A Quest for “Nature” in Uruguay

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The Gaucho tradition, alive and well in Uruguay.

Noone I knew had visited Uruguay, and few had heard anything about it.

I’d read that it’s a peaceful country with a democratically-elected president who is a former freedom-fighter from the 1970’s when Uruguay was ruled by a military junta.  It’s a liberal country with progressive policies that include legalized abortion, gay marriage, and liberal marijuana laws.  It generally tops the “happiness quotient” among South American countries, and its capital city, Montevideo, is regarded as the most liveable city in South America.

The good life in a small coastal town.

The good life in a small coastal town.

This all definitely caught my attention, but I’m attracted to places for the nature.  I knew from travel guides that Uruguay wasn’t exactly Costa Rica, and in fact, the ‘environment’ and ‘wildlife’ sections of the guides were practically apologetic.  Countering these shortcomings were inspiring speeches by its current president going against typical politics and calling for real action on global warming and other environmental issues on the international stage.  Maybe that meant this country was a sleeper in the category of tree-hugging and outdoor adventure?

I´m a firm believer that sometimes good things take some work, so I decided that working to find nature in  Uruguay was worth a shot.  For 3 weeks, I wandered around by foot, bus, and insanely-uncomfortable-huge-truck-converted-to 4-WD-tour-vehicle, covering all but the extreme northeast part of the country.

Now, from my perch atop the Monday Morning Quarterback chair, what I can say about Uruguays’ nature is…..well, they have really friendly people.

Okay, the harsh truth….Uruguay may be the poster child for “man wipes out nature” in the America’s.  I found Uruguay to be, to an almost alarming extent, lacking in wild places.  Where it’s not city or beach, its either cow pasture or tree farm.

A common Uruguay vista.

A common Uruguay vista.

Of course, in a sparsely-populated (by people that is) country like Uruguay, there’s plenty more ‘green’ than there is the gray of concrete.  It’s just that the green isn’t so much intermixed with the yellow, white, and violet of flowers, as it is the brown of cow patties.

Why?  A look at land characteristics and several political realities of Uruguay’s past and present seem to suggest an explanation.

First, there are geographic and physiographic features that make Uruguay vulnerable to development.  Uruguay is “blessed” with a mild temperate climate and an exceptionally flat landscape – its’ highest “mountains” are under 500 meters (1,500 feet).  Parks around the world tend to be located in the most rugged landscapes, harshest climates, and most inaccessible areas.  Nope – none of this in Uruguay.

Uruguay has been a beef-producing country for a long time now, and it proudly holds to its Gaucho tradition.  Its natural landscape should be a mix of temperate grassland, palm savannah, and gallery forests, with montane forest in the low hills.  The transformation has been thorough, however, with 80 % of the country being used for cattle ranching alone.   Soils aren’t very productive for crops but they are quite nice, thank-you, for grazing.   Add to this large areas dedicated to industrial soybean production and tree plantation, and there’s not much left for natural areas.  Less than 1% of the land is under protection.

The most common residents of Uruguay.

The most common residents of Uruguay.

Next, despite a peace-loving populace who value social well-being, Uruguay has had more than its share of tough economic and political realities rammed down its throat.

Life was good for Uruguayans in the first half of the 1900’s.  The country had a progressive government with nationalized industries and extensive social programs.   In the 1950’s, Uruguay had a literacy rate of 95% and it was one of South America’s southern cone countries that were starting to look more like Europe and North America.  The gap between upper and lower class citizens was closing and it was an inspiring example for poor countries around the world.

All that changed in the late 60’s when an economic crisis hit.  The military staged a coup in 1973 that was similar to other coups throughout Latin America over the last 100 years in that it was initiated and propped up by the United States with the goal of benefitting US businesses.  The following year, with US advisors steering, the country implemented what’s known as the “Chicago school” economic model for a free market – the selling off of national businesses and resources to multinational corporations (i.e., privatization) at bargain prices, corruption and cronyism, slashing of social programs, and the torturing and killing of people suspected of opposing the regime, including economists, artists, psychologists, farmers, and others.  Applying this economic model leads to essentially third world conditions that make it ripe for corporations to locate in the country and take advantage of extremely low wage labor and the lack of environmental controls, which happened throughout Latin America.

There’s obviously much more to this story.  Naomi Klein does a fantastic job in her book “The Shock Doctrine,” and the Noam Chomsky book I list at the end also tells it like it is.

