Over the last 25 days and 1500km of pedalling through Patagonia, we have seen the landscape rise from broad, bleak steppes into towering Torres. One thing, however, has remained constant: sheep and fences.
Vast swathes of Patagonia are carpeted by a unique and complex grassland ecosystem which hungrily and helpfully stores large quantities of carbon. It is also now home to some millions of sheep. Introduced by European settlers in the late 19th Century these wooly tenants became umbilical to the Patagonian culture and economy, tragically at the expense of thousands of the regions First Peoples. At its peak in the 1950s, the Patagonian wool industry boasted 21 million sheep, yet declining ecological conditions and competition from Australia saw this shrink to 8.5 million at the turn of the Century.
We came face to face with this most ubiquitous of Patagonian pastimes some thirty kilometers north of the sleepy timber town of Villa O’Higgins. Windswept and wet from an afternoon of cycling through permadrizzle we were more than relieved to reach a small travelers refugio on the roadside. After cooking up a hearty pot of instant mash we went to investigate the adjacent farm, where, in a small one-room house we met Jorge.
Jorge is the real deal, his car is a horse and his company is a 15-day-old house cow, Pinta. In true gaucho fashion, he can be found morning and night by the warmth of his wood-burning stove sucking bitter mate through a metal straw known as a bombilla. Jorge lives off the profits of a herd of cows and a small flock of merino sheep, headed by Pepe the rambunctious ram. We happily accepted his invite to share some mate and sat in the fading light listening to the incomprehensible Chilean election results which crackled their way along the airwaves from the distant capital. Pinta the calf walked backwards around the kitchen, emptied her bladder on Sam’s shoe and fell asleep.
The following morning we returned to take Jorge up on the offer of a lesson in sheep shearing. Today, merino’s make up 75% of the region’s sheep, farmed for the seemingly magical thermoregulating, smell-repelling qualities of their wool – a fact I can attest to having worn my own merino top for the last 21 days of cycling. After emptying 2 litres of warm milk into the insatiable Pinta we headed out to the field, calf and sheepdogs in tow. A perfectly choreographed routine by gaucho and dogs saw the flock neatly assembled in a pen ready for their spring haircut. Using metal shears all the way from England, Jorge deftly removed mountains of merino wool all the while under the watchful eye of Pepe. As noon approached the wind began to rattle the tin roof of the barn (and our bones) and we knew it was time to get back on the bikes. With much regret that we couldn’t take Pinta with us, we bade mucho gracias and adios to our kind host and got back in the saddle.
Jorge’s farm is tiny in comparison to the majority of estancias that we’ve passed, some spanning over 200,000 acres. So what impact do these grass guzzlers have on this fragile ecosystem? Your average Joe sheep spends around 8 hours a day grazing between 1 and 2.5kg of vegetation, scale this up and you have a lawnmower of monstrous proportions. On top of this unstoppable vegetation loss, overgrazing leads to polluted waterways and habitat loss for native species, including the critically endangered huemul deer which now numbers no more than 2000 individuals. Desertification is a real and visible problem, the grasslands are among the most damaged in the world with millions of acres already abandoned. With traditional Patagonian farming paradigms failing to protect these fragile landscapes or even produce viable economic returns, innovative solutions are needed.
So is there hope for these habitats?
As with most conservation conundrums solutions are varied and controversial, none more so than the “miracle” grazing technique developed by Zimbabwean ecologist and farmer of TED talk fame, Allan Savory. His captivating claims of reversing climate change and desertification have since been shown to lack a basis in empirical evidence with many science institutions publishing critical reviews of his technique.
Farms certified by independent, voluntary accreditation schemes such as the Responsible Wool Standard could be seen as a step in the right direction. They ensure best practices in land management and protection as well as ethical treatment of sheep. Wool from these certified farms is identified and can be tracked.
A more radical yet effective solution in the region already in motion is to move the local industry away from ranching altogether and towards a conservation-based economy in which former gauchos are trained to work in the new national park network. Thanks to the efforts of the late Douglas Tompkins and his wife Kristine, Chile has just created five new national parks linking Pumalín Park (which was gifted by Tompkins) with 10 million acres of federal land. Perhaps unsurprisingly this news came to the delight of many but not all. In the small town of Cochrane on the border of the park, one café owner told us in hushed tones that he was a big supporter of the park, yet many campesinos remain against the idea fearing change and a loss of livelihood.
So what’s a girl to do?
I’ll sheepishly admit that merino undies are a favourite item among my extremely limited cycle wardrobe. Many (albeit often vendors) cite wool as the most sustainable fabric due to its natural essence and biodegradability whilst failing to take into account the environmental impact of farming and wool dying. On the other hand, I fail to see how crude oil-based polyester which releases microplastics into the waterways with every wash is a great alternative.
I can see no magic bullet but there are some things that we as consumers can do to make sure Patagonia’s grasslands don’t Pata-go forever:
- Break free from fast fashion…shop less, buy second hand, if you do really need something try to choose higher-quality goods that will last for years.
- Try to shop from companies that source their wool responsibly, such as those on this list that have made a commitment to the Responsible Wool Standard.
- Eat less meat. Replacing the meat in our diets with soya reduces the land area required per kilo of protein: by 70% in the case of chicken, 89% in the case of pork, and 97% for beef.
This article is part of a series on sustainability in South America by Emily and Sam of Two By Bamboo. Cycling 10,000km from Patagonia to Colombia on worryingly wonky homemade bamboo bikes, their mission is to share the stories of the movers, shakers, recyclers and makers of the continent.
Biologist turned producer Emily worked on a number of documentaries for BBC and Discovery Channel in the UK before moving down under where she joined SBS as an impact producer. By sharing the stories of amazing humans and animals she meets, Emily hopes to inspire herself and others to make more positive choices for our planet.
Read more at twobybamboo.com