Turning a murdered rancher's estancia into a national park

BUENOS AIRES -- Ecologists were having a hard enough time preserving Argentina's El Impenetrable forest before the owner of one of the last untouched parts was murdered.
Written by Ian Mount, Correspondent (Buenos Aires) on

BUENOS AIRES -- On the January 13, 2011, police were called to a grisly scene in a humble stucco bungalow in the tiny northern Argentine town of Castelli. Manuel Roseo, 75, and his sister-in-law Nelly Bartolomé, 75, had been beaten and then asphyxiated with nylon bags tied over their heads. It was a brutal murder from any angle, but there was a twist: the Rome-born Roseo owned the 615,000-acre La Fidelidad estancia in the local El Impenetrable forest, making him one of the biggest ranchers in the region.

Rumors flew about the motive for the crime. Had it been a simple robbery? Or someone trying to get control of La Fidelidad? Roseo had been approached by multinational agriculture firms looking to buy it, and he had complained that false representatives had tried to sell the land in his name several times. But the eccentric Roseo -- who dressed like a manual laborer and lived in near-poverty -- had refused to sell, always imagining that he would someday turn the land into a grand business.

An Aguará Guazú (Maned Wolf) in the area

Police weren't the only ones interested in the case, however. Argentine ecologists had had their eyes on the estancia for over a decade, ever since scientists had traveled down the Bermejo River, which cuts through the Impenetrable, to study biodiversity in a region that had been disfigured by agricultural clear-cutting. Shocked by how much diversity spiked in one area, the scientists did a flyover of the zone. "On the flyover they saw a huge green stain of forest, La Fidelidad. They said, 'Here's a jewel that survived this clear-cutting catastrophe. We have to protect it,'" says Emiliano Ezcurra, a former Greenpeace representative who in 2010 launched Banco de Bosques (The Forest Bank) to save native forest. With the murder of Roseo, the ecologists knew that time to save the ranch from industrial agriculture was quickly going to run out.

Along with his former Greenpeace colleagues and other non-profits, Ezcurra put together an advertisement that ran in national newspapers, warning the provincial governments that oversaw La Fidelidad that they needed to stop nearby farmers from claiming the land through squatting, a common occurrence in a forest where, Ezcurra says, an area equal to 20 soccer fields is bulldozed hourly. Put on notice, in December 2011 the government of the province of Chaco expropriated the majority of the estancia, giving the groups two years to raise some 60 million pesos (about $12 million) to buy the ranch and turn it into a national park. With the clock ticking, Ezcurra set about finding innovative ways to attract donors.

Ezcurra's first tool was the Banco de Bosques website, which he'd designed as a way to crowdsource land purchases. At the site, donors choose a piece of land using a Google map, then commit to paying monthly installments that start at $3.50 (which buys about 10 square meters of land). "Donors trust NGOs, but they want to know exactly where their money is going," says Ezcurra, 41. "With this system we can give them rigorous precision, because they are donating to a specific piece of earth."

Then, after attracting corporate donations from the local outpost of the Dannon food conglomerate, Ezcurra set up a stand -- replete with a giant fiberglass jaguar, one of the Impenetrable's threatened species -- at this March's Expoagro, Argentina's big annual agricultural fair, to shame ranchers into donating. There, he told reporters that the forest has given Argentine farmers a huge subsidy over the years, by providing railroad ties for the railways they use to get their crops to port, posts for their fences and planks for their corrals. "If farmers in the Pampas [Argentina's breadbasket] would donate just one hectare of forest for every 100 hectares of their cropland, we could save La Fidelidad in just one year and cut deforestation in Argentina by 50 percent," he said.

Emiliano Ezcurra

Now, Ezcurra is working to get Movistar, a local cellphone company, to set up a texting code that will allow people to donate from their cell phones. He is also talking with local banks to offer donation loans, in which donors take out small loans, which are paid to the forest fund, and repay them over a year. This, Ezcurra says, is meant to combat one of the toughest issues with non-profit fundraising: donors who commit to recurring donations, only to drop out after several months.

So far, Banco de Bosques has raised 2.5 million pesos. The vast majority has come from Dannon, as Ezcurra's attempts to shame farmers and ink cell phone and bank deals have yet to yield fruit. Along with money pledged by Argentina's national park administration and raised by other NGOs and individual donors, the overall La Fidelidad park project has raised about 20 percent of the 60 million pesos needed to buy the estancia, leaving it well short with less than a year before the property could go back on the market.

Photos courtesy of Emiliano Ezcurra.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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