Friday, July 31, 2020

'Everything is burning'

Raging fires described as “completely out of control” is threatening the Paraná delta grasslands, one of South America’s major wetland ecosystems. The fires have been burning for months now.

The Paraná is South America’s second largest river after the Amazon and the eighth longest river in the world. Its floodplain, known by Rosarinos as “la isla”, is not actually an island, but a vast delta covering some 15,000km2 , through which the Paraná drains towards the Atlantic Ocean 300km away. The giant delta is clearly visible in satellite imagery as a dark green wedge on the northern margin of the Paraná from Rosario to Buenos Aires. Giant plumes of smoke from the fires raging since February have at times covered the streets of Rosario and other places along the Paraná with a layer of ash from scorched plants and animals. The air in Rosario has been unbreathable for weeks at a time. 

Although cattle ranchers, illegal hunters and property developers have encroached on its rich habitat, the Paraná delta still teems with diverse wildlife, all facing a dire challenge to their survival. There’s the carpincho [capybara], the world’s largest rodent, a relative to the guinea pig, but the size of a farm pig, weighing over 60 kilos, aquatic and highly gregarious. Then the gato montés [wildcat], a solitary hunter at the top of the delta food chain despite being only the size of a domestic cat, either spotted like a leopard or entirely black like a panther. Then there’s an endless variety of birds, invertebrates, mollusks, rare insects, amphibians, reptiles … which must be suffering an incredible mortality rate.”

Far from abating, the number of fires has been rising. Liotta works at the Scasso Natural Science Museum in San Nicolás, where he has been monitoring the delta fires via Nasa satellites. “We’ve identified 8,024 likely fires so far this year, almost half of them this month of July.” Liotta worked backwards and found the scale of the
calamity was unprecedented. “The average number of yearly satellite-detected hotspots was only 1,800 in 2012–2019. We’re already at over 8,000 and barely halfway through the year.”

The unregulated expansion of cattle ranching is the main culprit for the expanding fires says Laura Prol, an ecologist from the Rosario-based environmental NGO Taller Ecologista. Cattle ranchers ship their livestock to the islands on barcos jaula [cage boats], sometimes two storeys high, that carry around 60 heads of cattle each. 

“The delta has always been used by livestock farmers to graze their cattle, but the number of cattle grew 500% between between 2000 and 2010,” Prol told the Guardian. “Although that number has dropped some in the last decade, ranchers continue burning the dead winter grass as if they were still in the 19th century, the idea being for the new grass beneath to sprout stronger.”

“But the real problem is that 2020 has been one of the driest of recent years, which causes two problems. First, without proper humidity the dead grass becomes highly flammable, and second, the low level of the river dries out the canals that usually act as buffers that stop the fire from expanding beyond individual islands,” says Prol.

“Legal action won’t stop the fires. What is needed is a long-term environmental policy to deal with the drop in the level of the river caused by the changing climate and by the El Niño weather phenomenon,” says Prol. “This year’s dry spell might also be an effect of the fires in the Amazon last year, in which a large amount of vapour-producing vegetation that then turned to rain perished. Finding the culprits for this year’s fires is of course important, but we need real environmental protection.”

 Leonel Mingo, a spokesperson for Greenpeaceagrees: 
“We have been lobbying for years for a comprehensive wetlands law. The reason these fires are raging is because there is no legislation. We need to ban cattle farming in the delta. Because right now, with this dry weather, with the drying up of the Paraná river and without a campaign to change the traditional use of fire by cattle ranchers to clear land for pasture, you have the perfect storm.”

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