Last January, a double murder occurred in Juan José Castelli, a community of 25,000 located in the Argentine province of Chaco, about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) north of Buenos Aires. Manuel Roseo, 75, and his sister-in-law Nelly Bartolomé, 73, were found suffocated in the small, ramshackle home where they lived, with plastic bags over their heads and signs of having been beaten.
Coverage of the murders stirred intense interest among Argentines. That’s because the crime, though shocking, wasn’t the whole story. There also was the matter of Fidelity—a massive, 250,000-hectare (620,000-acre) estancia that Roseo turned out to own and that, since his death, has posed an important regional conservation challenge.
Roseo immigrated to Argentina from Italy after World War II. He prospered in the textile business, and in the 1970s acquired the estancia, which straddles the border of Chaco and Formosa provinces with 150,000 hectares (370,000 acres) in Chaco and 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) in Formosa.
Though he attempted several agricultural enterprises, these failed and left him in debt. Single and without any known children, Roseo made a living in his last years by selling timber culled in careful selective cuts in his immense estancia’s woodlands. He kept the native forest virtually intact—an anomaly in a region where timber and agricultural operators have carried out relentless, large-scale land clearing.
Fidelity is located in an eco-region known as the Great American Chaco, a subtropical forested plain shared by Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. The property is a storehouse of biodiversity. It is home to threatened animals such as the jaguar (Leo onca palustris), giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), and peccary (Parachoerus wagneri), all of which have been designated as so-called natural monuments here, which means they cannot be hunted.
Local residents say Roseo drove a 1967 Jeep and lived as austerely as one of his few laborers, all the while rejecting offers that agricultural and timber entrepreneurs frequently made for his land. In the 1990s, environmentalists and national parks officials raised the possibility of purchasing the land for conservation, but did not follow through.
Given the attempts by timber and agricultural interests to acquire the property, suspicions arose after the murders that Roseo had been killed for his land. The suspicions intensified when the first person arrested in the case was a businessman who claims to have paid Roseo US$40 million for part of the property.
After the murder, legal jousting over Roseo’s estate ensued, with some of those presenting themselves as the rightful heirs claiming to be his natural children. At the same time, however, government officials and environmental groups became worried that the disposition of Fidelity might lead to destruction of the plant and animal habitat of the vast estancia.
In January, Argentine Tourism Minister Enrique Meyer sent a letter to Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich, expressing concern about “the vulnerable situation of the land, which could be exposed to situations of pillage of fauna and timber.” Meyer proposed the estancia be acquired using funds from the provincial and national governments, non-governmental groups and private donors, and that its Chaco portion be converted into a national park.
Chaco’s leading environmental groups embraced the proposal, enlisting Argentine novelist and Chaco native Mempo Giardinelli as a spokesman. Says Giardinelli: “I’m doing what any Chaqueño would do—to try to prevent our province from losing a treasure.”
The provincial legislature quickly declared the land a reserve, though officials acknowledge the estancia’s huge size and scant infrastructure make it difficult to protect.
So stood the situation until this month, when Gov. Capitanich proposed legislation to Chaco lawmakers under which the province would help buy Fidelity with the aim of making it a national park. Announced in the provincial capital of Resistencia on Aug. 5, the proposal had earlier won endorsements from key political players in the province. With Capitanich, Meyer and representatives of 20 green groups looking on, Argentine National Parks President Patricia Gandini produced a check for $500,000 as an initial contribution toward the purchase.
Contributions will be solicited from Argentine and international private donors and non-governmental groups. Still unclear, though, is how much money would be needed. The complex litigation over Roseo’s estate includes an appraisal of the property at a value of US$213 million. Government officials and environmental advocates consider the estimate vastly exaggerated—particularly, they say, since the property as a park couldn’t be used for commercial purposes such as soy cultivation.
“We are thinking about 300 dollars a hectare,” Miguel Brunswig, Chaco’s natural resources secretary, told EcoAméricas this month. If that turns out to be the case, the portion of the property in Chaco would cost US$45 million.
- Daniel Gutman