Ruben Pablos is pioneering a model for environmental conservation and restoration in Argentine Patagonia that promotes a culture of civic engagement among a traditionally unconcerned public. His organization, Sembrar, creates a positive relationship between the population and the environment through education, research, and reforestation campaigns. Ruben’s model integrates business, civic sector, and government participation.
The New Idea
Ruben realized the Patagonian population did not feel connected to the environment and this was a major cause of the severe environmental deterioration in the region. He consequently developed a strategy focused on environmental education and restoration, which he carries out through Sembrar, the citizen organization (CO) he founded.
Sembrar combats environmental problems such as erosion, forest fire damage, and the introduction of aggressive foreign species by generating civic engagement through various forms of education. It is the first institution to include the community in an organized way. It raises awareness and proactive responses using a variety of tactics. Sembrar published the first materials available to the general public about the threats facing Patagonia’s natural habitat and how residents could help. It also offers training to professionals connected to the environment, such as tourism company employees, gardeners, and journalists.
Sembrar works with the school system to provide new teaching materials and opportunities for students. Forty-five schools have adopted a curriculum Ruben designed that uses experiential education, in which students physically engage with the outdoors, as a tool to cultivate an understanding of the environment and an investment in caring for it. Sembrar’s Nursery for Native Plants also leads massive reforestation campaigns to replant national parks devastated by forest fires with species native to each area. The nursery is used as a Green Classroom to educate school and university students about reforestation and to involve them in the process.
Ruben is influencing public policy at the national and local levels. He succeeded in lobbying the municipal government of Bariloche to establish May 2 as National Park Day and to add education about national parks in to school curricula. This event was so successful that it was adopted by four other municipalities. Ruben is currently waiting for a decision from Congress about instituting Native Forest Day and its affiliated curricula at the national level.
Ruben employs creative ways for businesses to address their role in the damage caused by population growth and tourism in Patagonia. He designed a compensation system for gas emissions in which businesses make up for their environmental costs by financing reforestation and environmental education and by using green materials. His model has been tested at tourist-related events in Patagonia and has been well-received by municipal governments there. Ruben is writing a proposal for his compensation plan to be adopted as national policy. With the objective of engaging different participants and extending his impact in the region, Ruben is presently expanding Sembrar to three new locations. He is also collaborating with three Ashoka Fellows on The Patagonia Platform, which aims to foster public and private partnerships to consolidate their work in the region.
In Patagonia, tourism and population growth are severely impacting the ecosystem. In the last fifty years, 70 percent of the natural forest has been lost. Although Argentine Patagonia has a low population density, in recent years the urban population has increased exponentially. This is especially true in cities connected to tourism, where a boom in this industry is directly related to demographic growth of 25 to 30 percent.
Deforestation, forest fires, and exotic species have all impacted large swathes of land. This profoundly alters ecosystem dynamics because in addition to trees, the air, soil, and water are affected. Damage caused by forest fires is one of the biggest problems in Patagonia, where 90 percent of fires are manmade. The fires affect mountain peaks that are the source of water. This, in turn, causes erosion of riverbanks and destroys land. The region’s desert-like soil and the presence of aggressive foreign species make it difficult for natural vegetation to grow back—reforestation can take anywhere from months to decades. One way to combat loss of natural habitat is to grow native plants in nurseries. Unfortunately, there are not enough nurseries to provide these plants for research about the unique ecosystem and training about how to restore degraded areas.
Patagonia is a traditionally isolated region that has only recently experienced private sector and tourism booms. With a young business culture, there is little emphasis on corporate responsibility and little awareness about environmentally friendly practices. For example, tourism companies use abundant amounts of water for washing linens even though there are ways to reduce water use without compromising cleanliness.
Although there is existing public policy to prevent environmental devastation, it is not up to date or sufficient. Moreover, businesses and inhabitants do not abide by these regulations. Many tourism companies, for example, introduce foreign species for aesthetic purposes in parks, which damage the ecosystem. What’s more, most tourists spend little time in the cities and they often disobey laws without even knowing they are doing so. For example, because of the danger of forest fires and the extensive damage they have caused, it is illegal to make campfires without taking certain precautions, but tourists often do so inappropriately because they are unaware of the correct procedures.
Many of the region’s inhabitants, especially those who have recently migrated, do not feel tied to the environment and have a poor understanding of how endangered their habitat is. One reason for the lack of public awareness is that there are no education programs or informative resources for the general public about environmental problems and how to care for them. As a result, it is almost impossible to inform inhabitants with no scientific background about the environment.
Ruben began working in nurseries to grow native plants for reforestation efforts in 1999, and in 2003 he founded Sembrar and its affiliated Andean Patagonia Nursery to build relationships between Patagonia’s population and the environment.