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Uruguay has come a long way back, but its wounds run deep and it hasn’t exactly taken back the farm.   The economic liberalization underway in many other Latin American countries has been cautious in Uruguay.  In the early 2000’s Uruguay sought international relief from economic problems, and the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund complied….with the conditions of further cuts to public spending, tax increases, and holding firm on agreements with multinational firms.  As recently as 2005, Uruguay continued to make decisions that put corporations above people, including signing free trade agreements with the US (which further entrenches social inequalities and destructive exploitation of people and resources), granting leases to multinational firms to build polluting pulp mills, and other corporation-friendly moves.

Eucalyptis on the left and pine on the right in plantations.

Eucalyptis on the left and pine on the right in plantations.

This thorough opening of Uruguay to multinational corporations has been a key factor in the wiping out of “nature” in Uruguay.  The country has long been an industrial-level cattle ranch (actually it’s large estancias, or estates, controlled by the land-owning elite).  Grazing is one thing, but in recent years, industrial agriculture and paper companies have moved in and are leasing large areas of land for soybean production and plantation forestry, which rapidly deplete the land – the soybeans in particular. The soybean farming and plantations are cited as the biggest land problems in Uruguay, both caused by groups that have no long term stake in the land.  Other major environmental issues include water pollution from meat packing and tanning industries, and poor disposal of solid and hazardous wastes – both of which are exacerbated by large industry that locates in countries like Uruguay to take advantage of lax environmental controls.

Birds like this Maguari stork find good habitat in ponded areas on the Pampas.

Birds like this Maguari stork find good habitat in ponded areas on the Pampas.

The good news is that Uruguay has taken steps to address its “natural” shortcomings, and in 2000 Uruguay established a National System of Protected Areas.  There currently are nine National Parks (five of which are coastal lagoons) and 36 areas designated for wildlife protection, but about half of them are severely degraded areas.

Thinking this was my best shot to experience “Wild” Uruguay, I visited a number of these protected areas.

Parque Nacional Lunarejo – Lunarejo is billed as just about the most rugged and wild area of Uruguay.  To get there, you’ll need to contact the one hotel in the general area of the park, and reach the guide for the area, who genuinely seems surprised when you call him to ask him about a tour.  We asked for an advertised tour that combined hiking with horseback riding.  Instead, we got what most people who make it to Lunarejo apparently want, which is a day-long 4-wheel drive tour across dirt roads and fields of the pampas in a huge truck converted for tourism.   Our guide was sincerely proud of his country and his role.  We were told he was a Professor, and he explained that his specialty was social history of “everywhere.”  Pretty impressive.

The target waterfall and swimming hole.

The target waterfall and swimming hole.

The tour destination is a remote area of streams in the northwest where a small waterfall and widening of the Lunarejo Stream has created a swimming hole.  You ride in kidney-jarring fashion for what seems like hours (okay…it was hours) and finally get to “hike” the last hundred meters or so across a heavily grazed field to a swimming hole that wouldn’t warrant much consideration in most adventure-oriented travel destinations.  The ”wildest” part of the scene was a huge hornets nest clinging to the rock wall above the swimming hole – but even that had been attacked by some predator and abandoned by the wasps.

The wildest part of the overall tour was when a fierce storm blew in over the pampas, and within minutes of making it back to the truck, I was holding a piece of plastic up to the glass-free passenger side window, trying to keep sideways windblown pouring rain out of the cab.  It was an incredible storm that I’m guessing isn’t unusual, given that all the cows and sheep immediately huddled in a well-practiced drill shoulder to shoulder with their butts to the wind to wait it out.

It basically was a long tour of a cow pasture, but the trip qualified in my book as charming and it was gratifying experiencing something with admirable goals and hopefully a positive trajectory in its early stages.  If the park attracts visitors, conservation will advance and protection will increase, and maybe someday the cows will even be kept out.  Based on that, I rate Lunarejo as a must-see!

Rheas were a trip highlight.

Rheas were a trip highlight.

Parque Nacional Santa Theresa – Uruguay has something that is increasingly rare on earth – beautiful ocean beaches that have not been overdeveloped.  Even in the City of Montevideo, development is set-back from the beach, and the farther you get from Montevideo, the more it becomes a pattern of remote resort towns separated by long stretches of gorgeous coastline with little development (with the exception of the ritzy Punta del Este, which I avoided).  There was so little development in the Santa Theresa area, I had trouble figuring out exactly where the park boundary was along the beach.

