In the village of Uguay, the dominant feeling is anguish. The almost 60 families who live here fear that the fires ravaging Esteros del Iberá in Corrientes Province are going to reach them.
The flames are devastating. Already, more than nine percent of the region’s territory has been destroyed by blazes since December, causing environmental damage and incalculable productive damage.
Fanned by two years of unprecedented drought, the fires have destroyed cattle pastures, rice paddies, yerba plantations and pine forests. There have been no reports of fatal victims but dozens of people have been evacuated with their houses destroyed.
The inferno has also charred native forests in Iberá, 1.3 million hectares of wetland with a great biodiversity sheltering species threatened with extinction, like the pampas deer or the recently reintroduced yaguareté jaguar and red guacamayos macaws.
Uguay’s only school is feared to be within reach of the flames from the neighbouring Iberá National Park, where 50,000 hectares were ablaze at the start of the week.
Carlos Sánchez is a small-scale rancher who is fighting the flames side-by-side with the firemen in an incessant to and fro with tankers filled with water.
“We do shifts with 10 to 12 neighbours and help with all we’ve got,” he says, his eyes reddened by the smoke.
“We’ve never had anything like this, the problem is not only now, the fire, but socio-economic prospects in the future. I never cry but I think sometimes a man has to cry – our economic resources will be reduced by 30 percent," he explains.
The Coninagro grouping farming cooperatives estimate that the rice-growing sector in Corrientes has lost US$44 million, the yerba mate plantations US$4.12 million and cattle ranches US$78 million already
Bordering on Brazil and Paraguay, Corrientes has been declared an environmental catastrophe. Neighbouring provinces have helped out and the federal government has sent extraordinary assistance.
INTA (Instituto de Tecnología Agropecuaria) has informed that in barely two months 785,000 hectares have been set ablaze.
The embankments along Route 40 leading to Uguay are blackened with ashes. The pine forests burned down a week ago and smoke still comes out. It would take only a slight breeze to revive the flames.
Fire hydrant planes and helicopters combat the hotspots which reappear here and there. Fire brigades set up firewalls along fronts of several kilometres to divert the fire from populated or productive zones.
“The situation is critical, the fire is uncontrollable,” explains Mauricio Alba, who heads the fire brigade specialising in disasters sent by the province of Córdoba.
“The wind changes a lot in Corrientes and the forecasts of rain have gone down 20 percent. The fire does not let up, rain would be the only thing which could help us,” he assures.
It hasn’t rained heavily in Corrientes for over a month, except for showers which evaporate as soon as they touch the ground amid 44 degree temperatures.
“It’s a time-bomb,” says biologist Sofía Heinonen, the director of Rewilding Argentina, an NGO dedicated to the conservation of species in Iberá.
The wetland "joins up decomposing material which is always floating but if it dries up, it becomes peat and that organic material is tinder," she explained.
"The fire has reached the heart of the marshes [of Iberá] where there is an island where the yaguaretés reproduce," she detailed.
Anteaters which had been reintroduced were evacuated, like the young of the guacamayos and other wild animals.
According to the monitoring, the rest of the reserve animals "are alive and in the central area and on their guard" but it is not known how long it will take to restore the soil or if species will be lost.
“The fires should not be demonised nor should they all be put out in Iberá,” maintains the biologist Sebastián Di Martino.
Fire renews the pastures and occurs naturally every now and then, he explains, but the creeks which previously halted their advance have been dried up by the drought.
"Climate change has transformed fire, which is natural and desirable in Iberá, into catastrophe," he warns.
The fauna "have nowhere to go and if they can find shelter, they’re going to die of hunger unless it rains soon."
There have been 77 criminal charges of arson in Corrientes. Argentina’s second cattle-breeding zone after the fertile pampas with ranching on a small scale and via extensive farming, the cattlemen are accustomed to carrying out controlled fires of the pastures in August and February.
"This productive model in marginal zones must be reconsidered because we have increasingly more climate change and people keep burning," concluded Di Martino.
by Sonia Avalos, AFP