Elena María Abraham, Darío Soria, Viviana Zeitz, y Cecilia Rubio
(IADIZA/CONICET, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo)
In contrast to the widespread image of Argentina as the “the world’s breadbasket”, reality shows a vast territory (around 70%) of dry, arid, semiarid and dry sub-humid lands affected by different degrees of desertification. The Monte Phytogeographic Province makes up an arid diagonal that crosses the country with all gradations of aridity. This ecoregion, devoted to raising cattle and livestock, is the driest of cattle lands in Argentina. Agriculture is confined to areas under intensive irrigation, the winemaking “oases”. Both types of land use are responsible for a great part of the degradation, evidenced not only by biodiversity loss and deforestation of native woodland, but fundamentally by the poverty of the people, most of them subsistence goat herders who still remain in non-irrigated drylands in extremely critical survival conditions .
Mendoza, with a surface area of 150,839 km2 and a population of 1,886,000 people, is located on the central strip of Argentina’s drylands, and has 100 percent of its territory desertified . This territory is organized on the basis of a great contradiction: the confrontation between irrigated lands (oases) and the non-irrigated lands of the desert. Competition for the use of water arises as one of the major environmental conflicts in interaction between oasis and desert, the latter no longer receives surface water inflows because river flows are fully used for irrigating the cultivated area and for consumption in urban settlements. Hence, non-irrigated drylands, which represent 96.5 percent of the territory, are characterized by very sparse population–1.5 percent of the total population- with a subsistence economy based on goat production, and by their dependence for equipment on very distant urban centers. The desert has lost its natural and social capital, which was used for building wealth in the oasis. Over time, it has offered valuable resources such as carob tree woodlands and grasslands, which have been overexploited. The problems of land tenure, isolation and marginalization of desert inhabitants have produced strong exodus and migration movements. This involves abandonment of productive lands and increased suburbanization processes in the urban fringe.
The ultimate environmental problem affecting drylands is desertification, triggered by climate variability and human activities . Despite the extent of Mendoza’s drylands, it is essentially difficult to simplify the analysis of desertification because of the high diversity of socioeconomic, political, ethnic and ecological situations taking place throughout the area. Combating desertification is essential to ensure long-term productivity of these drylands. Many efforts have failed for using partial approaches, disregarding the complexity and multiple cause-effect relationships and, above all, for not considering that dryland people are the major resource in these lands. They know the problems and potentials of drylands and have developed knowledge, technologies and skills to produce under restrictive conditions. However, they have been not only ignored, but also blamed for generating desertification. Traditional land use methods were often abandoned and replaced by foreign solutions which in many cases only managed to exacerbate poverty. Nevertheless, especially in recent times, successful experiences have been achieved by organizations that were able to listen to the local people, learn about their problems and priorities and rescue their knowledge in order to find shared solutions, putting into practice the concepts of participation, bottom-up planning, gender sensitization, reinforcement of identity processes and fight against exclusion. In this context, the “Demonstrative Production Unit” experience is presented, with active participation of local communities in the Lavalle desert.
The initiative emerged in 2002 as the result of international cooperation. IADIZA, Spallanzani Institute and the Desertification Research Centre (Univ. Sassari), made the feasibility study and started working on raising awareness and empowering local communities. With the support of the UNCCD Global Mechanism, a research-action program was designed to generate strategies for local development and production diversification to combat desertification and poverty. The proposal leans on three pillars (natural, economic and socio-cultural components) and, through local development, aims at achieving a better land use, improving and diversifying goat production, reducing livestock pressure and increasing producers’ income. It combines innovative aspects of desertification assessment and monitoring, recovery and management of degraded lands for forage production, adaptation to global change, optimization of water resources, revegetation, establishment of nurseries, herd sanitation, design of Demonstrative Productive Units (DPUs) directed to production diversification (healthy goat milk and by-products), capacity building in the local population and government, halting of migration through business opportunities and youth employment, training of specialized technicians, promotion of producers’ associations and technical assistance for product trading. The work combines diverse methodologies: participatory assessment procedures, thematic mapping, participant observation, remote sensing, field control and establishment of measurement plots.
The experience is set in “El Junquillal” locality (Lavalle, Mendoza), located in the non-irrigated area, the desert. The territory exceeds one million hectares, with indigenous communities, with a population reduced by migration and poverty to only 3500 people (0.5 inhabitant/ km2), grouped in small settlements (hamlets built with adobe bricks), with more than 31 percent of them having their basic needs unsatisfied, and an illiteracy rate of 8.20 percent, entirely devoted to subsistence goat production. The population self-identifies as being of Huarpe ancestry, and the productive activities they perform are related to a subsistence economy destined for self-consumption. They mostly include raising of small livestock for producing meat and manure. Climate is arid and precipitation ranges from 80–100 mm/year, which strongly affects the productive activities. The experience is focused on a small huarpe community called “Pinkanta”, of around 40 families. Eleven families of this community formed the “Kanay Ken” Cooperative with the aim to participate with IADIZA and the Municipality as beneficiaries of this project. The people expect that the project allows them to improve their quality of life through productive diversification and improvement of their fields, and to earn higher income and be able to rise above the poverty line, taking on the challenge that the desert can be productive and sustainable.
