resources throughout the national territory and not only to the sites designated Wetlands of International Importance. Applying this commitment is crucial to ensuring that the wetlands can continue to perform their vital role of sustaining biological diversity and human well-being. 18,19 Legend River Lagoon Marshes, swamps Native forests Protected Area Grasslands of High Conservation Value Iberá Provincial Park IBA Ramsar site VGA Mburucuyá-Iberá Corridor IBA and VGA Ecoregion Figure 3. Zones of high conservation value in the Esteros del Iberá ecoregion and neighboring zones in the Campos and Malezales ecoregion. Codes. AVP-1: Western Region of the Iberá; AVP-2: Aguapey river basin; CR01: Estancia Puerto Valle; CR02: Estancia San Juan Poriahú; CR05: Aguapey; CR07: Mburucuyá National Park; CR08: Galarza; CR10: Rincón del Socorro/Iberá; CR11: Lomada de San Alonso; CR12: Concepción-Chavarría. Recent studies have shown that the natural grasslands on the emergent sandy mounds in the wetlands have special value for the conservation of macrofauna biodiversity throughout the system. 20 In addition, the natural grasslands in the eastern part of the region are part of Argentina's Pampas and Campos, a priority area for the conservation of temperate grasslands at the global level. 1,2,3,4
5 Source: International Union for Conservation of Nature. Temperate Grasslands Conservation Initiative (TGCI) At the national level, an evaluation of the conservation status of the country's temperate grasslands was carried out in order to contribute to the development of a conservation strategy for these environments. The result is an inventory of Valuable Grassland Areas (VGAs; Fundación Vida Silvestre Argentina). This is part of a global initiative focused on the identification, documentation and conservation of a worldwide network of critical sites for the biodiversity of grassland ecosystems. 21 With respect to grassland birds, sixteen of Argentina's twenty-four endangered species are present in north-eastern Corrientes; hence, this region represents the last refuge for conserving the most representative group of endangered grassland birds in the country. Due to the presence of a considerable number of globally threatened bird species in several locations in the Esteros del Iberá wetlands and the Aguapey and Miriñay basins, these areas have been identified as "Key Areas for Threatened Birds" 22 and also as "Important Bird Areas" (IBAs). 23 In addition, Argentina's Mesopotamian grasslands, which include the Iberá and the Aguapey basin, are considered "endemic areas" at the global level 24 because they are home to bird species that are geographically limited (occupying less than 50,000 km 2 ) and endangered. Furthermore, an analysis of global "conservation gaps identified the Iberá and the Aguapey as two global priorities for the establishment of new protected areas, as they are home to the only viable populations of bird species that are not protected anywhere else. 25 In the Iberá region, five Valuable Grassland Areas and seven Important Bird Areas have been identified, including the grasslands in the Aguapey basin, the grasslands covering some of the emergent sandy mounds in the Iberá Reserve's marshes and swamps, and the sandy plains west of the Iberá depression on the water divide between the Iberá basin and the Batelito/Batel and Santa Lucía basins (see references in Figure 3). 23,26,27 This latter area, in turn, maintains ecological continuity with Chaco environments and, in particular, with Mburucuyá National Park, creating a highly valuable biological corridor prioritized by the managers of this national protected area, which is of insufficient size to avoid the local extinction of some of its most important species if it does not remain connected to the Iberá. 28 Taken together, these grasslands enable the subsistence of more than 300 species of herbaceous plants equivalent to the diversity of trees in Argentina's subtropical moist forests and mammals, birds and insects that were formerly distributed throughout the temperate grasslands of the Argentine Pampa, Uruguay and southern Brazil, but are now highly threatened
6 by the onslaught of industrial agriculture. In addition, these grasslands coexist with forest communities and palm groves that are especially rare in the country 29,30 and are being affected by the transformation of the surrounding landscape. Photo: Groves of dwarf yatay (Butia paraguayensis) replaced by forest plantations. Forest plantations as a threat to preserving the Iberá region Historically, productive activity in the Iberá region has been dominated by extensive livestock breeding on natural grasslands, along with the cultivation of some crops (fruit and vegetable products for subsistence use and for supplying the domestic market, ornamental plants, and rice). Over the last two decades, the landscape has changed rapidly, driven by different policies aimed at expanding the amount of land occupied by plantations of exotic, fast-growing tree species. This region is currently within one of the fastest growing forestry centers in Latin America, as Corrientes is the province with the largest afforested area in the country - 420,000 hectares - with the potential to expand this area by another 1,000,000 to almost 3,000,000 additional hectares. 