In schools, Sembrar works with children and youth to teach them about how they are connected to the environment and why caring for it is important. Ruben feels engaging young people is critical to address the environmental problems that will arise as Patagonia’s population and economy continue to change. He has thus developed a curriculum for schools that takes place both inside and outside of classrooms. Because the curriculum is hands on, it teaches children to value the environment based on their interaction with it. The idea behind Ruben’s education model is that when these children grow up they will have a sustained commitment to the environment. At present, Sembrar works with 45 public and private schools and is reaching 14,000 students and 300 teachers.
Citizen participation is one of Ruben’s key strategies so he uses education in a variety of ways to develop conservation efforts amongst and inform the Patagonian population. To raise public awareness, Sembrar creates resources about the environment and publishes them as books, manuals, and brochures. Ruben, with Sembrar’s team, has designed training courses for different kinds of professionals who have an impact on the environment, such as tour guides, teachers, gardeners, and hotel businessmen. With gardeners, for instance, he generates awareness about the problems exotic species cause and works with them to replace foreign plants with native. In Patagonia there is high demand for gardeners, but most of them are not from the region. Ruben is building a gardening school to train local young people in this profession by using only native plants. Ruben is also working on training journalists so that they can improve the way they explain environmental problems and support awareness campaigns. He also established groups of children and adults called Environmental Guards, who run education workshops for tourists and local inhabitants about how to camp responsibly, handle waste, and engage in reforestation.
On the public policy front, Ruben worked with the municipal government of Bariloche to establish the second Sunday of May as the Native Forest Day, and it was subsequently adopted by four other municipalities. Part of this legislation is to have school curriculums teach about the environment to coincide with Native Forest Day. On May 2 the media calls for participation from citizen organizations, university students, national organizations, and the government to help with tree-planting reforestation campaigns and educational activities for children and adults. Of the trees planted, 80 percent survive and are used by Biology students at The National University of Comahue for their fieldwork. Sembrar has a strong partnership with this university and together they carry out research, conservation efforts, and investigate how to use native plants as natural medicines. Ruben is waiting on a decision from Congress about a proposal for Native Forest Day to become a national holiday that includes changing school curriculums to include Argentina’s parks.
Sembrar created the Nursery for Native Plants to support a massive reforestation campaign for the Patagonia National Park. The campaign focuses on replanting different species that are native to each area of the park and it pays special attention to areas affected by forest fires. Sembrar uses the nursery as a Green Classroom for schools and universities in the region; in the last years 14,000 students have participated in the reforestation campaign.
One of Ruben’s biggest challenges is how to create incentives for businesses to implement green practices. He is developing a model that compensates gas emissions generated by tourism-related activities. Sembrar and Bariloche Foundation are developing a scale that will enable measurement of gas emissions produced at events and conventions. Compensation will be paid by the companies and measured in native plants, environmental education for children, and eco-friendly materials. In 2007 Ruben carried out the first compensation event for National Parks, hosted by a hotel in Bariloche. He was subsequently called upon to design and execute a compensation plan for Argentina’s largest-ever tourist event, which will take place in Bariloche in 2009. Ruben is also working with Argentina Airlines to create a ‘green ticket’ that that will use surplus revenue to compensate for the airline’s environmental footprint. Ruben is drafting proposals to make his compensation plan national legislation.
Ruben is working to reproduce Sembrar’s model in three other areas of the country, including the Andes. Moreover, Sembrar is creating three new education centers with accompanying nurseries that are financed by the Fund for the Americas. Ruben has played a major role in creating a collaboration called The Patagonia Platform with Ashoka Fellows—Gustavo Genusso, Bob Kilmeate, and Guillermo Worman—for the development of regional projects that generate public and private partnerships. The Platform is intended to amplify the impact of each member’s work by addressing common regional problems, and Sembrar has assumed responsibility for managing the collaboration’s resources.
Ruben was born and grew up in Buenos Aires and from childhood he has been in contact with nature. Because his family spent a lot of time outdoors, from an early age his parents instilled in him a positive relationship with the environment.
When Ruben was nineteen years old he enlisted in mandatory military service and fought on the front line during the Falkland War. When he returned he was unable to adapt to his previous lifestyle and decided to move to Bariloche to be closer to nature. Ruben began working as a wood craftsman and was a founding member of the Municipal Art Fair. During that time he met other war veterans in Bariloche also having a hard time readjusting to civilian life. Ruben created the Center for Veterans of the Falklands War in Bariloche to help veterans’ access government pensions, psychological, and social support. He is still active with the center and acts as General Secretary.
Ruben’s involvement with woodwork drove him to volunteer as a firefighter and to begin investigating the causes and consequences of forest fires. He became involved with the conservation of native plants and in 1996 created a project for restoring the Native Andean Patagonia Park. Ruben started a nursery in his home to replant areas destroyed by forest fires and in 1999 he was invited to become Director of the Municipal Nursery of Bariloche. This was a first step towards creating Sembrar, with its adjoining nursery system. Ruben is known as an expert on park conservation and the production of native plants in Patagonia.