Since 2021, the nation has been involved in a plan to conserve primates and their vital role in ecosystems and safeguarding human health. But will these efforts persist under Milei’s government, which has declared budget cuts for both the environment and science?
There are five nonhuman primate species living in Argentina, primarily in the northern region, all of which are currently endangered. The most critical situation is that of the brown howler monkey (Alouatta guariba), with only an estimated 50 individuals remaining in the province of Misiones.
Other species found in the country are the caraya (Alouatta caraya), mirikina (Aotus azarae), black caí (Sapajus nigritus) and yungas caí (Sapajus cay).
These animals play a critical role in ecosystems and are considered essential for human health care. They serve as sentinels, providing warnings about the circulation of potentially lethal viruses, such as the one responsible for diseases like yellow fever.
In 2021, Argentina launched a National Plan for the Conservation of Primates. The programme has seven objectives, including conserving native forests to reduce habitat loss, increasing connectivity between areas with primate populations, restoring degraded forests, implementing native forest management, assessing and reducing the impact of yellow fever, reducing the removal of primates from the wild and implementing environmental education programmes.
The plan was submitted by the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development, one of the ministries abolished by the new government led by President Javier Milei, inaugurated on 10 December.
The planning and execution of the plan also engaged scientists from agencies affiliated with the Ministry of Science, another sector dismantled in the new administration. This restructuring aims to significantly reduce the state’s operational expenses as part of a strategy to mitigate the profound economic challenges confronting Argentina.
While some of the objectives outlined in the primate protection plan have already shown signs of progress, the majority involve extensive, multi-year efforts. But the continued implementation of these actions might face challenges due to potential funding shortages.
WHY CONSERVATION PLANS MATTER
Species conservation plans are essential tools for conserving the environment and biodiversity. Many South American countries with high primate diversity, including Ecuador, Colombia and Peru, have made progress in recent years in creating such frameworks. These plans not only facilitate the coordination of actions at the national level but also enable the development of regional strategies for broad conservation efforts.
Martín Kowalewski, an Argentine primatologist and member of the Primate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), played a key role in the development of the Argentine primate conservation plan. He has also contributed to similar initiatives involving participatory processes in Bolivia and Paraguay.
“These plans involve different social actors who are committed to taking on tasks for the conservation of species,” Kowalewski told FairPlanet. “The aim is that they are not just statements by scientists, but that they include contributions from society as a whole.”
He added, “In the case of Argentina, a comprehensive plan was approved and is now well underway, with the priority being the recovery of the critically-endangered brown howler monkey in Misiones, in coordination with existing plans for the species in Brazil. That’s why it’s important for each country to have a plan, because it gives us a framework for working together.”
One of the plan’s primary achievements has been the identification of priority areas for the conservation of Argentina’s primates. In a scientific paper published in 2022, researchers warned that only 7 per cent of the territory occupied by the five species in the country is protected.
It is therefore essential to expand protected areas, the researchers concluded, particularly in the provinces of Chaco and Formosa, where deforestation rates are high.
However, the creation of new protected areas does not appear to be a priority for the new government. Both President Milei and his vice-president, Victoria Villarruel, voted against the establishment of three new national parks in recent years while serving as deputies in the National Congress.
In fact, during the presidential campaign, Villarruel spoke out publicly against the creation of new protected areas in an interview, arguing that they would involve the creation of new public positions that expand the state structure.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION FACTOR
Another focus of the monkey conservation plan is to educate society. To this end, work has begun in Misiones, a province that hosts more than 50 per cent of Argentina’s biodiversity and three of the country’s five primate species.
“Conservation of the areas where the monkeys live is a priority,” said Patricia Sandoval, a biologist who works as Director of Biodiversity in the Ministry of Ecology and Renewable Natural Resources of the province of Misiones. “This means working closely with the people who carry out productive activities in these areas to ensure that there is a harmonious coexistence between citizens and nature.
“That is why we are developing educational strategies both in the formal system, through actions in schools that include biodiversity issues at all levels, and with other proposals consisting of campaigns and workshops in communities that target different age groups.”
One example she referred to are campaigns addressing yellow fever, a potentially lethal disease caused by a virus transmitted through mosquito bites.
“Sometimes, monkeys were associated with the transmission of the disease and this caused fear in some communities who wanted to keep them away or even eliminate them,” Sandoval told FairPlanet. “Campaigns have been launched to explain how the virus is transmitted, so that people understand that mosquito breeding sites must be eliminated and that monkeys are not a threat.”
In fact, local experts note that monkeys play a pivotal role in public health by serving as epidemiological guardians for yellow fever. The presence of deceased monkeys in the forest is considered an indicator of virus circulation, prompting those responsible for health strategies to ramp up vaccination campaigns among the population.
COPING WITH CRISES
Currently, the future of initiatives aimed at protecting and conserving Argentina’s monkeys hangs in uncertainty. At the conclusion of this inquiry, the fate of environmental policy remains unclear, given the absence of a dedicated ministry. Instead, it will hinge on a yet-to-be-appointed sub-secretariat within the Ministry of the Interior.
FairPlanet reached out to career officials from the former Ministry of Environment who had been involved in the Primate Conservation Plan. But these officials chose not to comment on the continuity of the policies, citing the ongoing transition in the area and the lack of details available at the moment.
Meanwhile, Misiones assures that efforts to protect the monkeys will continue.
“In our province, the continuity of the environmental policy is guaranteed,” said Stella Maris Brodzicz, Director of Fauna at the Ministry of Ecology. “We will keep working as we have in recent years, in close collaboration with the health sectors to issue early warnings for yellow fever, with education to train our community and with scientific teams to achieve connectivity between areas where endangered monkey populations live.”
For Martin Kowalewski from IUCN, the primary threat jeopardising the continuity of the plan is the shortage of funding.
“In recent years, our country has undergone major political changes, with short cycles of governments with very different ideological positions that have had an impact on scientific and environmental issues,” he told fairPlanet. “In some of the previous administrations we have seen, for example, the management of national parks or scientific institutes being defunded. This is something that does not happen in other countries, where there is continuity in certain policies and consensuses that are not discussed. But in Argentina, unfortunately, we are used to going through this type of crisis very often.”
Nevertheless, the primatologist expressed confidence that it will be possible to sustain certain designed actions and maintain primate conservation efforts in Argentina. His optimism is based on the prospect of regional collaboration and the effective management of international project funds allocated for specific initiatives.
Article published in Fair Planet: https://www.fairplanet.org/story/argentinas-health-guardians-at-risk-of-extinction/