31 In the Iberá basin, the Iberá-Mburucuyá corridor and the Aguapey region, 190,000 hectares of grassland have been afforested (Figure 4), mainly with species of the Pinus genus (P. elliottii, P. taeda and hybrids) and to a lesser extent, Eucalyptus. Figure 4. High conservation value areas in the Iberá region and forest plantations to November Codes: AVP-1: Western Region of the Iberá; AVP-2: Aguapey river basin; CR01: Estancia Puerto Valle; CR02: Estancia San Juan Poriahú; CR05: Aguapey; CR07: Mburucuyá National Park; CR08: Galarza; CR10: Rincón del Socorro/Iberá; CR11: Lomada de San Alonso. River Lagoon Marshes, swamps Native forests Legend Protected Area Ramsar site Mburucuyá-Iberá Corridor IBA and VGA Forest plantations
7 This occurs even though there are critical environmental restrictions on planting, subsequent management and extracting the finished product, mostly related to poor drainage conditions. Proof of this is that in the context of the national policy of incentives for forest plantations, a large part of this area was declared "ineligible for receiving economic assistance. 32 Nonetheless, provincial authorities promoted their inclusion in assistance plans, which was made conditional upon carrying out the intensive work of systematizing the drainage of the lots to be planted 32 (Figure 5). Figure 5. Water works that are necessarily associated with forestry activity in the Iberá region due to its poor drainage conditions: planting in raised lines or camellones, drainage canals, embankments.
8 The increased forestry activity in these territories threatens their value as providers of ecological services of unquestionable value to society. In order to evaluate and be alert to the environmental consequences of transforming these grassdominated ecosystems into ecosystems dominated by monocultures of exotic trees, a literature review was conducted, with the results summarized below. 1. Changes in primary productivity (carbon gain or growth rate) If only above-ground biomass is considered (stems, leaves, etc.), biomass accumulation is greater in forest plantations than in the natural landscape. However, local evidence from other parts of the world indicates that in the case of grasslands, mineral soil does not gain organic matter following afforestation, and in moist systems the soil could even lose carbon. 33 This is because carbon sequestration and the accumulation of carbon in the soil as organic matter depend mainly on the contributions of biomass through the roots and on the metabolic activity of the soil. Forest plantations allocate a smaller fraction of their primary production to below-ground structures; typically the relation between above-ground and belowground biomass in moist forests and plantations is close to 5:1, while in grasslands the relation tends to be less than 1:2. Furthermore, the biodiversity of decomposing microorganisms changes in plantation soil, and the complexity of organic matter of plant origin is reduced. 33,34,35 For all these reasons and taking into account carbon accumulation in soil organic matter, when carbon gain in forest plantations is compared to that of natural grasslands in sites with high precipitation rates (greater than 840mm/year, similar to conditions in the Iberá), the loss of organic carbon from the soil in afforested areas is greater than the increase of stored carbon in the above-ground biomass, such that the balance is negative. 34 It is therefore a fallacy to automatically justify the replacement of natural grasslands with forest plantations using the argument that they are efficient mechanisms for carbon sequestration, as for this to be the case, the system's carbon gain must be separated from the total quantity of carbon that the system ultimately stores. A deep analysis of the potential to compensate greenhouse gas emissions by transforming grasslands into forest plantations should consider the duration of carbon residency in the ecosystem once it is fixed, thus the stable carbon stored in the soil organic matter should be differentiated from that contained in the biomass, which, after harvesting, returns to the atmosphere when it is used as firewood or as raw material for industry. 