The proposal includes innovative traits in comparison with the strategies implemented thus far in an area whose natural resources have been devastated. It is based on acknowledging the rural environment potential from an assistance surmounting perspective and compensatory approach. It is framed within a conception of rural territory development that aims at competitive and sustainable agriculture, articulating the rural territory with dynamic markets. Its goals are to generate strategies for sustainable development of rural indigenous communities in the desert, improve the status of the ecosystem through an integral management of natural and cultural resources, and promote improvement of the socioeconomic conditions of dryland inhabitants. It takes into account compatibilizing ecosystem regeneration with investment in infrastructure and services, transformation and diversification of productive activities and generation of employment and increase in revenue.
An interdisciplinary group of technicians and researchers took part in the design of the proposal and in the integrated desertification assessment in the fields. The beneficiary community participates in field work and construction of DPUs, through their work and contribution of their knowledge, their land and livestock. This cooperative organization and the demonstrative experience is the pilot case that can be replicated throughout the territory, nucleating other scattered communities. In this action the Municipality of Lavalle supports the development of infrastructure, equipment and services (roads, water supply, materials, etc.)
A significant change would be encouraged by moving the people out of the poverty line, and reducing the pressure of stocking rate would also promote improvement and recovery of the fields. The experience involves a profound change in the traditional extensive livestock management system: with only 28 goats coming into the system of the DPUs, the profit obtained is equal to that generated by 200 goats in the current kind of livestock use. The system would need only 56 goats to double the monthly income of the family group, versus the more than 400 goats with the current model. Other activities related to the utilization of the area’s natural resources, such as production of brooms from collecting rattan (“junquillo”), manufacturing ecological bricks with local materials for the construction of DPUs, genetic improvement of goats to keep them rustic and produce better and more quantity of milk, nurseries of native species with low water requirements for revegetation of degraded areas, etc. Training, community empowerment and local government interests are the factors that ensure that the enterprise keeps running at the time when IADIZA withdraws the project. The community has learned and, without intermediaries, achieved establishing links with national and local agencies to access projects that keep this line.
The experience shows that it is possible to promote integral development in order that communities at risk can be maintained with dignity, in health and prosperity, considering basic principles such as recovery of cultural guidelines, identity, knowledge of traditional lifestyles; creativity to associate those guidelines with new possibilities derived from the knowledge of ecosystem structure, functioning, and production capacity. Thus, highlighting dryland environments and their socio-cultural aspects of food production and consumption and innovation in the production alternatives for a healthy diet and a decent life, by applying technological advances adapted to the needs and requirements of the community.
The initiative is an integrated one, and involves environmental, social and economic dimensions, so during these years the results have increased impact in and outside the community. The case was a LADA-FAO pilot site and currently is a pilot site of the National Observatory of Land Degradation and Desertification, which ensures high visibility and potential for replication in areas with similar problems.
Current results indicate that dialogue and joint work among population, local governments, research institutes, and both national and international financing agencies are of great importance for the coherence, depth and continuity of actions to combat desertification. It is necessary to work in interdisciplinary teams, which go beyond the fragmentary visions of scientific specialties. Experience indicates this as the best way to work on mitigating the adverse consequences of desertification and reach its invisible causes, transcending isolated cases to tackle complex and dynamic problems at territory scale. Dialogues with local populations must exceed consultation levels, generating active processes of empowerment and equality in terms of decision making. Systematic work with populations affected in their rights denotes the importance of attending, in the short term, to the possibilities of social reproduction of the groups, solving their unmet basic needs. Only thus will environmental, social and economic balance be possible.
 Abraham, E., H. Del Valle, F. Roig, L. Torres, J. Ares, R. Godagnone (2009). Overview of the Geography of the Monte Desert biome (Argentina). JAE, ELSEVIER, 73:144-153.
 Roig, F, Gonzalez Loyarte, M., Abraham, E., Mendez, E., Roig, V. y Martinez Carretero, E. (1991). Maps of desertification Hazards of Central Western Argentina. Study case. UNEP, "World Atlas of thematic Indicators of Desertification”, E. Arnold, London.
 UNCCD/PNUMA, 1995. Convención de las Naciones Unidas de Lucha contra la Desertificación y la Sequía, en particular en África. Texto con Anexos. Suiza, 71p.