Thursday, January 18, 2007

Last week a British conservation charity announced the purchase of 3,600 ha. of land in the Pantanal - the planets largest wetland that spans Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

I spent three weeks in late 2001 visiting a friend living in Bonito, Brazil - bordering the Pantanal. It's a spectacularly clean, bountiful, and serene place. The photo (left, from flickr) could easily be one of the many fish I swam with in one of the countless crystal clear streams. The Pantanal is so worthy of protection.

The British charity hopes that its purchase will help save a large area of native vegetation from being cleared for agriculture. With similarities to vast areas of the Amazon basin, the Pantanal has lost approx 17% of it's native cover - often to soy production. The purchase is the latest in a long line of high profile South American land accumulation projects in the name of conservation.

Names like Soros, Benetton, Stallone (yes, the sly one), Chouinard (of Patagonia clothing fame), Ted Turner (CNN), Doug Tompkins (Esprit, North Face) are etched in the land holding annals of rural South America. Mostly in southern Chile and Argentina where the winds are wild and the peaks snowy.

But many locals see protection through foreign ownership as a dangerous ceding of sovereignty. Some even see it as a direct consequence of aggressive US foreign policy. Numerous attempts of "re-nationalisation" have occurred.

Criticism of the situation in South America has some remarkable similarities to the high country land tenure review process here in New Zealand. One commentator says "natural heritage [is] being robbed" in a process where the government decides to either buy or sell leased farmland that comes up for lease renewal.

The logic is that the government holds ecologically important land (for ever), and the farmers hold the arable areas. But when the government decides to buy, the price is often criticised as being too high, and when it sells, the price too low (numerous views on the tenure review process can be found on Scoop).

In addition to conservation, the similarities between tenure review and South American eco-philanthropy include loss of iconic landscapes to private ownership. In New Zealand a tone of impending development is often taken by those reporting on the issue. Whether that be correct or not, the same base fear exists - "what if we loose land/landscapes forever?"

Topically then, foreign ownership of New Zealand land is explored in a film appearing briefly at the Paramount next week. The Last Resort will screen for one week only. It touches on (apparently) the loss of iconic kiwi landscapes and lifestyles. South America may be experiencing colonisation by philanthropists, The Last Resort is pitched as exposing "colonisation by corporation".

Update 8th Feb: the Guardian has more criticism of South American eco-philanthropists. "...Argentinian press has suggested [Doug] Tompkins might be a covert CIA operative securing US access to the aquifer." ...all righty then....

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