33 Furthermore, the contribution of organic matter as a result of the disposal of the plantation after the harvest may be overestimated, as a large part of this material is degraded (respired) and not incorporated into the soil due to the slow recovery of the ecosystem following harvesting. Organic material remains exposed to high temperatures and fast oxidation processes that prevent its uptake into the soil. This should be calculated as a net contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide. 36 Moreover, due to the indivisible connection between carbon, water and nutrient cycles in ecosystems, it is necessary to analyze how changes in above-ground primary production in forest plantations can affect water dynamics and soil fertility in comparison to the grasslands they replace. These analyses should include more than one cutting cycle, in order to evaluate the long-term ecological dynamics and the real feasibility of restoring the ecosystems should it become necessary to recover their ecological services. 2. Changes in water use and hydrological impacts Wetlands are zones where water is the main overall controlling factor of the environment, as well as of its associated plant and animal life. Environments are termed wetlands when the water table meets or comes close to the soil surface, or where the ground is covered by water. Landscape structure and biogeochemical features of a wetland have been shaped by a characteristic pattern of variation in water cover over thousands of years. 10 Every wetland has a particular assembly of species whose presence or spatial segregation depend upon this rhythm of change and can adapt to changes in the sequence of floods and droughts within certain limits; some functions of the life cycle of the species that inhabit the wetland are favored when specific hydrological states occur and may become blocked when extreme or permanent droughts or floods exceed the critical state of the organism or population. 10 Hence, any land use that modifies this rhythm of flooding and drought, or isolates one sector of the wetland from the rest, will have an important impact upon the
9 functioning of the wetland as a whole. Available evidence indicates that the large-scale transformation of grasslands to forest plantations that is taking place in the Iberá region would be one such case. One of the risks of replacing a grassland environment with forest plantations is the reduction or disappearance of some wetlands due to modifications to the water balance in the contributing water basin. 10 Available information indicates that this is related to one or more of the following processes: the location of water storage is modified (grassland soil vs. tree canopy); the woody species used consume more water than the grasslands (greater transpiration); afforested soil receives a smaller volume of water due to the interception of rain water and evaporation from the canopy; the amount of water available for deep drainage and surface runoff is thus reduced, and these are the processes that replenish aquifers and feed water courses and water bodies, responsible for the "hydrologic performance" of the system. 10,33,37,38 With all of these processes occurring together, the water balance (the relation between water flowing in and out) of the afforested sites can be negative, which would intensify during periods of drought. 10 In any case, the hydrologic performance of such sites is less than that of the grasslands that they replace. 33 Added to this is the fact that trees can use groundwater sources that are not available to grasses, creating a hydraulic flow that induces discharge from neighboring grassland areas toward the plantation. 39,40 On this basis, it has been proposed that planting trees in grasslands could be a useful management practice for lowering the groundwater level in regions where the water table is close to the surface, which has successfully been put into practice in some areas of the Iberá region (Malena Srur, CLT personal communication). Several studies show that this process can lead to soil salinization in regions with a negative water balance. 33,41,42 Taking into account that some sectors of the landscape within the Iberá can have this water balance condition during the summer months, 43 there is a risk of soil salinization during dry years. Impacts on the quantity and quality of water are relevant both at the site level of the plantation and downstream, crossing scales (from the stand to the water basin) and habitats (from terrestrial to aquatic). Though to date there have been no studies in the Iberá specifically addressing the possible impacts on the wetland's "hydrological configuration caused by the large-scale transformation of the grasslands into forest plantations, results from studies carried out in other parts of the country and the world warn of a potential threat too serious to ignore, at least in the context of the precautionary and prevention principles. In addition to the possible effects on the wetland s hydrological configuration related to the processes mentioned above, there are processes related to the water works ( camellones, embankments and canals, see Figure 5) that necessarily accompany the planting, subsequent management and wood extraction of the plantations in this poorly drained landscape. These works, as well designed as they may be, imply a reduction in the water runoff area, as they are located on a plain with a slope significantly less than 1% and they isolate large sectors of the wetland from their natural dynamic of droughts and flooding. This will surely create an important negative cumulative effect that is entirely unknown. 44
