People and the Falls

People have lived in the area around Iguazú Falls for more than 10,000 years. First were the Kaingang, followed by the Guaraní. In 1541, Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca became the first European to see the falls. He came across them when he was searching for a river route to Paraguay. 

Religious missionaries arrived in 1609, but the Spanish forced them to leave in 1767. It wasn’t until the early 1880s that Western interest in the area surfaced again.

Following a scientific expedition of the area, the first tourist trip was organized in 1901. One year later, plans were underway to create the first national park in Argentina. Iguazú National Park opened
in 1934.

In Argentina, people speak Spanish, so the falls are called the Iguazú Falls. In Brazil, they speak Portuguese and call them the Iguaçu Falls.

This sign says, "Iguazú National Park, Argentina" in Spanish.

Five years later, its sister park, Iguaçu National Park, opened across the river in Brazil. Both parks have since been identified as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Iguazú Falls was also selected as one of the “New Seven Wonders of Nature.”

Trouble in Paradise

As much as people want to protect the Iguazú area, people are also its biggest problem. Poachers come into the park illegally to take trees and animals. People accidentally injure or kill animals while driving through the parks.

Outside the parks, logging and clearing land for farms are two of the biggest problems. When trees disappear, plants and animals lose their homes. Some species go extinct. Water sources like Iguazú Falls are affected, too.

When forests are destroyed, there are fewer trees to absorb carbon dioxide. When there is more carbon dioxide in the air, temperatures rise. Rising temperatures can lead to less rain. And when there’s less rain, there is less water to flow over
the falls.

The Itaipu Dam on the upper Paraná River is one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world.

Tourists take a boat tour of Iguazú Falls.

People also built hydroelectric dams on the area’s rivers. The dams help supply electricity to the area, but they also affect the level of water in the rivers. Plants that need a constant humid environment are harmed each time a dam is opened. More than 1.5 million tourists go see the falls each year. The region depends on the tourists to survive. If the falls run dry or plants and animals disappear, people may no longer come.

Working Together

One of the biggest challenges in preserving the Iguazú Falls region is its location. The falls are near the borders of three countries that each have their own ideas on how to manage the land. Argentina and Brazil, for example, established national parks in the 1930s. Paraguay never did. 

These countries have had disagreements, particularly when it comes to dams. Yet in recent years, they have come together to create a long-term plan on how to conserve and manage the land. Important parts of this plan include more patrols, species monitoring, education,
and research.

Recently, jaguars became a sign that the plan is working. In the early 2000s, jaguars had nearly disappeared from the Iguazú region. The countries increased patrols. Researchers planted camera traps to deter poachers. Farmers who used to kill jaguars that preyed on their livestock started planting corn and soybeans instead.

Jaguars are making a comeback.

As a result of these actions, the number of jaguars has doubled. And this part of South America is the only place in the world with a growing jaguar population. I didn’t see any jaguars on my tour of the park, but that’s not to say that a jaguar didn’t see me!

People’s efforts to make the parks better are working. The beautiful falls and other Iguazú splendors are worth seeing. But more importantly, they are worth
fighting for.

This view from above shows part of the spectacular falls.