As the Iberá wetlands of northern Argentina transform into a wildlife viewing destination of South America, local businesses are flourishing once again.
By Molly Bergen on February 08, 2024
Several decades ago, people were moving away from the small town of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini in northeastern Argentina. Much of the land had been degraded by cattle ranching, many native species had disappeared due to overhunting, jobs were scarce, and moving to the city seemed like the most promising way to make a living. Eventually the population shrank to about 500 people, one-quarter of its original size.
Since then, tourism in the region has been growing thanks to the slow but steady revival of ecosystems and populations of key species, culminating in the creation of Iberá National Park in 2018. Now, Rewilding Argentina and partners are working to make Iberá a tourist destination that rivals Patagonia as a draw for international travelers — and more local people are sticking around to reap the rewards of a burgeoning regional economy rooted in conserving this unique place.
One of South America’s largest wetlands — second in size only to the Pantanal in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay — Iberá is a massive estuary surrounded by grasslands and patches of forest. Historically home to 30% of Argentina’s biodiversity (everything from Jaguars to Maned Wolves to Bare-faced Curassows), decades of overgrazing by cattle and overhunting of wildlife for the international fur and feather trades took a toll, completely wiping out populations of most of the area’s birds and large mammals.
The government created a provincial reserve here in 1983, which today spans nearly 1.5 million acres. Although hunting was outlawed with the provincial reserve’s creation, many of the hunters were able to share their knowledge of the land, proving useful for monitoring the newly declared protected area.
The late Bruno Leiva and his wife Luisina lived in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini for more than 40 years.
“I was one of the first park rangers,” he said. “Before that I was a hunter for many years. I hunted capybaras, caimans, wolves, otters, deer, foxes, snakes, and iguanas. Everything was for the skin, for the leather. Hunters were the first park rangers because we knew many places, the experience of wild animals.”
The hunting ban helped some species recover — but for the ones that had been completely extirpated from the region, more actions were needed. For example, the last Jaguar had not been seen in the area since 1953; Giant Anteaters, Red-and-green Macaws, Giant River Otters, Ocelots, Collared Peccaries and Pampas Deer had disappeared, too. Without its top predators and with fewer species around to disperse native seeds, the ecosystem was left unbalanced and more susceptible to degradation and uncontrolled fires, which have become more frequent and destructive as the planet warms.
In 1998, American conservationists Doug and Kristine Tompkins began purchasing degraded land near the provincial park. They had a vision of rewilding the wetlands and after nearly two decades began to even work on bringing back its top predator, the Jaguar. started with the reintroduction of the Giant Anteater in 2007. These efforts spurred a remarkable translocation and breeding program to reintroduce many iconic species back into their native habitat. By 2018, this landscape formed the basis of the newly declared Iberá National Park. Together covering more than 1.8 million acres, the national and provincial parks now make up one of the largest protected areas in Argentina.
Rewilding Argentina, an offspring of Tompkins Conservation and Re:wild partner, has made great strides in restoring the natural balance of this crucial ecosystem. For example, since the Jaguar Reintroduction Center was established in 2012, extensive work breeding and preparing rehabilitated Jaguars for survival in the wild has resulted in a population of at least 20 wild Jaguars in the park as of the end of 2023, a situation that has received overwhelming support from local landowners and communities.
Iberá National Park is surrounded by 1.4 million acres of private land where Rewilding Argentina is working with many landowners to pursue sustainable economic activities on their properties, including cattle vaccination programs that will allow farmers to keep fewer, healthier animals and therefore reduce overgrazing. The new jobs generated by the park and the growing tourism industry also provide a powerful incentive for local communities to support rewilding efforts.
To see how wildlife has rebounded in Iberá, guests staying at the Rincón del Socorro ecolodge (about an hour’s drive from Colonia Carlos Pellegrini) don’t have to wander far. Just look out your hotel room window or glance up from a poolside lounge chair and you are likely to see a family of Greater Rheas stirring up the tall grass in search of bugs; a Pampas Fox trotting into the distant trees; Collared Peccaries grazing on the ecolodge lawn; Capybaras snoozing in mud puddles left by the most recent rainstorm — or perhaps all of these in quick succession.