10 3. Changes in nutrient use and their effect on soil fertility Studies comparing the soil properties of grasslands and neighboring forest plantations in the Pampas region conclude that forest plantations acidify the soil and the water in the streams of the basins they occupy, principally due to the greater accumulation of cations (mainly calcium and magnesium) in the arboreal biomass. The magnitude of the impact of these changes on the accumulation of (toxic) aluminum in the soil remains uncertain, but deserves attention." 33 These results are in line with those of other, similar studies 45,46,47,48,49,50 and with those of a global synthesis 51 that indicates that forest plantation soils became acidified with respect to the soils prior to afforestation in 98 out of 114 cases studied, with an average reduction of 0.3 ph units and reductions of between 0.5 and 1.6 units in 25% of the cases. Other studies estimate that only three pine rotations planted in low-fertility soils implies a loss of phosphorus equivalent to the amount produced in 20,000 years of natural processes. 36 When trunks are removed with the bark, 58% of the phosphorus, 44% of the magnesium, 39% of the potassium and 35% of the calcium in the tree could leave the system. 36 These numbers indicate that even just one rotation has a substantial impact on soil fertility and that the remaining levels of calcium, phosphorus and other nutrients may not be sufficient to meet the needs of a second or third rotation. However, the production system that is taking shape in the region spans at least three cutting cycles, without an adequate assessment of the productive sustainability of such a proposal. The nutrients incorporated into the arboreal biomass are exported and permanently eliminated from the system upon harvesting. Thus, successive planting and harvesting cycles could result not only in the loss of soil fertility with respect to nutrient content, but also in the permanent acidification of the soil, which could last for decades after the forestry activity is abandoned 48 and make the regrowth of the natural vegetation of the site impossible, as well as the site s conversion to other crops. 4. Changes in biodiversity. Impacts on endangered flora and fauna species Forest plantations in open savannah, grassland and wetland ecosystems create a strong discontinuity in the landscape and may represent a barrier for the local distribution of many plant and animal species. For wildlife, the main impacts are related to the loss of habitat quality and size, as well as habitat fragmentation into discontinuous patches, creating the conditions for an increase in the endogamy and depression of the population all factors that precede the extinction of a given animal population. At the plantation densities normally employed in the region, practically all the natural vegetation under tree cover disappears within five or six years after planting, making it impossible to sustain natural wildlife communities. Aquatic fauna can also undergo processes of chronic or acute toxicity when careful measures are not taken in the management of pesticides 10 and as a result of the potential changes in water quality and quantity at both the site level and the basin level. 33 The massive replacement of these open environments with forest plantations will inevitably produce a decrease in the complexity and abundance of the native wildlife. In these cases, the negative impact is large, because grassland species are replaced by others that are characteristic of forests or forest edges, the latter generally widely distributed and adapted to human-modified environments. In fact, this change in land use is mentioned as one of the main direct and indirect threats to the preservation of animal species that inhabit the region, 52 and in particular for 3 of the 5 Valuable Grassland Areas and 6 of the 8 Important Bird Areas identified in the zone. 23,26,27
