Usually when you read about a river cleanup program, it is usually accompanied by an image of a streak of brown, flotsam and jetsam, and perhaps even some carcasses of local fish and fauna on the coastline. So I was rather surprised [and then again, not so surprised] to see a cleanup program for one of my favorite Patagonian rivers, the Rio Limay.

Crystal clear waters of the Rio Limay

Crystal clear waters of the Rio Limay

Bariloche “gets it”!

This is what  really marks a difference between the southern Andean provinces of Argentina versus others. It comes down to culture. Developing a culture of cleanliness and a culture of awareness about how even one individual can effect an environment, and a way of thinking, is key.

There’s no doubt that it’s easier to develop a cleanup campaign when your province, local and private institutions have, and are willing to spend, money for such programs, but the most significant factors are not economic ones.

Even education is effective only after there is a cultural tendency [an openness] to learn and apply certain modes of conduct. It’s really not that hard if you think about it. We are all creatures of habit and nobody wants to be looked down upon. I remember being a kid and simply being called a “litter bug” was a pretty good deterrent and motivator to keep garbage where it belonged. There were many campaigns on television and radio about picking up litter and I think it shows today in most parts of the U.S. that these constant messages and efforts towards awareness have paid off.

But there is more than “shame” working in Bariloche, and the Andean provinces of Rio Negro, Neuquen, Chubut, Mendoza, etc.

The key may be pure and simple self interest. These Andean provinces didn’t start out with a culture of conservation. In fact the motivation for conserving the natural resources in these provinces [particularly those that lend themselves for tourism] is to be able to continue to exploit them and maintain the notable economic growth these provinces have seen over the past 10 or so years.

So how could other provinces such as Corrientes, Entre Rios, Misiones and others approach the need for change?

One of the best sources of hope are actually in the businesses that exploit eco-tourism. It will definitely take collaboration with local game authorities and local governments in the provinces where the natural resources will otherwise continue to dwindle. But if the private sector can engage politicians and local governments in the right way, it may be easier than it might first appear.

Young people, for example, present another great opportunity. A generation is all it takes to effect change, as most of us know. But results could be seen even faster. Take for example the case of the Professional Fishing Guide Association of Bariloche. The Association‘s CleanLimaymembers have a very large number of young fishing guides. They often work as skiing instructors in the winter months, and fishing guides the rest of the year. It’s a health-wealth thing for them. They enjoy and depend on the health of their environment to generate the wealth that they and their community survives on. Young people are easily motivated, have the strength and energy, and the right amount of idealism to quickly make a difference in their communities.

Developing similar initiatives via guide associations in other provinces could quickly have positive environmental and economic effects. Local schools can offer guide training and certification, thus generating additional revenue through this course offering. Additional programs for working in the promotion of tourism could also be offered in a broad range of courses such as advertising, hotel management, and other service/tourism oriented professions.

In fact, some provinces have started to implement some of these programs and course offerings. They are beginning to generate some results, but the emphasis needs to stay on “what’s good for whole, is good for the individual”, versus “what’s good for me…” [and the part about the common good is quickly forgotten]. Thus it comes back to a “cultural thing”.

It doesn’t help when your leaders don’t appear to have any moral standards and grab as much as they can – while they can – because they can. And the perception that most of us get from the news, television, etc. is that everything has pretty much gone to hell already. Give this view of reality, most people don’t want to feel like a schmuck being the only goody-good Samaritan working towards something better, while everyone else seems to be working in the other direction.

Realistically speaking, sometimes you come across [and must deal with] mentalities where “it’s all about me”. I wouldn’t be the first to say that human nature has a large dose of that philosophy. But politicians are always generally motivated by the all mighty $. When conservation is articulated properly, people can begin to understand that local economies and businesses benefit, tax revenues increase, public services find there is more money in the coffers, and provinces realize greater influence on federal budget spending. Again, money isn’t the only or even best answer to the problem of keeping the environment clean. Privatization, for example, only keeps select areas clean while there is an economic interest in doing so, and economics by itself has no moral compass.

The heroes in a happy ending to the story about “how the human race protected the environment and lived to enjoy it”, will be those that learn how to use society’s weaknesses and the good and bad of human nature to make a change in the currently non-existent wanting culture of conservation.

Playing the litter-bug shame game, articulating community and personal economic gains, and even leveraging human vanity may be the tactics needed in a long term strategy to help everyone else to finally “get it”. I certainly plan to continue to do my part so that eventually the term “brownlining” will only be applicable for decribing your shorts after getting a monster hit and landing the biggest trout of your life, on a body of water as clear as your bottled water, and as free as nature [not Evian] intended it.