The lodge, which was originally part of a cattle ranch is now run by Rewilding Argentina, opened with the goal of providing a proof-of-concept to the value of wildlife tourism and its ability to attract tourists to the region. Employing about 30 people, 80% of which are locals, and capable of hosting 30 guests at a time, the lodge is largely self-sufficient, with its own vegetable gardens, orchards and vehicle repair shop. Guests can take safari drives, birdwatching tours, horseback rides, boat trips and even horse-drawn canoe rides to get a close look at the native fauna, and cap off their evenings with a personally prepared Argentine meal while watching the sunset.
Since Rincón de Socorro opened its doors, more hotels and other businesses catering to tourists have sprung up in and around Colonia Carlos Pellegrini, which acts as the gateway town to Iberá National Park. For years, Bruno Leiva — the hunter-turned-park ranger — earned a living by leading horseback riding tours with his son. During the height of tourist season they might lead up to four rides a day; although tourism ground to a halt during the height of the pandemic, it has since been rebounding.
On a hot day in January, Lautaro was among the life-jacketed tourists who took a wildlife boat tour on Lake Iberá, along with his wife and young son. As the small boat motored slowly past countless Black Caiman sunning themselves on the shore, Capybaras hiding in the reeds and long-legged birds wading in the shallows, the tour guide pointed out many of the harder-to-see animals, and explained a bit about the region’s history and ecology. Residents of Buenos Aires, this was Lautaro’s family’s first trip to Iberá, drawn there by stories of the unique wildlife and their desire to foster their son’s love of nature. “It’s different when you study it in school or whatever, and when you see it in life,” Lautaro says. “I think that he will learn a lot from this.”
Although wildlife tourism is now the foundation of the local economy, other tourist activities also hold promise. In 2017, Rewilding Argentina launched its Cooks of Iberá program to help revive local culinary traditions in the region.
“When you travel, you always want to eat well,” says Hada Irastorza, cultural director for the interior of Corrientes. Yet before this program, the food options for visitors to Colonia Carlos Pellegrini were limited. However, Irastorza and others observed that “in the family homes, there was a whole super-rich world. We thought it was interesting to work with gastronomy, so that what was a heritage behind closed doors could be turned outwards.”
First, the program conducted a census to figure out which cooks were still making traditional local foods — things like mbaipy (a polenta-type dish), local stews, several variations of chipa (Argentine cheese bread) and mamón, or candied papaya that is a popular dessert dish. Irastorza notes that the underlying principles of this program are the same as the species rewilding efforts: “We also see, as rewilding did with the animals, which ones were extinct or in danger of extinction. We try to detect which are the practices that have been lost or that are in danger because there are very few people left practicing them.”
The program provides about 130 established and aspiring cooks — mostly women — in 10 communities near the park with training and equipment to help them build their skills and (in some cases) start new businesses that can thrive in a tourism economy. Among them is Vivi Pavon, who began working in the kitchens of the first inns that popped up in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini in the late 1990s.
“Cooking gave me the power to be a little better off,” Vivi says, “to take care of my family at a time when there was no work for the men here.” Since joining the cooks program, Vivi has completed various trainings it has organized, including how to make and safely can jam. She now runs her own business out of her home, selling jams and other sweets from seasonal native fruits. “I sell very well here,” she says. “The guys from the inns always send me people.”
Not only does the program help generate pride in local cultural traditions, it also gives residents a bigger incentive to keep them alive. “The programs were designed to capitalize on the opportunity generated by tourism in Iberá,” says Irastorza. “The idea was that this knowledge that was in the community would be valued, that it could generate sales and have an impact on the quality of life.” Cooks of Iberá also organizes exchange trips where participating cooks can learn from the experiences of those in other provinces.
