Since the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP) was created in 2005, Uruguay has made a great effort to protect its natural landscapes. Today the country has its first 15 protected areas, which represent 0.9 percent of the country.
Although this percentage is low, it is important progress given the high number of significant ecosystems that it represents.
However increasing protected areas is a very big challenge for many reasons related to geography, land ownership and Uruguay’s agriculture-based economy.
Until the early nineteenth century, Uruguay had an indigenous population, which was - for the authorities of that time - an obstacle for structuring a society and economy based on agricultural production. For these reasons, the land was quickly decimated and since then, its descendants have no territories of their own.
Some 96 percent of Uruguay’s land is privately held. The lack of great natural barriers – the landscape is mostly rolling plains and low hills and a fertile coastal lowland - means 93 percent of the country is under agricultural production.
The Uruguayan economy is based on the intensive use of natural resources. The agricultural sector generates 78 percent of exports. In 2018 the main exportation products were cellulose (18 percent), beef (18 percent), dairy products (8 percent) and soy (6 percent).
This means there’s a concentration in land tenure, migrating of rural populations to the cities and the environmental degradation which in turn is causing land erosion, the loss of ecosystems, and water pollution from agrochemicals.
Uruguay plans to intensify agricultural production, with tools such as the recently approved Irrigation Law, which will allow the agricultural frontier to be further expanded. In the coming years there will be greater pressure on the environment and especially on the conservation of natural landscapes.
Some 94 percent of SNAP lands are in private hands, which means that its administration requires a strong negotiation process and agreements with the owners, in addition to the local governments concerned with land management.
The small amount of land under SNAP protection and the low connectivity of its areas have consequences on biodiversity. Protected areas are immersed in highly modified landscapes. The expansion of commercial monocultures and intensified production systems in agricultural, livestock and forestry are making the surrounding landscapes increasingly hostile to biodiversity and emphasized their biological isolation.
Faced with this situation, the environmental authorities are working to incorporate a landscape approach to the SNAP, involving the private lands surrounding the protected areas and incorporating environmentally-friendly practices.
In turn, financial tools have been designed as incentives for producers and tour operators, and tax exemption mechanisms for the sustainable management of natural resources in protected areas. A decree has just been approved by which voluntary private protected areas can be created.
Value chains are being developed that take into account natural and cultural heritage. For this, three productive sectors with great potential have been selected to generate differentiated and innovative products and services. These are: the production of meat in natural pastures, a priority ecosystem for conservation; rural tourism; and artisanal fishing in coastal lagoons.
For the period 2020-2022 and in joint programming between the government and UNDP, the emphasis will be placed on the restoration of degraded landscapes and the creation of biological corridors to improve connectivity between protected areas. New financial incentives and differential subsidies will be defined, to make production compatible with protecting ecosystems. Likewise, work will be done to stop land degradation over 250,000 hectares.
Uruguay´s SNAP is an active partner in the Latin American Network of National Parks (Redparques) which includes 19 countries. It has a strong technical link with the Federation of Regional Natural Parks of France; with Spain through the Autonomous Agency of National Parks, and more recently has established a joint work plan with the national park systems of South Africa and Mozambique.
The experiences and lessons learned from Uruguay in harmonizing the sustainable use of natural resources with agricultural production, will be very useful for those countries that have to work on private lands, to achieve their conservation objectives and a more fair and equitable local development, with communities as the main beneficiaries.