11 This takes on additional importance when talking about some species of wildlife that, under serious threat of extinction in the country, currently find their main habitat in Argentina in Iberá region grasslands. 14,23,53,54 The pampas deer One such species is the pampas deer, one of the rarest mammals in the country (classified as "near threatened" at the international level according to IUCN 2010; classified as "endangered" at the national level according to Resolution 144/83, SAREM 2000, Díaz and Ojeda 2000; included in CITES Appendix 1). Decree 1555/92 declared it a Provincial Natural Monument, establishing the obligation to protect individuals of the species as well as their habitat and requiring any productive activity that entails a transformation of the habitat to obtain the express authorization of the provincial Department of Flora and Fauna. It is estimated that historically, there were millions of deer inhabiting Argentina, but currently their population does not exceed 2000 individuals (Figure 6). The grasslands in the north-eastern Aguapey serve as a refuge for approximately 500 deer, thus representing one of Argentina's final hopes for the most northern subspecies of this cervid. Hence, the transformation of these grasslands into forest plantations would imply the extinction of a unique deer subspecies in the country and the disappearance of the second largest population of the species in Argentina. 32,55,56 There are records of the presence of another population of this species in the western plains of the Iberá basin, inside the territory of a forestry company (Empresas Verdes Argentina S.A.) that is currently undergoing the evaluation process for FSC certification by RainforestAlliance/Smartwood (its location is indicated with a question mark in Figure 6). A former landowner in the area recalls the presence of deer until 20 years ago (Pedro Perea Muñoz, personal communication), and in more recent surveys, the presence of trails has been cited. 57 In the late 1990s, large tracts of grassland in this area were transformed into forest plantations, thus it is important to evaluate if this population continues to survive in the area and, if not, to what extent its recent local extinction is related to the transformation of its habitat and the inappropriate design of planting and conservation areas. It is important to emphasize that, even in the absence of local deer populations, these habitats are essential for the hopeful future recovery of the species at the regional level. Figure 6. Historical and current distribution of the pampas deer in South America (left) and of relic populations within the Iberá region (right). Source: Parera and Moreno (2000).
12 Studies of this type should serve as a reference to avoid the future extinction of other species or of the pampas deer itself in other forest areas in the province, such as the Aguapey area (Ignacio Jiménez-Pérez: letter to Argentina's National Initiative in the context of the evaluation of Empresas Verdes Argentina S.A. for FSC certification), taking into account that until 2008, 23% of the Aguapey grasslands had been transformed into pine and eucalyptus plantations, with a rate of transformation that, if maintained, would lead to the disappearance of the remaining pampas deer habitat in the next 35 years. 58 Birds threatened by afforestation in Corrientes In 2000 and 2001, Aves Argentinas, with the support of Birdlife International and the United Nations (PNUMA-CEM), carried out research in the province of Corrientes on the population status of grassland birds considered endangered at the global level. The results were presented in various places, and in 2004, the effects on the long-term viability of threatened grassland birds caused by afforestation with exotic species in a grassland matrix were presented as a "case study" in the "State of the World's Birds" report. 59 The results were also incorporated into the Red Data Book produced by the IUCN, which brings specific attention to the afforestation of natural grasslands as a globally recognized threat for a group of 10 typical natural grassland species in Argentina s Mesopotamia region. 60 Ultimately, presentations made by conservation NGOs to the organizations responsible for establishing Law 25,080 for the "promotion of forest plantations" resulted in the suspension of subsidies for several years, until the environmental assessment mechanism for evaluating the suitability of lands for plantation was improved. However, afforestations have continued to increase at the ongoing expense of globally threatened bird populations, which, according to recent studies, 61 are increasingly rare in the region. Among the threatened birds that inhabit the region s grasslands is the strange-tailed tyrant (Alectrurus risora). This eye-catching bird is adapted to grasslands with tall herbaceous vegetation. Over the last 150 years, this species has seen its populations reduced by 90%, first due to increased agricultural activities and currently as a result of the onslaught of forest plantations in north-eastern Argentina. The only grasslands inhabited by the strange-tailed tyrant in Argentina are found in an area of the neighboring province of Formosa and in the large Iberá and Aguapey region. The bird's mating, nesting and feeding systems depends on habitats found in tall grasslands, which are disappearing both in areas with a lot of livestock and in areas of forestry production. 