All you need to know about Argentina national parks

By Elsa Longaygues

Argentina… endless and diverse landscapes that invite you to escape and take the time of long-distance travels. From Patagonia’s glaciers to the subtropical forests in Iguazu, Argentina has something to offer for everyone. Well-aware of the importance to its natural heritage, Argentina has created many protected areas and national parks. The most famous of them all: Los Glaciares National Park, home to the Perito Moreno glacier in southern Patagonia. But what is a national park, exactly?

National Park, you said?

National parks are defined as key protected natural areas. 36 national parks are currently found in Argentina, spread across the whole territory.

The majority of them have a unique ecosystem and varied biodiversity including many endangered species. A national park can also protect important paleontological and/or archeological sites linked to a strong historical and social context or native people – they play a part in protecting cultural diversity and fostering local communities sustainable development. Finally, national parks also aim at supporting and fostering environmental education, scientific research and responsible tourism.

These protected areas fall under National State jurisdiction and are administered by the APN, Administración de Parques Nacionales, an institution belonging to the Ministry of Sustainable Development and Environment. The national government manages and maintains national parks through public funding and grants them a high level of protection against abusive and exploitative practices. Several activities deemed harmful to this environment are prohibited, such as hunting, logging, fishing, fire making, etc.

Some background on Argentina National Parks

The current National Parks Administration was founded following the work carried out by French national Charles Thays (renamed Don Carlos Thays by the Argentines) in 1902. He was mandated by the government to carry out a detailed study of the relatively unknown Iguazu Falls. Following his research, Charles Thays proposed to dedicate  25 000 hectares to a national park around the extraordinary site, a vision turned into reality years later.

It is finally expert and visionary Francisco Pascuacio Moreno, better known as Perito Moreno, who is tasked with implementing this new idea. Several months before, the Argentinian government donated 25 « leguas cuadradas » (25 square miles) of public lands to Francisco Moreno, in gratitude for all his work as an expert in the Commission that established the border between Argentina and Chile. On November 6th, 1903, he wrote a donation letter, transferring his ownership of three square miles, approximately 7500 hectares, over to the national state. This land which was part of his new property located close to the Nahuel Huapi Lake in northwest Patagonia, was to become “protected as a public national park”. The donation wass accepted on February 11th the following year, becoming the starting point for national protected areas. After further investigations, on April 8th, 1922, the Southern National Park was created, protecting a total 785 000 hectares around the land donated by Francisco Moreno several years before.

During the creation of the Southern National Park, and following Charles Thays investigations, the national government bought 75 000 hectares of land around the Iguazu Falls in 1928 to create a national park.

Dr Exequiel Bustillo, an important character in the history of Argentina’s national parks, became famous at that time. Thanks to his work, on September 30th 1934, the law n° 12 103 was passed, establishing the legal basis for the creation of national protected areas. This law foresees the creation of the National Parks Administration and the creation of the new Iguazu Falls and Nahuel Huapi national parks, the latter established on the basis of the Southern National Park.

Argentina thus became the first South American country and the third of the American continent to create national parks, following in the footsteps of the United States and Canada.

The family slowly grows

Following these first  two national parks, in 1937, 4 new protected areas were declared national parks: Lanin park, Los Alerces park, Los Glaciares park and the Perito Moreno park, all located in western Patagonia. But how does a land become a national park?

There is no template to create a national park – quite the opposite. Each protected area was born under different conditions. The historical, social and environmental context play a part at all stages. It is often a long and complex process unwinding over several years, involving the national state, the provincial state, local residents, technicians, scientists and institutions such as NGOs or universities.

Sometimes, the land to be protected is secured through its expropriation, allowed thanks to a prior declaration of public utility. The land can also be donated, by individuals or NGOs, to become a national park. Such is the case of the latest national park created, the Ibera national park in Northeastern Argentina.

Focus on the Ibera Park and Douglas and Kristine Tompkins

On December 5th, 2018, the National Congress approved the creation of the Iberá national park in the Corrientes province, to protect 159 800 hectares. The land was donated to this aim by the Foundation Flora and Fauna Argentina (now Rewilding Argentina) and the Conservation Land Trust (CLT) Argentina founded by businessman and ecologist Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine.

The new national park added up to the 553 000 hectares of marshlands and wetlands of neighbouring provincial Iberá park. This gave birth to Argentina’s biggest natural park: 712 800 hectares home to unique fauna, diverse flora and spectacular landscapes.

For a little context, in 1997, the National Parks Administration invited the Tompkins to visit Argentina, hoping to raise their interest. During their journey, the Tompkins discover the Esteros del Iberá and see the area’s great potential to create a model for rewilding and restoring the environment. Douglas Tompkins later bought the San Alonso estancia, 10 000 hectares in the middle of the marshlands, and founded CLT to manage the land until it could be transferred over to the Argentinian state. Land acquisition carries on with private individuals year after year until reaching more than 150 000 hectares. The project aims are threefold: create a great national park, reintroduce extinct fauna species in the area and promote the ecotourism destination to benefit local communities.