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Located on the east coast just north of the small resort town of Punta del Diablo, this park is actually a park only because it hosts a historical fort.   For me, though, the beaches of Santa Theresa were the draw, and although development along Uruguays’ coast can’t even remotely be termed rampant yet, it’s gratifying to know that at least some of the country’s amazing beaches will remain undeveloped.  Pressure is starting – Uruguay is the preferred destination for well-off Argentinians from Buenos Aires to hit the beach – and a number of new vacation developments are in the works.

San Gregorio Park – Looking at an aerial photo of this area in the central part of Uruguay reveals promise from a large forested area and remote shoreline on a peninsula along the Rio Negro.  The Park is a local park dedicated largely to high-intensity tourism – it an easy drive from Montevideo, and It’s an alternative to the more expensive ocean beaches.  Walk past the beach and camp ground, though, and the footprints in the sand end quickly and you step through a dimensional vortex into a quiet oasis of shoreline marsh, mature forest, and untrodden beach.  Well, it feels this way as long as you don’t look too hard, or you’re unlucky and cross paths with one of the 4-WD operators who are allowed to drive around the beach and marsh surrounding the peninsula.  Luckily, most people come to this park to chill on the beach, so nature is allowed some peace.

The quiet part of San Gregorio.

The quiet part of San Gregorio.

If you make the mistake of looking too hard, you’ll realize that everything you look at is essentially artificial.  The lake?  The result of damming of the Rio Negro.  The beach?  Looks to me like it’s the result of heavy erosion of surrounding land, deposition of sand on the shore, and the lack of sediment flushing during peak flows which of course don’t occur any more thanks to the dam.  The forest?  Well it consists of alternating blocks of planted eucalyptis and pine, complete with fire breaks.  I’d hoped to be swarmed with birdlife during my walk around the peninsula, but other than a few ibises, I had little excuse to raise my binoculars.

Sunset over the pampas, from San Gregorio Park.

Sunset over the pampas, from San Gregorio Park.

Taking into consideration our visits to the parks, the best overall “nature experience” we had in Uruguay was at a wonderful hospedeje (guest house) we stayed at for the Lunarejo visit (called appropriately, Posada Lunarejo).  Next to the hotel was a large wetland, obviously highly “productive” due to runoff from adjacent cow pastures, but literally packed with nesting egrets, ibises, herons, and waterfowl.  Like a thirsty desert traveler, I eagerly soaked up the abundance of the watery scene.

Egret happiness.

Egret happiness.

The most intact nature in Uruguay is on the coast, and the lagoons and marshes in the southeast Province of Rocha are internationally recognized for their importance to waterbirds.  It’s this province that the government has identified as a focus area in which to develop ecotourism, but in a country where tourism is synonymous mostly with beach party, there’s a long road ahead to make ecotourism significant.  It’s also this province that’s most endangered by heavy development and tourism pressure, and soybean farming.

It takes a solid effort to find more than three species of trees in Uruguay.  Eucalyptis, introduced from Australia, is the most abundant, and it’s found in hedgerows, plantations, and as shade and wind-breaks around houses.  Introduced pine is grown in industrial plantations – Weyerhauser has a big presence in Uruguay.  Sycamore is the shade tree of villages and cities, and there are some beautiful tree-lined streets and plazas in Uruguay.

The city Sycamores.

The city Sycamores.

When my daughter and I finished our visit to Uruguay, I felt we gave our quest to find the nature in this country a solid shot.  I’m rooting for the government to progress with conservation initiatives, mostly because I like to see nature advance everywhere possible.   Like almost anywhere on earth now, protection of nature comes when people demand it, use it, and defend it, or when it has clear benefit to society, like protection of watersheds and drinking water quality.

There are plenty of reasons to visit this wonderful little country.  With an understanding eye on its history, it’s possible to look past the heavily cultured landscape, and focus on the real draws – the beaches and the people.

If you’re a nature lover like me, though, a visit to Uruguay will make you want to hug your favorite park back home just a little tighter the next time you visit with it.

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Suggested Additional Reading and Sources:

Naomi Klein.   2007.  The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Picador Press, New York, New York.

Noam Chomsky.  1986-2011.  How the World Works.   Soft Skull Press.

Uruguay Environment.  www.globalissues.org/news/2010/05/28/5786.

Uruguay.  www.eoearth.org/article/Uruguay?topic=49460.



Categories: Culture, Nature, Photographic Journal

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