62,63 Another species in the region considered globally threatened (in the Endangered category) is the saffron-cowled blackbird (Xanthopsar flavus), whose populations have also decreased over the last hundred years. The situation of the saffroncowled blackbird is critical. There are only two remaining populations in Argentina: one in southern Entre Rios and one in the Aguapey basin and extreme north of the Iberá, entirely overlapping with the area being afforested with exotic species since The species has abandoned many of the marshes where it had been prevalent, as these have been drained or dried out by forestry activity or the surrounding plantations themselves. 23,64 The saffron-cowled blackbird reproduces in colonies in marshes located between mounds the sites most used for afforestation. 61 In addition to these two highly threatened and charismatic bird species, there are other endangered bird species in the grasslands and wetlands of the greater Iberá region and Aguapey basin: 23,60 the crowned eagle (Harpyhaliaetus coronatus), the sickle-winged nightjar (Eleothreptus anomalus), the black-and-white monjita (Heteroxolmis dominicana), the ochrebreasted pipit (Anthus nattereri), the sharp-tailed grass tyrant (Culicivora caudacuta) and the seedeaters (Sporophila genus).
13 Added to the impact of the plantations on the avifauna of the natural grasslands is the fact that the rich diversity of forest birds in the region is found largely in plurispecific forests with jungle properties, and very few of these species colonize or utilize pine or eucalyptus forests. 65 A study of the impact of exotic afforestations on groups of birds in areas bordering the Iberá mashes showed that 12 to 14-year-old Pinus plantations, 4 to 10-month-old Eucalyptus plantations and 15-year-old Eucalyptus plantations had less bird richness and abundance and a different species composition than surrounding environments (hygrophilous forest fragments, gallery forest, swamps, grasslands and marsh edges) Changes in biodiversity. Impacts related to the invasive capacity of cultivated pine species In addition to the direct impacts, there is a clear risk of the most widespread species in the region's plantations (Pinus elliottii) propagating or invading the natural environments of high conservation value in Iberá Provincial Park and Mburucuyá National Park. 66 Due to its importance for forestry at the global level and its marked ability to colonize natural environments, the Pinus genus has become the most invasive group of forestry species throughout the southern hemisphere, moving across grassland, wetland, coastal dune and shrubby steppe ecosystems in most countries in South America, as well as in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. 67,68,69,70 Grasslands seem to be particularly vulnerable to the onslaught of invasive pines as suggested in research carried out in the Pampas region, where the invasion of pines affects biodiversity and ecosystemic processes. 71,72,73 Recently, an international panel of specialists in biological invasions warned that Argentina is embarking upon a process of afforestation that could be risky if the negative effects of the spontaneous proliferation of conifers, which has caused severe environmental damages in other countries such as South Africa and New Zealand, are not taken into account. 74 A historical review and preliminary analysis of the Pinus elliottii invasion risk for natural environments in the Iberá Reserve 66 concludes that, "the environmental context is such that, in the coming years, there will be a dramatic expansion of Pinus elliottii in the area, which could become the main threat for the conservation of the Iberá." This is based on the following criteria: the natural distribution range of this species (southern United States, Central America and Caribbean islands) is very similar to the Iberá in climatic terms (temperate, humid climate, with hot summers and no dry season); the environments where the species naturally thrives (wetlands in southern Florida) are very similar to typical environments in the Iberá, enabling P. elliottii to become established even on dense mats of floating vegetation (embalsados) in a process that could lead to the formation of permanent islands and the transformation of the dynamics of the marshes; there are numerous accounts of the species being invasive in South Africa, 75 Australia 76 and Brazil, 77 including in the latter case in areas ecologically similar to those of the Iberá, 78 located in similar climates and at comparable latitudes. 79
