The steppe in Argentina covers an area of 750,000 km2, about twice the size of Germany. Despite the low density of the population, about one person/km2, it has been seriously affected by human interference with its delicate ecosystem.

Factors contributing to its degradation range from the global to those more specific to the country or its regions. Global climate change predicts increase aridity in Patagonia due to rising temperatures and reduced precipitation. Livestock causes immeasurable damage around the world – as much as other introduced species of plants and animals – and is painfully evident on the Argentinian steppe where the grasslands have been exploited by domesticated animals for over a century. Here over-grazing, primarily by cattle, goats and sheep, have resulted in desertification, damage to the limited plant coverage and serious soil erosion. One type of deterioration in soil structure occurs in the form of wind-driven sand macro-accumulation that has been accelerated by grazing. It is estimated that 90% of the Patagonian soil is degraded, with severe desertification affecting 19– 30% of the region, mostly due to aggressive agricultural practices. Nationwide improvements of the road network, the construction of high voltage power lines and the building of new coal and hydroelectric power stations impact on the environment, too. This destruction extends to the estancias where gravel is collected for the above purposes. Coaloil and mineral extraction by local and multi-national companies not only directly destroys the habitat but also requires roads that give access to illegal hunters and reduces the quality of the water and its availability. Oil companies in Mendoza and Neuquén that make large contributions to the provincial government are rewarded by near total control of the most important reserves in this area. Conservation is not high on their priority list.

Unregulated urban developments spill into the surrounding countryside without regard for the local flora and perpetuate the spread of introduced garden plants.

The Argentinian steppe stands in contrast to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, countries that inherited the British love for plants and botanical gardens. There many devotees work to preserve and use native flora to beautify areas around their properties. In the Western Cape Province of South Africa new housing developments sit comfortably among the indigenous fynbos while those with English lawns and planted roses look out of place. A friend of mine in New Zealand gardens with an axe to eliminate introduced species or banishes them behind paving stones to prevent their potential invasion.

The increasing numbers of visitors to the region contribute to the contamination of the water and impact the soil, causing erosion along footpaths, roads and campsites.

Criticism may not be agreeable but is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things (Winston Churchill).

Krystyna Szulecka