A town in a National Park? Or a National Park in a town?
Reflections from Cabo Polonio, Uruguay
Emily Sigman, Masters of Global Affairs and Masters of Forestry
Cabo Polonio is a cape jutting off Uruguay’s Eastern Coast, not far from the country’s southernmost border with Brazil. The cape harbors a unique ecology where rare species thrive in estuaries and wetlands despite a climate that is relentlessly windy and increasingly arid. The high conservation value of this coastal landscape prompted the Uruguayan government to designate the area as a National Park in 2009.
Cabo Polonio also supports a small population of ‘pobladores’—people who live year-round in the historic town center and in nearby hamlets within the park boundaries—alongside a regular cadre of seasonal laborers and a burgeoning population of tourists. These intersecting groups have all come to depend on this unique place for sustenance, both material and spiritual. Cabo Polonio’s designation as a National Park has profound impacts on these communities, and these communities in turn are raising interesting questions about conservation, culture, and ecologically-embedded identities.
Known to the Spanish conquistadors as “El infierno de los navegantes,” Cabo Polonio was used as a harbor for ‘naufragos’—castaways shipwrecked by the rocky and unpredictable sea conditions—and frequented by pirates of all stripes, who sought to destabilize the Spanish colonial empire from their outpost in striking distance of both Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero. Eventually, the castaways and pirates gave way to the ‘loberos’, hunters in search of the seals and sea lions (lobos), that have long lived amongst Cabo Polonio’s rocky shores and whose pelts and oils were highly prized. This lighthouse was constructed in 1881 in order to reduce the incidence of shipwreck and boost the ‘industria lobera’. Today, the lighthouse is a prominent tourist attraction.
In the 1920s, a massive series of pine plantations were established along the entrance to the cape, at the same time as the fishing industry boomed, and the influx of Italian immigrants to Uruguay reached a climax. This confluence made Cabo Polonio increasingly accessible, and Fishermen, loggers, descendants of castaways and pirates, and vacationers from the growing centers of nearby Aguas Dulces and Arroyo Valizas began coming by boat and by horse and buggy to Cabo Polonio, and established a town center. The early structures of the town were largely constructed to support these visitors, who enjoyed coming to a place that felt like “another country.” (Aldea Infinitiva History Cube visited December 2018)
As Cabo Polonio continued to grow as a vacation destination, Small ‘ranchos’—simple, small cottages constructed intentionally to function without running water or electricity—increasingly began to appear on the landscape. In 1966, part of the area was declared a National Monument, and private land was expropriated by the Uruguayan State. Today in Cabo Polonio, ambiguity looms over the ranchos along with several small guesthouses, hostels, and restaurants; these buildings are recognized as private property, but the land upon which they sit is considered state-owned. This tension is only partly mitigated by a complex system of leases and business taxes run by the state, which change with great frequency and are therefore only loosely understood or respected by many residents and regular visitors.
Cabo Polonio continued to evolve into a destination for those seeking to experience a ‘simple life’ close to nature. Many year-round and seasonal residents have taken up the vision of Cabo Polonio as a kind of eco-topia. A local artist created a ‘history cube’ which is on display at a small, single-room museum in the center of the old town. The most recent entry on the cube reads, “Amantes de la naturaleza y de la libertad descubrieron un lugar comun que los recibió, fuera de las reglas sociales pero dentro de las naturales…el ser humano es naturaleza. Han descubierto la simpleza de vivir en la rusticidad, al margen del reloj y del consume…Cabo Polonio es una escuela de vida que, entre otras cosas, enseña a vivir el “aquí y ahora” (Trans: Lovers of nature and freedom discovered a common place that received them, outside the social rules but within the natural ones … the human being is nature. They have discovered the simplicity of living in rusticity, away from the clock and consumerism … Cabo Polonio is a school of life that, among other things, teaches one to live in the “here and now”)
Over the last several years, Cabo Polonio has witnessed a mass influx of tourism. There are no roads leading into the town, and car permits are issued only sparingly to year-round residents. As passenger boats no longer dock in Cabo Polonio, most tourists arrive on ‘camiones’—massive diesel dune-buggies that congregate at the park entrance and drive visitors in for a fee. During the summer months, it is estimated that more than 2,000 tourists visit the park every day.
Increases in tourism have been accompanied by an uptick of hostels and guesthouses that vary in size and amenities. Though many tourists are drawn to Cabo Polonio for its simple living and buenas hondas, local accommodations are increasingly outfitted with electricity (from solar, wind, and gas generators), hot water, and even wifi to feather the transition from the outside world. Trash and recyclables management has become problematic as packaging and plastic bags brought in by tourists, or purchased at the local provisions stores, must largely be trucked out of the park. Researchers have also found increasing levels of groundwater contamination, which they attribute to the widespread use of informal human waste management systems. These impacts come into direct conflict with Cabo Polonio’s 2009 SNAP (Sistema de Areas Protegidas) designation, and the government appears to be moving forward with plans to begin demolishing certain ranchos and curtailing many local activities.
Many locals disagree with assessments about negative human impacts in the park, and see themselves as exemplars of sustainable living against a backdrop of globalization and environmental impoverishment. Gustavo Camelot, an artist who also runs an airbnb in Cabo Polonio, created a participatory art piece on a far stretch of Cabo Polonio’s beach called Ola de BaSURa (wave of trash), which was part of a recent Bienal de Arte Contemporáneo de América del SUR (BIENALSUR). This stylized ‘wave’ was put together by volunteers to call attention to the waste that rolls ashore from far-off locations.
Camelot, like many others, is part of a movement that seeks to ‘Preserva el Polonio’, from both a cultural and an ecological perspective, which are presented as inextricably interconnected. Stakeholders in this movement are seeking recognition from UNESCO as a cultural site, asserting that they represent a unique way of life that is manifest in their architecture, lifeways, and cosmologies. In their view, Cabo Polonio is “un paisaje cultural en peligro de extinción” (trans: a cultural landscape in danger of extinction). There is an active social media campaign critiquing current published environmental assessments, and alleging that the related management plans are, in effect, a cover for a narrow set of business interests. A widely-circulated online petition urges policymakers to reconsider the current management plan, and redesignate the Park under a heading that allows and celebrates the people and the ‘culture’, which—in their view—is a part of what must be conserved in Cabo Polonio.