14 The process of pine invasion in the Iberá appears to be in an initial phase, which is consistent with the delays normally reported between the establishment of a plantation and detecting evidence of its spontaneous expansion. 66 However, dense, spontaneous regenerations have already been detected in grasslands and wetlands adjacent to the plantations, as have isolated specimens at significant distances from the source of the closest seeds (Sergio Zalba, GISP; Malena Srur and Sofía Heinonen, CLT; Pico Fraga, Assistant Director of Parks and Reserves in the province of Corrientes; park rangers Pascual Pérez, Mariano Sotelo and Maximiliano Navarro, CLT; personal communication). Photo: Second-growth pine on embalsado on Iberá Lake (Ramsar Site) more than 400 meters from shore. As with the plantations, the hydrologic impact of invasive conifers can be enormous, especially when they replace non-forest vegetation. 74 In South Africa, pine invasion consumes 232 million m 3 of water per year, with the reduction of water volumes in the highly invaded basins ranging from 30 to 70% Impact on the scenic value of natural environments in the Iberá, access to land tenure, creation of local jobs and employment opportunities for women The price that must be paid for increased agricultural and farming production is a reduction in the provision of ecological services (Figure 7). This impact is not equal across ecosystems: when a wetland area is converted into farmland, the impact on environmental services tends to be very high, and the potential damage to third parties for this loss might not justify seeking profits from these lands by way of agriculture. 81 Figure 7. Left: Estimated relation between the gross profit margin (Margen bruto) and the value of services (Valor de los servicios del ecosistema) offered by the Pampas grassland ecosystem during the 1990s. Right: Expected effect of human intervention on the value of ecosystem services in different biomes in the River Plate basin. Source: Viglizzo and Frank (2006). Note: The Iberá region includes the ecosystems marked as "Humedales de la Mesopotamia" and "Campos y Malezales". Of all the widely recognized ecological services provided by the Iberá region's grasslands and wetlands, those tied to the aesthetics of the nature and landscape (such as recreation and tourism) have begun to acquire high economic and commercial value. Thus, in a region where the level of unemployment is higher than the provincial rate and in six of the ten municipalities in the Iberá basin it exceeds 30% of the Economically Active Population, the municipality with the lowest unemployment rate is Colonia Carlos Pellegrini (18.8%, 2001 statistics; see location in Figure 8), 82 where there is a greater proportion of
15 employment in the private sector within a productive framework based on ecotourism, and practically all inhabitants have jobs either directly or indirectly linked to this activity. On the other extreme, the municipality of San Miguel has an unemployment rate of 40.6%, and 58.8% of the population has Unsatisfied Basic Needs. 82 This area was traditionally one of ranching and farming production, and currently is one of the zones with the greatest plantation coverage in the Iberá basin. These figures have been attributed to the expulsion of peasant communities due to the crisis of regional production and a lack of support from the state, which subsidized only forestry activities in the framework of a national law promoting forestry and complementary provincial laws; to the lack of appropriate strategies for productive restructuring; and to the expansion of forestry activity itself, which imports labor from neighboring provinces with a longer tradition in forestry work. 82,83,84 Though the data available are fragmented and inconclusive, they suggest that at the local level, the perception of residents is ambivalent with respect to the planting of large afforested areas. Positive, negative and neutral opinions coincide with whether families have a working relationship with the forestry companies or not, but the majority of families agree that the replacement of ranches and farms (which create formal and informal employment throughout the year) with forest plantations has had a negative effect on the creation of local employment, and the percentage of unemployed families in the villages in the municipality of San Miguel is as high as 62%. 83 With respect to the issue of gender, the establishments of massive forestry facilities may have contributed to increasing gender inequality at the local level, as the jobs created in these enterprises are exclusively for men. According to figures from San Miguel, only the young men in families with some form of employment relationship with the forestry companies have the possibility to work for such companies, either formally or informally. 