Here in the United States, the last year has been bleak for environmentalists and conservationists. It began with President Trump’s March approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, peaked with his June decision to leave the Paris agreement, and continued with decisions to shrink national monuments, open offshore waters to drilling, and allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In one questionable Tweet, he even embraced global warming.
With all the disheartening news at home, it’s easy to forget that the global resistance to Trumpism takes many forms. But in Latin America, which contains six of the world’s 17 megadiverse countries, governments in some of the region’s largest countries have woken up to the social and economic benefits of conservation, taking important steps to protect vital ecosystems.
This month, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet officially opened 10 million acres of new national parks, an area more than twice the size of Alaska’s massive Denali National Park. The Patagonia National Park system is the brain child of North Face founders Kristine McDivitt Tompkins and Douglas Tompkins, who offered to donate one million acres of privately held land worth $345 million to Chile if the government agreed to donate additional public lands to the donation. The Bachelet administration contributed more than 9 million acres to create five new national parks and expand three, growing the entire Chilean national park system by more than 40 percent and providing crucial protected ecosystems for numerous threatened species.
Peru, Chile’s neighbor to the north, is not to be outdone. Last month, the Peruvian government established Yaguas National Park, a vast swath of more than two million acres of virgin growth Amazon rainforest in the country’s northeast. The watershed within the park, which is a tributary of the Amazon, contains more fish species than anywhere else in Peru, including species that aren’t found anywhere else on Earth. Indigenous groups including Yaguas, Bora, and Kichwa who live within the park’s boundaries will benefit from the new park as well.
Around the region, the pattern is repeated. Since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010, the country has more than doubled its protected land from 32 million acres to more than 70 million acres. In Ecuador, the Yacurí National Park, opened in 2009, has expanded by thousands of acres in recent years. Argentina has opened three national parks in the last five years.
Anticipating the effects of climate change, pressured by the growing legal rights of indigenous groups, and aware of the economic potential of national parks, Latin American governments are thinking for the future. With Nicaragua signing the Paris Accord and the U.S. leaving it (a decision for which the region’s leaders universally condemned President Trump), it seems that the Trump administration’s retreat on conservation remains out of step with the rest of the world and the region, at least for now.
There’s no denying that challenges remain in a region with political uncertainty and filled with vast swaths of nearly ungovernable land in which illegal miners, loggers and poachers thrive. The fight against logging of the Amazon in Brazil, for example, is an on-going battle. But with all the short-sighted decisions coming from the north, progress in Latin America is certainly a welcome move.