“This was Bosque Alegre up until last year, lush vegetation, lots of trees,” says Sylvina Madero, pointing to the photographs of dense green forest land which hang behind her.
“Then on 12th April this year, phones started ringing. They came in with 12 bulldozers, 100 municipal workers arrived with chainsaws, and this woodland with lush vegetation became this and this.”
She gestures to images showing a bleak, muddy expanse of land, bordered by torn protest posters and abandoned tools.
“By the time we found out what was happening, half of our woodland had already been cleared.”
The Bosque Alegre (‘happy woodland’) is a native woodland situated in the wealthy suburb of San Isidro, in the northern Greater Buenos Aires. It is one of several woodlands lining the coast of Buenos Aires increasingly at threat from development and deforestation. Since control of the land was ceded to a private sports club in 2011, the forest has become the centre-point of a fierce battle between the municipal government and local community rights groups. What was once a peaceful recreational space has become the site of a controversial debate over land ownership, ecological protections, and political priorities.
Bosque Alegre: The Story So Far
The four-hectare Bosque Alegre is located in the riverside suburb of San Isidro. Its chocolate box cafes and elegant houses mask a network of boundary lines, which divide the region between the large companies and private businesses.
“All this is private. Unless you pay, you can’t enter” says Romina Rocca, member of the Bosque Alegre Assembly, the group established to protect the public woodland.
“The law says that access to the river should be public, but in reality that isn’t what happens at all. Everything is privatised and access to the river has been cut off and closed in. There are only two or three areas along the river that the public can access now” she says.
Bosque Alegre is one of these areas. With its reed beds and towering trees, it occupies one of the Campos; a grid of fields divided into tennis courts, football fields, and a conference centre. The Bosque is one of the last coastal forests found in Buenos Aires and is home to many increasingly rare indigenous species as well as being a recreational ground for the local community.
However on 10th May, 2011, the municipal government, led by Gustavo Posse, signed an agreement with Club Atlético San Isidro (CASI) to cede the club the area covered by Bosque Alegre. According to Posse, the agreement was intended to secure investment for San Isidro while sustaining the woodland’s identity as a public recreation area. “An agreement was reached whereby CASI would make investments in the area by installing lights, changing rooms, and new turf,” says Posse.
“The club would only be using the area for a small percentage of time and it would be used by the public the rest of the time.”
Posse claims the land was always intended to remain public, but many disagree with this assessment.
“The government didn’t technically sell the land, they gifted it. Officially, the government has ceded the land to CASI, but that’s not public land, that’s a lie,” says Rocca.
Buenos Aires province’s general environmental law (11,723), states that any changes to public property must be preceded by an environmental impact assessment and a community consultation. Neither of these were undertaken prior to the CASI agreement, prompting widespread community anger. This anger reached new heights in September 2011, when un-identified workers arrived to fell trees before the conclusion of the deal – prompting accusations of illegality and corruption between the sports club and municipal government.
“The community have to be consulted, have to be able to participate and give their views on the works. No-one consulted anyone on anything about this. All that happened was that one day, they came in and cut down all the trees,” says Johanna Rudich, member of the assembly.
Mayor Posse acknowledged this at the time, and now says “there have been communication issues from CASI, however there have also been misunderstandings.”
Bosque or Not?
One of the biggest misunderstandings revolves around the definition of the forest and its assessment in terms of ecological importance.
According to Arturo Flier, Secretary of Community Integration for San Isidro, “Bosque Alegre does not qualify for legal protection because it is not a native forest. It was used as landfill until the 1990s and contains mostly non native species.”
While this is true, biologist Analia Dalia claims the woodland still qualifies for protection under the Ley de Bosques due to its value as a site of biodiversity and urban ecology. “Bosque Alegre is one of the last remaining typical coastal forests on the Río de la Plata and is home to more than 200 species of wildlife,” she says.
“Before the felling, Bosque Alegre had a large number of native species, including Creole willows and alder trees. We know that the tree felling destroyed a plant called Equisetum giganteum rarely observed elsewhere in Buenos Aires.”
The trees and plants also help to protect San Isidro from flooding, as well as retaining nutrients and the purification of water.
Protecting the Woodland
These struggles to define Bosque Alegre and its ecological value are crucial for its legal and political protection.
The assembly have so far succeeded in obtaining an injunction to stop all current works on the Bosque, and now are seeking a mandatory halt and re-definition of the area as a ‘natural park’. At the moment, it is only protected through a lesser ‘protected landscape’ designation.
This designation was obtained on 11th April 2012 and does little to prevent development on the woodland as it permits private administration as well as alteration and manipulation of the land. The futility of this label was proven just a day after its introduction, when un-identified workers arrived to undertake the second tree felling. In an event the assembly refer to as ‘the repression’, municipal workers cleared half of the four hectares, prompting the mass protests which made headlines across the city.
“I stood in front of the chainsaws, many people did,” says Madero. “It was a terrible day.”
“After the repression, we got advice,” she says. “At this point, we have a team of lawyers working to find out how they can stop this happening. But everybody says that the best way to put pressure on them is through public humiliation”
Madero knows that legal protections are hard to achieve, even when laws do exist. She watched the passage of the ‘Minimum measures for the environmental protection of native forests’ law (commonly known as the ‘forests’ law’), introduced in 2007, which despite enshrining numerous protections for Argentina’s forests does not help the Bosque Alegre. It was never included in the original list.
“Bosque Alegre is a woodland, it is,” says Rocca, “but it’s not in the land registry, it doesn’t officially exist.”
Public Land, Private Interests
“Argentina has excellent laws, but there is a phrase in English – “where there’s a will there’s a way” – and this is very accurate here; sadly when there is a private powerful interest, they find a way to get around it,” says Emiliano Ezcurra.
Ezcurra is the head of ‘Banco de Bosques’, an NGO established to protect native woodland across Argentina. He has a big task on his hands. By the time the forests’ law was passed in 2007, 70% of the native forests across the country had been lost, divided between agricultural giants using the land for monoculture cropping.
According to figures from the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development, between 1998 and 2006, deforested land in Argentina accounted for 2,295,567 hectares, the equivalent of 250,000 hectares a year and one hectare every two minutes.
“The Bosque Alegre is a very different case to the larger forests in the country, but it is still an issue of privatisation,” Ezcurra says, referring to the fact that Bosque Alegre is a much smaller, urban woodland.
“This is about the relationship between the government and a private company. It’s about how governments can twist and change laws to enable private companies to use land which belongs to the community.”
In this green, spacious suburb, recreational land is hard to come by. For those who can’t afford private club memberships, there are few places to enjoy the natural coastline. It is this that so many want to protect.
“I grew up here, I want my children to play outside and enjoy nature. We need that” says local resident Alison Salas.
So far more than 5,000 signatures have been gathered by the assembly and protests are regularly held on the land, but the future of Bosque Alegre remains uncertain.
“We’re fighting for the forest, but we’re fighting for more than that,” says Rocca. “The idea is to put these topics on the agenda, to ask what is happening to public space in San Isidro”
The fight looks set to continue for a long time yet. However for many, including Ezcurra, the decision is clear.
“The community want it to be saved and it’s public land, so it should be saved. It’s as simple as that.”
To find out what locals think of the issue, click here.