In addition, many of these native foods also require foraged ingredients which depend on healthy ecosystems. Sara Medina, another cook participating in the program, runs a barbeque restaurant out of her home called Jajetopa, which means "encounter" in the local Guaraní language. She also makes sweets such as mamón and flan. She says more accessible wild ingredients is one reason she has focused on cooking these hyper-local recipes rather than relying on ingredients that can only be found in a distant supermarket. “Sometimes you can't get things or you can't go out in a hurry, so I decided to stay with the typical things I get here.”
Similar to the Cooks of Iberá program, Artisans of Iberá aims to “make visible the intangible cultural heritage represented by traditional craftsmanship,” Irastorza says. The program provides training and marketing support to help local artists reach more consumers. Many of these trades have come under threat of disappearing; for example, as some artisans moved away from the area, they had trouble accessing the reeds needed for basket-weaving and were forced to give up the tradition.
Like local recipes, these traditions are deeply connected to nature, both in terms of inspiration and materials. “Traditional craftsmanship implies a transformation of the raw material,” Irastorza says. “In general, artisans know the rhythms of nature, they know in which moon they have to cut the reed.” However, as the program took off, younger artisans were sometimes observed overharvesting raw materials when sales increased. As a result, restoring traditional knowledge about how to conserve this supply for the future became a critical part of the program.
Luisina — wife of the late hunter-turned-park-ranger-turned horse guide, Bruno Leiva — is among the 250 artisans registered with the program. She learned basket-weaving in school as a kid but didn’t pursue it regularly until the park started attracting more tourists to the area. She now sells hand-woven baskets and other souvenirs from a table outside her house, which is conveniently located on the “arts walk,” a pedestrian trail recently created in Colonia Carlos Pellegrini to give visitors direct access to local artisans and their handiwork.
“Before when we came here there was a little house here, another one there,” she says. “Now it's all construction everywhere, hotels. Totally different. It has progressed a lot.”
As visitors stroll along the arts walk, they can also stop for a drink or snack at Café de los Pájaros, a popular coffee shop that showcases local cuisine, including jams made by Vivi and other members of Cooks of Iberá.
The increase in sales generated by the growth in tourism has allowed many artisans to expand their businesses. “Many people have been able to make a living from handicrafts or generate an income that complements their family economy,” Irastorza says. “They even began to make investments such as building their workshop or starting to buy, for example, an electric generator to be able to work at night.”
Irastorza sees many opportunities to expand this program to benefit more people, including in rural areas outside the main tourism hub of Colonia Carlos Pellegrini. “We would also like to start designing tourist experiences related to handicrafts.” This would mean visitors could not only purchase souvenirs, but perhaps spend an afternoon learning directly from the artisan how they were made and even trying their hand at weaving or pottery — an experience that would surely enrich their appreciation for the region and its traditions.
Although still a small town, nature-based tourism has revived Colonia Carlos Pellegrini’s economy; no longer are people forced to move elsewhere to get a job. “Community awareness is very important,” says Diana Frete, the town’s vice mayor, “because in the course of all this time we have learned how valuable a living animal is.”
Yet compared to other famous tourist draws in Argentina such as Patagonia, Iberá still remains fairly under the radar for international tourists — a situation that Frete hopes will change as the park’s wildlife populations continue to grow and more people learn about its hidden beauty.
“My childhood was very happy here in Pellegrini,” she continues. “That really motivates me to keep it going; to protect its magic.” She envisions a world where local people are empowered to start their own businesses and where a thriving tourist economy gives people a variety of career choices that don’t require them to move far from their hometown to prosper. “I would like all the people who live here to have the option to choose to be able to develop in this area and offer quality tourism.”
Since beginning her career as a zookeeper, Molly Bergen has spent more than 10 years telling stories for a range of environmental NGOs. Covering everything from turtle nest guardians in Cambodia to community forests in the Congo, she is particularly passionate about conservation projects that create a "win-win" for both species and local people.