In the village of Uguay, the dominant feeling is anxiety. The nearly 60 families who live here fear that the fires ravaging Esteros del Iberá in the province of Corrientes will reach them.
The flames are devastating. Already, more than nine percent of the region’s territory has been destroyed by fires since December, causing incalculable environmental damage and productive damage.
Fueled by two years of unprecedented drought, the fires destroyed livestock pastures, rice paddies, yerba plantations and pine forests. No fatalities were reported, but dozens of people were evacuated and their homes destroyed.
Hell has also charred the native forests of Iberá, 1.3 million hectares of wetlands with great biodiversity and home to endangered species, such as the pampas deer or the yaguareté jaguar and the guacamayos scarlet macaws recently reintroduced.
It is feared that the only school in Uguay could be within range of the flames of nearby Iberá National Park, where 50,000 hectares were set on fire earlier this week.
Carlos Sánchez is a small rancher who fights the flames alongside the firefighters in an incessant back and forth with tanks full of water.
“We do shifts with 10 to 12 neighbors and help out with whatever we have,” he says, his eyes red from the smoke.
“We have never had anything like this, the issue is not just now, the fire, but the socio-economic outlook for the future. I never cry but I think sometimes a man has to cry – our economic resources will be reduced by 30%,” he explains.
The agricultural cooperatives of the Coninagro group estimate that the rice sector of Corrientes has already lost 44 million dollars, the yerba mate plantations 4.12 million dollars and the cattle farms 78 million dollars already.
Bordering Brazil and Paraguay, Corrientes has been declared an environmental disaster. Neighboring provinces helped and the federal government sent extraordinary aid.
INTA (Instituto de Tecnología Agropecuaria) has informed that in just two months, 785,000 hectares have been burned.
The embankments of Route 40 leading to Uguay are blackened with ash. The pine forests burned a week ago and smoke is still rising from them. A slight breeze would be enough to revive the flames.
Fire hydrant planes and helicopters fight hot spots that reappear here and there. Firefighters install firebreaks on fronts of several kilometers to divert fire from populated or productive areas.
“The situation is critical, the fire is out of control,” said Mauricio Alba, who leads the firefighters specializing in disasters sent by the province of Córdoba.
“The wind changes a lot in Corrientes and the rain forecast has dropped by 20%. The fire does not weaken, the rain would be the only thing that could help us, ”he assures.
It hasn’t rained much in Corrientes for over a month, except for showers that evaporate as soon as they hit the ground in temperatures of 44 degrees.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” says biologist Sofía Heinonen, director of Rewilding Argentina, an NGO dedicated to species conservation in Iberá.
The wetland “gathers decaying material that is still floating but if it dries out it becomes peat and that organic material is tinder,” she explained.
“The fire has reached the heart of the swamps [of Iberá] where there is an island where the yaguareté breed,” she detailed.
The anteaters that had been reintroduced were evacuated, like the young of the guacamayos and other wild animals.
According to the monitoring, the rest of the animals in the reserve “are alive and in the core area and on guard” but it is unclear how long it will take to restore the soil or if any species will be lost.
“We must not demonize the fires or extinguish them all in Iberá”, says biologist Sebastián Di Martino.
The fire renews the pastures and occurs naturally from time to time, he explains, but the streams that previously stopped their progress have been dried up by the drought.
“Climate change has turned fire, which is natural and desirable in Iberá, into a disaster,” he warns.
Wildlife “have nowhere to go and if they can find shelter they will starve to death unless it rains soon”.
There have been 77 criminal charges of arson in Corrientes. Argentina’s second cattle breeding area after the fertile pampas with small-scale breeding and extensive agriculture, herders are used to making controlled pasture fires in August and February.
“This productive model in marginal areas needs to be reconsidered because we have more and more climate change and people are still burning,” Di Martino concluded.
by Sonia Avalos, AFP