83 The large majority of local peasant and pastoralist communities are in a precarious situation with respect to land access. The companies are aware of this, and employ their considerable legal knowledge to engage in speculation, pressuring and coercing the inhabitants to hand over the possessions that legally belong to them. 85 In particular, in the communities dedicated to small-scale fruit and vegetable production in the western sector of the Iberá, the onslaught of plantations entails a threat in two main ways: on one hand it becomes impossible to incorporate additional land for production, and on the other, it causes a drop in the water table used by these communities to irrigate their crops. While this is not directly related to land tenure, it is directly related insofar as these communities understand land tenure as emerging from their work on the land. Furthermore, over the last year, and taking as an example the success of the productive model in the municipality of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, an ambitious development project based on ecotourism has been proposed, named "Iberá Scenic Route. 86 This proposal is being put forward by nine of the ten municipalities in the Reserve and by local NGOs. It seeks to bring out the best of the natural beauty of each zone (forests, vast grasslands, marshes and lagoons), to create public entry points with park ranger stations, and to create a shared brand that will communicate to tourists that the same signage, quality of service, care and natural attractions characterize the entire Iberá (Figure 8). The great value of this circuit lies in that it can be accessed through any of its entrance points, granting the visitor a comprehensive view of one of the wildest and most beautiful regions in northern Argentina.
16 However, in five of the nine municipalities that have joined the Iberá Scenic Route project, forest plantations are replacing the natural ecosystems and heterogeneous agroecosystems with a continuous cover of exotic trees. This strong impact on the scenery can not be mitigated 10 and should be taken especially into account in this zone of great potential for ecotourism development. Photo: Plantations along the access road to the "Scenic Route" from the San Nicolás Gate. These impacts should be evaluated in this potentially diverse context of production, in which forest plantations displace traditional and more environmentally friendly soil uses and prevent the replication of a model that has already proved to be successful in one municipality throughout the rest of the region, taking into account that according to the Misiones and Corrientes soil suitability map for forestry, produced by INTA-UNDP-SAGPyA, the lands located in the Iberá region have been classified as only "marginally suitable" for forestry operations (Category F4 on the map). Figure 8. "Iberá Scenic Route" project. Source: Project pamphlet.
17 Final considerations Provincial laws and the society of Corrientes via its provincial constitution require that conservation strategies be sought for the natural and cultural diversity of the Iberá region. The information collected in this text constitutes a strong warning that, from an ecological point of view, the transformation of grasslands into exotic forest plantations within the Reserve or in highly sensitive areas within the region is not compatible with this mandate and will surely create a strong conflict of interests between the different actors involved and between the public sector and the private forestry sector. FSC certification provides the basis for a suitable system of environmental management and an effective system of control, which in a country like Argentina constitute practically the only way to ensure that a forestry company will follow environmental and social standards consistent with the law, and in some cases even higher standards. Proof of this lies in the involvement of many of the country s main environmental NGOs as members of the National Initiative and FSC s increasing credibility among consumers at the national level. However, FSC certification standards were developed on the basis of assessments carried out in forest and jungle regions; thus, in high conservation value grassland regions, these standards are not strong or complete enough to preclude the emergence of numerous social and ecological externalities directly related to forest plantations, and it is hardly credible to validate stand certification that allows exploitation in a regional context of significant environmental and cultural modification. Based on all of the above, we believe that it is essential to incorporate the value of natural grasslands into FSC policies and regulations, adding Principles and Criteria specifically designed for this purpose to its certification standards, in the same way that this is currently done for forests. Otherwise, there is a risk of inadvertently stimulating the degradation of the last protected relics and/or high value conservation areas of this biome, of its associated flora and fauna, and of the ecological resources and services they offer to society. Furthermore, we believe that until these principles are developed, a precautionary measure should be applied, "suspending" all FSC certification processes inside the Iberá Provincial Reserve and the Valuable Grassland Areas identified in the maps that accompany this text.
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