At a Glance

The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance: Cooperation, Conservation, and Success in South America

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The 2014 program application deadline is December 3.

Since 2002, more than $46.5 million in grants.

Grants have supported 422 projects in 36 countries.

Partners have contributed an additional $178.5 million.

More than 3.25 million acres of habitat affected.

By Haley McKey, Communications Intern, USFWS Division of Bird Habitat Conservation

On a vast plain in South America, grass covers the land as far as the eye can see.  A bobolink takes flight and gives a burbling, happy call.  Some miles away, Swainson’s hawks fly over a cattle field, scanning the ground for prey.  A nearby upland sandpiper shelters under a fence rail and ruffles its cinnamon brown feathers. 

Each of these species spends its summer nesting season in the United States and Canada.  But it is here, thousands of miles away in the Southern Cone Grasslands of South America, that they overwinter alongside hundreds of other migrants and year-round residents.           

The incredible variety of birds which depend on this ecosystem --alongside an equally impressive number of mammals, reptiles and fish, and over a thousand plant species -- makes it one of the most important grasslands for biodiversity conservation.  Though it covers an astounding 400,000 square miles, nearly all of the grasslands have been altered by human activities such as cattle ranching, agriculture, and urbanization.

In an effort to preserve important areas and promote responsible land management, the Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance was created.  A 2003 Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided the seed money the Alliance needed to get off the ground.   

The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance has since become a compelling conservation success story, with organizations and individuals working together toward a common goal: preserving birds and their habitat.  Since its inception, the Alliance has identified 61 priority conservation sites for migratory birds, widely distributed information to landowners, and has held several meetings and symposia on best practices for land management.   It also conducts an annual migratory bird census, monitoring population levels and identifying new priority habitat sites.

The Alliance began with a partnership between Birdlife International and four bird conservation organizations, one from each country within the grasslands ecosystem: Aves Argentinas, Aves Uruguay, SAVE Brazil and Guyra Paraguay.  NMBCA support was integral in directing the Alliance’s efforts, and is a vital source of project financing for many other bird conservation groups.

Because NMBCA grants require a three-to-one grant-to-partner dollar match, they provide a strong, independent foundation and serve to catalyze fledgling projects.  Most NMBCA grant projects are based on a joint venture model of conservation, bringing together government agencies, nongovernment organizations and local communities.

Says Rob Clay, senior conservation manager of Birdlife International, “We really recognized a need to work more closely together on a common issue within a shared region, and we looked to North America and the Joint Ventures approach.”

The Alliance immediately set to work on its first goal: creating partnerships with grassland ranchers and landowners.

“We were in just the right moment for grasslands conservation in the Southern Cone,” says Anibal Parera, general coordinator for the Alliance.  “Just in time to knock on the doors of the cattlemen who still fed their animals on the natural grasslands and make them our main allies.”

These partnerships foster “an open dialogue and friendship between conservationists and producers,” says Parera, emphasizing the idea that conservation and business success can go hand in hand. 

For example, the Alliance and grasslands cattlemen are working together to develop the first-ever certification seal for “green” beef in South America.  This will allow ranchers to enter the market for environmentally friendly foods, such as shade grown coffee.

“The truly amazing surprise was the extensive knowledge and willingness of the private landowners to work so closely with the Alliance to find common ground and solutions,” said Tony Robyn of the National Audubon Society, which donates to the Alliance..  “This is the Holy Grail of conservation.”

Parera says in the future they hope to develop a similar certification process for grasslands rice growers that are “environmentally friendly in terms of chemical products and the use of the land,” which would benefit the many bird species that seek rice fields for food and shelter.

The Southern Cone Grasslands Alliance has proved that it can implement projects through the grant that have real, on-the-ground results, and now stands on its own as an independent initiative.  The partnership recently arranged for a $750,000 donation from the Inter-American Development Bank, to be used to provide incentives for farmers and cattle ranchers who conserve grasslands habitats.

With continued support from the Fish and Wildlife Service and other donors, the Alliance will continue to do what it does best: spreading a message of conservation and working to ensure that birds thrive in the Southern Cone grasslands.

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