Trading Sheep for Grass and Fish in Patagonia

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The big brown trout I was fishing for yesterday on the Limay River in Patagonia was nowhere to be found but I did manage to come across an old hang out of Butch Cassidy.

Being from Montana, where the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang pulled off their last job—a holdup of a Union Pacific train—before fleeing to South America, I was happy with this historical catch.

Legend has it that Butch became friends with Jarred Jones who ventured down to Argentina from Texas in 1887 to make his fortune. Jones didn’t find gold but he did manage to open a general store at the mouth of the Limay. The old store, which is now a friendly restaurant, still holds the shops books, old photos, and a frontier atmosphere of a century ago.

Jones earned enough money at the store to purchase two big ranches, which he fenced off with barbed wire—the first to be seen around these parts. Today, barbed wire is strung across much of the 98 million hectares of the Patagonian Steppe to enclose vast quantities of sheep.

Unfortunately, a flock of sheep can gobble up great expanses of native grasses, and in southern Argentina, they’re clearing some serious vegetation. In addition to vegetation loss, overgrazing equates to lost habitat for other animals, and damages waterways with runoff and silt from erosion, which affects the fish, which affects tourism.

Paradoxically, sheep—the slayers of grasslands—could become the saviors of the same landscapes and in turn protect fish and other species. It turns out that because the plants of the grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, such as guanacos, a little munching is good (and necessary) for the flora. It is also true that companies that have environmental components to their business plans and seek to create goods from natural products, including merino wool, would like to see grasslands flourish for the long term. And tourists like me who want to fish and recreate in Patagonia would be willing to pay a price premium for this outcome.

Enter The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia, Inc. and Ovis XXI. Armed with scientific knowledge and market tools, this trilogy is working to conserve more than 15 million acres of land in Patagonia by 2016. Ovis XXI works directly with the woolgrowers. These consultants know the industry, and how to raise sheep without destroying grasslands. The Nature Conservancy brings its science-based knowledge and environmental credibility to help build the sustainable grazing standard through planning and subsequent monitoring of conservation outcomes. And Patagonia Inc. brings the market perspective—buying the wool, networking with others in the supply chain, creating the final products, and using its brand strength to help publicize Patagonian wool.

The majority of the land targeted by the Patagonian Grasslands Conservation Project is privately owned, and remains in large and undivided properties of intact native grasslands. Because most landowners face ongoing political and economic challenges that affect their ability to stay in business, an incentive is needed to gain commitment from landowners to manage resources sustainably. In this case, the carrot comes in the form of a payment to ranchers for grazing less sheep and or for using more modern and environmentally friendly grazing practices.

In November 2011, the first shipment of sustainable wool (29 tons) left Patagonia for Asia to be turned into socks for Patagonia, Inc. So far this scheme has worked to place two million acres under sustainable grazing agreements. Time will tell if the environmental protection purchased by conservationists from sheep ranchers will protect grasslands and associated waterways in the future, but signs look promising. Stay tuned...

Huggins is a research fellow and director of outreach with PERC as well as a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Her association with PERC goes back several years, and she officially joined the staff in Bozeman in 2005.Huggins coauthored with Terry Anderson Property Rights: A Practical Guide to Freedom and Prosperity...
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