More than just planting trees: volunteers are restoring this degraded ecosystem in Argentina

They began as a small group and are now coordinated by an international organization. Thanks to their work, life has returned to a degraded zone of a mountainous area known as “Sierras Grandes”. These are the achievements and challenges of a group of nature lovers.
They began as a small group and are now coordinated by an international organization. Thanks to their work, life has returned to a degraded zone of a mountainous area known as “Sierras Grandes”. These are the achievements and challenges of a group of nature lovers.

Where there were stones, today there is a forest. Nothing grew there, and today, life flourishes. In 1996, Daniel Reninson and a few other people started to plant native trees in an area called “Los Gigantes”, which belongs to the Sierras Grandes of Córdoba province, in central Argentina. 

They started alone, and the financing for the project arrived almost 20 years later. Today, the photographs show the success of this initiative in an area called “Quebrada de los Refugios”. But it is not only about planting, protecting the trees for many decades is also necessary. And it is also the most expensive and difficult task of the project.

What these people do is known as ecological restoration. In this case, it was based on recovering the lost forest by planting trees. The project has been working for 25 years and the tasks continue. 

For many years, the volunteers worked alone and donated their time and money to plant trees and take care of them. They managed to plant 2000 trees per year. “Many people thought they were crazy,” said Fernando Barri, biologist and project volunteer.

Four years ago, the international organization Acción Andina started to finance the plantation of trees. The help reached other projects and now Córdoba has 12 areas with reforestation initiatives. Now, volunteers plant 350.000 trees per year. So far, they have restored 1000 hectares of native forest in Córdoba province.

Reforestation is one of the ways to fight against desertification. This phenomenon implicates the permanent degradation of ecosystems caused by human activities and climate change. The problem constitutes one of the environmental challenges of this time, affirms the United Nations.

According to the same institution, 10 million hectares of forests are destroyed every year in the world. In Argentina, 6.5 million hectares of native forest were lost between 1998 and 2018. 

Forests are carbon reservoirs. When a tree is lost, this gas returns to the atmosphere and increases climate change. Deforestation and degradation of trees cause almost 20% of global greenhouse emissions, says the Vida Silvestre foundation.

Love for the forest

Daniel Reninson is a biologist, ecologist, and CONICET investigator, but above all, he is a nature lover. He always enjoyed trekking in the mountains of Córdoba and being in contact with the environment. 

A few years ago he discovered that he enjoys more “doing something” when he is in contact with nature and that that something is the ecological restoration project that he started in ​​the Sierras Grandes. 

He directed volunteer work for many years and was the one who made the connection with the organization that now finances the project. 

Those who participate in volunteering are people who like being in contact with nature and who also feel that they are doing something useful, agreed Ana Cingolani. Ana is Daniel’s wife, who is also a biologist and a volunteer. 

For Barri, those who participate in the project are also people concerned about the environment who need to “move from saying to doing”. 

Contrary to popular belief, in this case, working with volunteers was easy, asserted Reninson. At the end of every day of restoration they were thankful, he added.

Source of water and life

Taking care of the native forest brings benefits to the environment, to people, and also to productive activities, explained Reninson.

The loss of vegetation in Sierras Grandes is generated mainly by overgrazing of livestock, logging, and excessive use of fire to produce shoots. This causes the appearance of stones where there were soils. Today, these rocks cover 20% of this mountainous area of Córdoba.

Mountains act like a big tank of water that is provided to rivers through slopes and high-elevation streams. Native forests keep healthy soils that retain water from rains. Instead, areas with exposed soils and stones hardly hold water. In the rainy season, this provokes the loss of soil,  risings in the rivers, floods, and mudslides. 

Most of the rivers of Córdoba province are born in the Sierras Grandes. These rivers provide water to 3.5 million people, pointed out Reninson. This allows citizens to have water in the dry season that goes between July and November in this part of Argentina.

An increase in livestock productivity is another benefit of keeping trees. At the current rate of soil loss, in 400 years these mountains could become a desert. If this happens, the pastures to feed the cattle could not grow anymore, Reninson explained.

Taking care of the native forest also serves to maintain biodiversity, which is the key to keeping ecosystems healthy. The Sierras Grandes are a reservoir of plants and animals: they are home to 40 species that are unique in the world, asserted Reninson.

Besides, trees capture carbon from the atmosphere and they regulate climate. In this way, they contribute to climate change mitigation. “This benefit is for almost all humanity”, affirmed the expert.

More than planting trees

Around the world, the focus of reforestation is put on tree planting. But creating a forest requires other tasks as well, explained Reninson. “You have to plant trees and take care of them, so they could grow into adult specimens and form a forest”, asserted the expert.

International financing is only destined for planting and that is why it is yet far from being enough. “It is estimated that planting trees costs between a fifth and a tenth of what it costs to produce a forest”, noted Reninson.

Before you start planting, you need to know why there isn’t a forest there, explained the expert. In Sierras Grandes one of the causes is cattle. Many times producers do not take care of the grasslands for the cows to eat. 

Thus, the grassland is lost and the cattle begin to look for new food. If trees are planted in a livestock area, cows end up eating the newly planted little trees. In this case, in addition to planting, the land must be fenced so that animals do not pass. 

Once trees are planted, it is necessary to check them out regularly. Young specimens “are like a baby”; you can not leave them alone, asserted Reninson. There are many factors that can impede their growth. They can suffer an ant attack or be invaded by exotic plant species, for example. 

“You have to take care of the forest for decades”, noted the biologist. He also pointed out that governments need to get involved in the process. “The State has to take care of the patrimony of all”, asserted. 

No fixed recipe

The restoration project in Quebrada de los Refugios was a successful one. Reninson believes that this project can be replicated in other provinces of Argentina, like Chaco or Formosa. But he pointed out that the restoration must be adapted to the particularities of each area: “you can not apply recipes”.

In Córdoba fire zones, vegetation has a great capacity to regrow, so there it is not necessary to plant, but you have to take care of the shoots. Besides, he said that stopping deforestation is the most important thing to do. 

“It makes no sense to be planting very small trees if the one next to you is taking out the very large ones”, explained Reninson.

In Córdoba, there are other volunteer groups that work in ecological restoration and they are not part of Acción Andina. However, more actions and more awareness are needed, affirmed Reninson. There is still resistance against reforestation, from society and governments. 

It is hard to quantify the individual profits of having natural ecosystems. This is one of the reasons why many people oppose reforestation, concluded Reninson.

“The benefits of having forests are huge, but they are diluted in all the members of society”, explained the biologist.

Belén López Mensaque
Belén is a journalist from Córdoba, Argentina. Since she was a child, she’s been interested in climate change and recently, as a professional journalist, she found that she wants to tell stories about this global problem. Belén believes climate change is THE story media should be telling now. In 2018, she won the FOPEA (Argentinian Journalism Forum) Prize for best journalistic investigation in the students category.