Argentina's national park wardens in the dock

warning sign

It’s fair to say I have, on occasion, had a slightly troubled relationship with the national park authorities during my nigh on 16 years operating private tours in Argentina.

Many years ago, guests of ours were strolling down a wash in Los Cardones national park on the road from Salta to Cachi while I sneaked a five minute siesta during one of our wine tours of the Valles Calchaquies.

 

A marked car from the park wardens office approached and the officer unkindly woke me up from my slumber, to ask what I was doing. Despite it appearing obvious, I pointed out where my guests were and they told me they weren’t allowed to walk there.

 

I replied that it wasn’t rainy season, it was dry underfoot, and unlikely that a sudden tidal wave would sweep them away, but they told me it was an insurance issue: if the guests twisted an ankle they might sue the park authority. Unlikely, it seemed to me.

 

Nobody in a national park is allowed to stray off the established trails (which in Cardones is restricted to a couple of laughable five minute stretches).

 

As I explain to guests on our private guided tours, the idea of national parks in Argentina isn’t to provide an area for recreation, but to preserve a certain eco-system.

 

Indeed, during the Covid pandemic, national parks remained shut well beyond initial quarantine when people were crying out to spend time out in the open air.  

 

On that occasion, I was ticked off with a warning, but in a second incident I was issued with prosecution papers after taking guests from Lithuania for an illegal picnic in the captivating landscape of Valle Encantado, on the same road from Salta to Cachi.

 

This was despite the fact there were (and remain) picnic tables in said location: unknown to me, it had been temporarily closed off because of another driver getting stuck negotiating the tricky mountain track. This being Argentina, “temporary” meant for around three years.  

 

Now I can almost understand what they were getting at.

 

A recent court judgement has absolved four national park wardens of responsibility for the collapse of a tree which killed two children in Lanin national park in Neuquen, Patagonia.

 

The case dates back to a horrific incident in 2016 in which two children aged seven and three were crushed by an oak tree while celebrating New Year´s Day with their parents in a campsite at Lanin national park on the banks of lake Lácar in Patagonia.

 

Yes, this happened seven years ago.

 

The case was rejected by the courts twice, in 2019 and 2020, and last month the parents lost their appeal.

 

The judges decided: “The officers brought to court are not responsible for what occured. There were no guidelines requiring that the park wardens needed to check the trees or prune them. Neither was any procedure in place, or any indication of who was responsible; less still, require people who weren’t specialists to decide whether a tree was at risk of falling or not.

 

And they concluded: “It’s clear that some incidents are impossible to predict. We’ve all learnt from what happened, and have improved measures. The national park authority, by advising people about the dangers that exist in a national park, installing more signs, informing tourists about the dangers they are exposed to, and employing specialised and trained personnel who know about accident prevention. The public, on their part, need to understand that by entering a national park they are going into a natural and hostile environment.” 

 

Yes, quite. Did it really need three court cases and seven years to decide that man can’t dominate nature?

 

Notwithstanding the heartrendingly tragic circumstances of the children’s death, and the aching pain of the parents who took them on that New Year’s adventure, surely to most people’s eyes this was a freak tragic accident?

 

The wardens had been charged with homicide and failure to carry out the duties of a public official, leading to grave injuries.

 

They faced potential jail terms of three years, and the inevitable loss of their jobs. And of course they have had to wait for seven years to be cleared and attempt to return to their normal lives and jobs.

 

The court case prompted a strike by colleagues, resulting in 20 parks temporarily closing to the public, with one warden saying: “Acts of nature are unpredictable and inevitable. Holding us responsible for the consequences of natural phonemena puts at risk the possibility of visiting any natural area.”

 

As you will see from the photo accompanying this blog, on a recent visit with guests from Canada to El Leoncito national park in San Juan, a new-looking sign warns visitors: “You are entering a natural wild landscape under your own responsibility”, and it mentions the possibility of falling branches and trees (along with potential landslides and high temperatures).

 

  • ·         Another sign at PN El Leoncito, near Barreal, on our Wine & History tour, warns us of the presence of pumas, as there was a sighting back in 2012, but I think this is more to entice the tourists than a serious warning: despite many visits there, I have sadly never seen one. But if you’ve got time and patience, I’d recommend the waterfall at dusk for the best chance of seeing the big cat.  
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